Understanding artificial intelligence

Bryson_SoapboxBristol2014.jpgDr Joanna Bryson (JB) is reader in the Department of Computer Sciences at the University of Bath, where she is the group leader for Bath Intelligent Systems. Her work involves researching artificial and natural intelligence looking particularly in cognitive systems, primate intelligence and the evolution of culture. Come along to our Bristol Soapbox Science (SS) event on the 14th of June to hear Joanna speak about “Co-operation is natural, can we make it artificial?” You can also follow Joanna on twitter @j2bryson


SS: Hi Joanna, thanks so much for talking to us today. To kick things off can you tell us about how you got into your current position at the University of Bath?

JB: I always wanted to study animal behaviour – although mostly because I realised when I was young that no one believes your theories about human behaviour because they are too defensive.  But there was no animal behaviour or psychology in my highschool, but there was a great physics teacher so I started out as an undergraduate majoring in physics, but then changed majors back to psychology after some damaging advanced mathematics courses.

When I got to university, I found out the best job on campus was tutoring computer programming so I also took programming courses so that I could become a tutor.  As a result of this, I wound up getting head-hunted as a programmer in the financial industry after I graduated (I had tuition debts because this was the USA in the 1980s).  I worked there for five years then was able to pay for an MSc in AI from Edinburgh.  I thought AI would be good because it combined my interest in psychology with my ability as a programmer, but AI has actually gone more towards engineering than science in the last couple decades.

I got a PhD in AI from MIT but not before working a little more in industry and also in science (including picking up another masters in Psychology.)  Then I did a postdoc in Psychology at Harvard but was surprised to find out that even there no one could figure out how to use the software I’d written for my PhD.  So I decided to apply to computer science departments and work on the usability of AI.  A British university hired me because here there is still interest in the science aspect of AI and a high tolerance of eccentrics.


SS: What an interested background, and amazing to be head-hunted for you programming skills, quite a talent. Apart from your great physics teacher at school did anyone or anything else inspired you to get a career in science?

JB: My first three heroes were Underdog (cartoon), Joy Adamson (post-colonialist nature writer) and Jane Goodall.  Fortunately I realised Goodall was the best role model of those, possibly because my parents and neighbours all thought I should be a scientist.  In fact, my aunt Dorothy bought us tons of fancy Nature books and I loved those.  I had many great teachers at school and professors at university.  I learned a lot about running a lab from Marc Hauser when I was his postdoc, even though he’s fallen out of respect I can’t deny that.


SS: Lots of inspiration from many different sources then, that’s great. So what is it about your current research that you find so fascinating?

JB: It’s amazing when you suddenly understand why something you’ve always wondered about works.  Right now I’m reassessing a whole lot of my understanding about social inclusion and exclusion due to some agent-based models I’ve been building of public goods investment, and also some game theoretic models one of my PhD students, Daniel Taylor, has built on all sorts of implicit and explicit social contracts.


SS: Finally Joanna what was it that attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

JB: Women shouting about science on boxes in Hyde Park.  How cool is that?!  I always loved sharing what I know – that’s why my neighbours thought I should be a scientist.

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