Last night I was invited to give an after dinner talk (or postprandial) at Churchill College (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Churchill_College,_Cambridge). These occasions are relaxed and individual presentations of things related to the interests of the speaker. My presentation was called “Can machines understand science” and included a number of demonstrations. I’ll talk more about the substance later.
Here I would like to thank Churchill College very much for having elected me a senior research fellow and given me the opportunity to develop my ideas. Churchill was founded 50 years ago as the national monument to Sir Winston Churchill whose vision was of a 20th century institution concentrating on, but not exclusively, on science. It is impossible not to be overawed by its list of Nobel Laureates and world famous discoveries. But as importantly it has managed to meld the 800 years of tradition of the University with the need to constantly rethink its purpose in the modern world. Nowhere is this shown more clearly than in Francis Crick’s letter to Sir Winston proposing that the College should not build a chapel but rather a brothel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Churchill_College,_Cambridge#Chapel). This was serious – the Chapel was a resigning matter for Crick.
The College has a wide range of subjects other than science and the Oxbridge tradition of broadening one’s vision is as strong in Churchill as anywhere. So that when I was asked (or volunteered) to present a postprandial (the Latin tradition still influences the academic vocabulary) I was nervous both of the weight of past science and scholarship in general. It’s good to be nervous – I have been plotting the presentation for some weeks. But I wasn’t worried. The fellowship at Churchill must be among the friendliest and most relaxing anywhere. The government of the college, though formally governed by statutes and making tough decisions, is skilfully guided by the Masters (I have served under 2) so that difficult problems are solved in non-confrontational manners. So I knew I could explore ideas with a friendly (but valuably critical) hearing and that I would learn from my fellows.
It was also fortunate that we were visited by Alex Wade (our collaborator from Microsoft Research) and his partner Amy Martin. My presentation developed by analogy between understanding chemistry and John’s Searle’s ” Chinese room” metaphor for artificial intelligence. Completely by chance it turned out that Alex had studied under John Searle and so was able to bring a completely new and valuable perspective to the occasion. Afterwards several of us discussed whether Searle’s metaphor was valuable and, as might be expected, there was more than one view. However it helped me as I realized that there were extra aspects that I had not thought of. (I shall write more about the chemical Chinese room later).
This post records my gratitude to Churchill College for the time that I have spent there and the freedom to develop my ideas.