Wendy Hall

Professor Dame Wendy Hall
Doctor of Science, honoris causa (2020)

Professor Dame Wendy Hall is Regius Professor of Computer Science, Fellow of the Royal Society, Associate Vice President (International Engagement), and an Executive Director of the Web Science Institute at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom which institution she has served loyally in various roles since 1971.  Those roles included that of an undergraduate student who, instead of becoming a medic, chose to master maths; and subsequently, where she pursued PhD research in algebraic topology prior to returning in 1984 as a lecturer in computer science and eventually climbing the ladder all the way up to a personal chair and senior management.  Professor Hall’s scholarly career has been notable for its breadth and reach in support of Southampton and extending well beyond it, including pioneering work during the early 1980s in the still protean, yet vital, formation of web-based systems architecture and its applications.

As an early-career teacher, she taught herself BASIC on a 64-byte Commodore PET familiarizing herself with computing languages which provided an outlet for more novel discoveries in networked systems.  This early spadework earned Professor Hall the respect of her colleagues at Southampton and brought her into widening and increasingly more impactful zones of contact: first in European and US networks, and subsequently, with Chinese and other Asia-based specialists.  Present from the very beginning of the discipline of applied computing, Professor Hall has been keen to disseminate more widely knowledge about that great innovation of the later 20th century future historians are certain to dwell upon: the advent of a truly world-wide web, linking individual users together across vast distances in support of the common planetary good and guided by the light of the dawn, and now well into the morning, of the era of artificial intelligence (AI).

Of particular note is Professor Hall’s own very human story, and the specific values her ensuing experiences have produced in response to it.  A product of the later baby-boom generation following the Second World War, Professor Hall was also a “first-generation” learner, i.e. born to parents without university degrees.  Born and bred in Ealing, she grew up in an always honest, and yet humble, family setting where, during the late 1960s, women of talent and capability in the community were neither necessarily encouraged to broaden their educational horizons nor to extend their commitments to society beyond the family.  In those days, all too few women scientists—and Professor Hall has been one—were bold enough to storm the gates of the male-dominated establishment in the professoriate and engineering fields.

Given this historical context, Professor Hall has grown accustomed to being the only woman in the room and, equally, to standing her ground.  When describing her own perseverance over the years, Professor Hall puts it best as “staying power”—the kind of staying power, sustaining presence, and activity which will, in turn, promote general society’s greater access to ever-widening domains of specialized knowledge both within and beyond science.  The broadening of access to such formerly cloistered and privileged disciplines, Professor Hall passionately believes, should result in a corresponding widening of opportunity for those otherwise excluded from them, and not in the doubling-down upon (or hardening) of race and gender-based discrimination.  Professor Hall’s belief in merit-based competition remains steadfast, but she insists that all parties to scientific inquiry deserve their proper place at the table.  This spirit of inclusivity seems especially important now, as internet-based ecologies diversify worldwide and as inherently different norms and assumptions governing online use and access come into increasing contestation across languages and cultures.

Operating right in the very midst of these debates, Professor Hall’s proven track record of leadership has influenced meaningful outcomes, and created opportunities, in present and past roles including: Senior Vice President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, onetime member of the UK Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology, founding member of the European Research Council, Chair of the European Commission ISTAG, member of the Global Commission on Internet Governance, and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Digital Economy and Society.  Across these diverse roles, and when extending the impact of her work to other bodies and initiatives, Professor Hall has been charismatic, always stimulating in approach, and reliably insightful.

Professor Hall’s on-going service to society thus may be illustrated along numerous and expanding fronts, all the while having been based, and contentedly, at Southampton.  What has, in more recent years, catapulted Professor Hall into greater national and international prominence was her highly acclaimed work as the co-chair and key formulator of the British government’s Artificial Intelligence Review published in October 2017 and for which task her expertise was especially sought.  The jointly-authored report, which she refers to as the country’s “AI roadmap”, has greatly influenced the ensuing national conversation around a comprehensive AI strategy and policy framework, and has delineated specific roles and responsibilities binding public and private stakeholders together in this shared purpose.  Equally important, the 2017 Artificial Intelligence Review succinctly captures the necessity for achieving consensus when addressing pressing and impactful social issues arising with the broader use and implementation of AI such as: machine-learning, job automation, employment loss and creation, re-skilling in the workplace and, ultimately, citizens’ more effective understanding of the intentioned design of future smart cities with AI as a key component and enabler of everyday life.

As such, from the top-down, and situated at the very highest levels of government and innovative academic endeavor, Professor Hall’s hallmark has been to bring diverse voices and competencies together, in dialogue, so as to bear upon sometimes vexing, and always exigent, social issues requiring sustained and thoughtful inquiry—and, as she would have it, inspiring human creativity in the service of others.  Yet I suspect that Professor Hall’s own sense of purpose, perhaps recalling the generations of students she has mentored, remains firmly grounded on behalf of sustaining persons and communities closest to home—like Southampton—and for whom AI and its advancing technologies may be harder to fathom in everyday terms.  In this, Professor Hall, as erudite as she undoubtedly is, serves as a champion for the rest of us: always reminding her colleagues in government and the academy that AI’s complex systems and processes remain “sociotechnical” in origin and must “foreground people and people-based communities as co-creators”.  It is, finally, this most inspiring—and quite clearly levelling and democratic—approach to the dissemination of knowledge about AI, and its attending array of adjacent disciplines, which has established Professor Hall a world leader in global innovation.  All the way from Southampton to Hong Kong Baptist University and back again, Professor Hall is most worthy of our esteem—not only as AI’s champion but as ours.