It’s this development work that acts as the bridge between hardware and experience, the magical tools that provide the platform to implement innovation.
At Sharp Labs, Canadian Dr Phil Edmonds is a Research Manager in the Information Technology and Systems group. He spends his working hours investigating with his team ways to code creations, such as an English language mobile learning application for smartphones that helps Japanese students learn English. The app is programmed to react to your rate of learning, working alongside each individual student.
If you have ever wondered what the life of a computer scientist is really like, look no further than Dr Edmonds. He began programming at the age of 12 and he is hoping to get his 9-year-old son started very soon. We’ve got love for you if you were coding in the 80s…
When I was in high school in Canada I got a computer. It was a Radio Shack colour computer. I just thought they were really cool. I was probably about 12-years-old and I had asked for it that Christmas. My Dad was in the computer industry at the time and so I asked him, ‘What can a computer actually do?’ He replied, ‘You can type in two numbers, assign them to letters A and B, and get it to add A+B for you.’ Well … I just thought that was wild – I had to have one of those. So I got it, was instantly excited, and learnt to program on it in about four months using a book.
We made little robots that could drive around and when they bumped into walls they would turn and keep going
I had a friend with similar interests so we started programming together – you know, just mucking about. We started doing two things both around the area of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). We made little robots that could drive around and when they bumped into walls they would turn and keep going. The other fun one we made was a dating service. Basically it would ask the user questions about what sort of person they would like to go on a date with, but in the end it would always just show the same highly pixelated graphic of an ugly person on the screen. I think we were 15 or 16 by this time – it would have been the mid-eighties. Safe to say we had a lot of fun with it.
So it was at this time your interest in A.I really took off?
I became really interested in it and wanted to experiment to see what we could achieve. My friend and I entered a science fair with a program we wrote based on some software that we had read about. The idea was you could type in commands in normal English and the robot would move around blocks for you. For example you could tell it to lift the red block and put it on the green one. We developed all the graphics and the logic behind it and we ended up winning the programming division of the science fair. As a result, we were invited to the Canada-Wide Science Fair, and so we connected it up to a real robot arm. Great fun. That is what started me off – I wanted to code, program and ideally work with artificial intelligence.
So your fascination has always been with A.I., rather than hard science?
Well, I classify it as computer science. Still hard science, but A.I. is a unique discipline within that. To be honest in the modern world nowadays you need to be as multi- disciplined as possible – everything is converging. I liked learning new things and with software programming you can learn something different every day. I think software guys have a natural love of writing software – you have to have that in you to sit for hours and dedicate the time to it. You then ask yourself, what I am writing the software to do? It has to achieve something, and that is where the innovation comes in. You would like to create something new that solves a problem no one else has solved before. You seek value, the bigger the better, and then the resources grow from the company to make it into a product that could reach millions, globally.
What is your dream program to develop in the next 10 or 20 years?
I think what you are seeing now in terms of data is really interesting. Data is being collected on the web in a massive way. Most people would be surprised at how much is already stored and the rate is increasing exponentially. Google has been doing for it years but it is becoming much more accessible to anyone to work with. There are collections of really big data sets freely available. What I am interested in is that if you can collect enough information about people’s habits, activities and behaviour – what can you infer about that? Can you work out what they are trying to accomplish that day or even what they want from life? This is known as context-awareness in technical circles. So, for example if you are walking down the street and you start doing stuff on your phone, maybe internet browsing – is that because you are about to go shopping? Or, are you looking for someone? Trying to remember something? Are you looking for a nice place to relax, sit down and have lunch?
There is an A.I. side where you can start predicting what people are going to do to a certain degree
So, there is an A.I. side where you can start predicting what people are going to do to a certain degree. If people are ok with us using it we can start to give back something of value, to make lives easier in our information-rich world.
I would like to be working on it. We have a project here in my group at Sharp Labs where we are working on some of these ideas around data and context-awareness. It’s a very big area – very competitive. However the other area I love working in is the education sector – such as the Elmo mobile learning application that we developed. Education is also exciting in terms of data. If you can start collecting data about how people are interacting and developing in terms of learning, there are great opportunities to improve education. How people read books? How people interact in the classroom? How people interact while they are learning together and say to yourself, what could we do with that? Could we provide better assessment of their progress or maybe even help teachers? They could see where problem points are immediately in a classroom environment. What do individual pupils need help with?
Do you think computers could get to the stage of predicting our own habits before we even know it?
There is a line you don’t want to cross. Every good technology gets to a point where it becomes scary. That is almost a mark of groundbreaking modern innovation. Computers predicting our habits sounds scary to me. I think the point is not the prediction itself but we would have to find a scenario where it is truly useful. If I am going shopping, I know I am going shopping. I don’t need the computer to tell me that. But if it reminded me to pick up something, or to combine my trip with another errand, would that be useful? What if it alerted the store that I’m on the way? Would the experience become more efficient for me and the store? For solving a human need or helping develop our human skills – data could really help. And it could help in ways we can’t imagine yet.
Yes I do. I love writing code at home. I write apps. The most recent was a dice rolling helper for a board game called Risk. You might have heard of it. I was just playing about – my eldest kid is interested in learning to programme so I am really excited about teaching him and maybe even creating a few ideas together. I get to work on projects I love and I get an element of freedom. It’s a good place to be.