A talk about Artificial Intelligence (AI) by Rik Thwaites, a former pupil (1967-77) of both Park Road and the Senior Boys’ School at Bolton School, proved extremely popular amongst GCSE and A Level students.
Rik gave a fascinating presentation on AI, charting its history over the last sixty years and explaining how it is being used today. He told how early manifestations involved machines being able to play a decent game of chess and of the development of a range of digital equipment used in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, including the introduction of PCs in the mid-80s. He recalled Nigel Short being at Bolton School and how, at that time in 1997, ‘Deep Blue’, an IBM supercomputer, shocked everyone when it beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov. Bringing things up-to-date, Rik thanked gamers, who are ‘heroes’ in his eyes and went on to explain how they are helping advance the human race. He spoke of the GPU, which acts as the brain of computers, robots and self-driving cars that can perceive and understand the world. He explained how the likes of Netflix, social media, smart phones and Siri all use artificial intelligence.
Rik explained the differences between artificial intelligence, machine learning and deep learning. He also told of the ground-breaking work of Alex Krizhevsky with neural networks (like a multi-layered decision tree) and image-referencing which helped spawn the current AI boom. He said that some machines can now almost write their own code and are increasingly sophisticated at image recognition (both stills and video, which is essentially a series of photos). Textually, character-recognition is now widely employed and audio and voice recognition is on smartphones and PCs and is used by the likes of Siri and Alexa.
The pupils learnt how deep learning is currently used in a variety of fields – Ocado using image recognition instead of bar codes on checkout, the Shazam app which listens to music and categorises it, Swiss Rail who use cameras with GPS under the train to photograph any cracks on the line (faults can then be dealt with as soon as the train has passed), smart cities managing traffic and moving pedestrians, self-driving cars and Skype providing real-time translation as people speak to each other in different languages.
Rik now works for NVIDIA, who invented the GPU; he also spoke of his time living in Germany for 15 years and strongly recommended pupils to consider living abroad as a great life experience. He had fond recollections of his time at Bolton School, which he shared with the gathering, including sitting in the very same lab where he was now talking, his time as a School Monitor and his trek across the Isle of Skye courtesy of the Scott Trust.