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In Memory of Professor Yorick Wilks

In Memory of Professor Yorick Wilks

Published on
21 Apr 2023
Written by
William H. Dutton and Victoria Nash
British computer scientist Professor Yorick Wilks died on 14 April 2023 at the age of 83.

Professor Yorick Wilks died on 14 April 2023 at the age of 83. Since his first appointment as an Oxford Internet Institute Visiting Fellow in 2003, he remained continuously affiliated with the OII as a Visitor, Visiting Professor, Senior Fellow, and Research Associate from 2003 until 2019. He remained a stellar academic – winning new awards and grants, publishing, and contributing to the intellectual and social vitality of the OII – until his death. A month before his passing, Yorick became Director of Artificial Intelligence and a Board Member at WiredVibe, to explore commercial applications of his innovations in research.

A British Computer Scientist, Yorick was an Emeritus Professor at the University of Sheffield, a Visiting Professor of Artificial Intelligence at Gresham College in London, a Senior Scientist at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, and a member of the Epiphany Philosophers. He was a Fellow of the British Computer Society, the Association of Computing Machinery, the European (and the American) Association for Artificial Intelligence. Among his awards are the Lovelace Medal from the British Computer Society in 2009 and the Zampolli Prize in 2008.

He graduated from Torquay Boys’ Grammar School with a scholarship to Cambridge University. At Cambridge, he worked with the Cambridge Language Research Unit in the 1960s, before contributing to an array of research institutes in the US, Switzerland, and the UK, until taking his position at the University of Sheffield.

When we heard of his death, our thoughts immediately focused on the enormous contributions he made to the Oxford Internet Institute. It may have been one of many university positions that he contributed to, but to the OII, his presence was influential throughout his time with us, but particularly in the earliest years. Yorick joined as a Visiting Fellow only one year after the first director was appointed and two years after the founding of the Institute. He joined a small set of other visiting fellows, such as Ted Nelson, who coined the term hypertext, to bring an immediate intellectual heft and personality to the founding years of the OII.

It is difficult to understand, without experiencing his presence, but his vivacious intellect and charismatic personality lit up our seminars, conversations, teaching, and research throughout his tenure. He would routinely apologize before explaining what he said with ‘you already know’ (most often we didn’t), as he described the technical underpinnings of new developments in computer science and artificial intelligence to his social science and humanities colleagues.

He was not only a leading figure in AI, but also a gifted communicator – a scholar who could bridge disciplinary boundaries between the social and computer sciences. (Yorick was an amateur actor in university and even did a professional stint in Los Angeles, California, and continued to perform on occasion on stage in Oxford.) But as a colleague in a multidisciplinary department at Oxford, his ability to make developments more understandable was a major contribution to our ability to collaborate across the university and the world of the Internet, Web, and related digital media developments, such as AI.

His many academic positions and accomplishments will be the foci of a flood of tributes to his numerous awards and roles in multiple fields of research. However, as we are not computer scientists, let us try to capture our understanding of his vision. From his days as a DPhil student at the Cambridge Language Institute in the late-1960s, until his death, he had a mission to use computer technologies to read, hear, and even understand words, sentences, documents, and even the Web. He focused on computational approaches to processing natural language, such as in developing summaries of a corpus of text, but continued to enlarge his vision, such as to focus on emotions – understanding how people feel. Computational analyses could enable these texts to be translated, understood, and even be replied to in a dialogue with a computer system, much like we see today in voice search in many households and with machine learning behind innovations like ChatGPT.

Today, he would be seen as a professor of artificial intelligence, a student of computational linguistics, or expert on human and machine cognition, but he was a philosophy student, who could lead projects on the ethics of AI. One of the major projects that incorporated his vision was the development of an artificial ‘companion’ –  artificial, embodied, conversational agents. Well before the smart speaker, or voice search, Yorick set off to create a machine that could store information about a person, such as an elderly person, on their own device in ways that the device could support and learn from the person to be a useful and interactive companion – to speak with and receive help from, for example, medication reminders. Some thought the idea of a digital companion for the elderly or an Alzheimer’s patient would be unethical, but for those without personal support, it could be a major gift. Yorick was an influential pioneer in computational research, enabling him to develop innovative projects, such as creating digital companions, one of the precursors to voice search technologies like Alexa and Google Assistant.

Yorick was more than a distinguished professor and a leader in his field. He was a brilliant intellectual, a larger-than-life figure, and fascinating individual, a truly delightful colleague. He set up a dinning club in Oxford, and was active on social media, stimulating debates on a wide range of topics, from political tussles and social affairs to academic issues.

Yorick would be amused that we found out about his death on his Facebook page, thanks to his family. He would also appreciate that his Wikipedia page had been updated within a day of his passing. One of his favourite topics, which he presented a seminar on at the OII, was around death and the Internet. He worried about what will happen to a person’s social media when they die. Could a person’s artificial companion speak to people after death? We are not there yet, but policies and practices about how to handle a person’s social media are being developed. That said, you can hear Yorick Wilks, speaking about his life in his own words on the Archives of IT.

The words, contributions, visions, and memories of Yorick Wilks will live on among his family, friends, and colleagues. All of us at the OII will greatly miss his presence in person and in Oxford, where he made such a great impact on a new department at a major university.

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