Amanda Chessell – and hundreds? thousands? like her making AI Safe – professionally, for decades

Some of the most viciously false lies in the AI hype bubble are that only "two or three" people on the planet are concerned about or working on AI Safety.  I had the privilege to orate for one of the hundreds – probably thousands – of people who have been making computer systems safe for decades, which over the last twenty years has increasingly included incorporating AI.

Amanda Chessell–being shown the ropes by the University Marshal
before the ceremony.
Orate in this context means to present an honorary graduate at graduation to the chancellor of the University (in this case, HRH Prince Edward, The Duke of Wessex, who is the chancellor of the University of Bath).  The chancellor's position is largely honorary (like his mother's); the honorary graduates are proposed by academics, and approved by our Senate, but the degree itself is conferred in a speech act by the chancellor, after the oration.

Rather than say more about AI safety in general, here is my oration about the specific work done by this one admittedly remarkable person. You can also watch it on video if you like, it starts 30 minutes in.

The University of Bath
Conferment of the Degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa on
Professor Amanda Elizabeth Chessell CBE FREng
Oration delivered by Dr Joanna Bryson

Chancellor, Amanda Elizabeth Chessell, Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire and Fellow of the Royal Society of Engineering, has been a computer science professional, making outstanding contributions to science, engineering and society since joining International Business Machines (IBM) in 1987.

I first came to Professor Chessell’s work through my own interest in the ethics of Artificial Intelligence (AI). In fact, I contacted her immediately after first hearing her speak, which was at the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) Seminar on Big Data given at Parliament for MPs and their technology staff in November of 2014. In just a five-minute statement, Professor Chessell made the phenomenally important and original point that, as we use AI to explore big data’, we are not only finding out about other people’s secrets that they might want to keep hidden, we are also discovering “secrets” about ourselves and our society that no one has ever known. As she told Parliament, we don’t know how the discoveries we might make this way could disrupt our society and even ourselves.

That insight into the true, basic issues of how we are altering our society as we expand artifficially intelligent technology is, to my mind, enough to justify consideration for
an advanced degree in itself. However, as I am meant to be speaking for five minutes,
I thought I should research a bit more of her career. This proved more difficult
perhaps than it should be. Despite the fact that IBM has made Professor Chessell a “Distinguished Engineer” and, since 1998, a “Master Inventor” and that she has her own Wikipedia page, one cannot find the details of her biography as easily as some more prominent (though I might say less qualified) speakers whom the media frequently quotes in the area of AI ethics. So I turned to Professor Chessell herself and she told

me that the way she would like to have her 30-year career (I might add “to date”) – her career described was:
“ that each of my projects ... has developed disruptive innovative functions that make technology more open and more useful for a broader range of people.
  • Standardised call interfaces on mainframe
  • Transaction processing on Unix
  • Flexible business process java beans
  • Model driven user interfaces
  • Data lake reference architecture
  • Open metadata and governance
This work has lead to over 50 patents issued word wide and 4 books plus many whitepapers and conference presentations.”

We had Professor Chessell speak here at Bath last year, as a keynote lecturer in the
oldest annual AI meeting, the meeting of the Society for Artificial Intelligence and the Simulation of Behaviour. I spent about seven years of my own career in industry but even that was ‘Ivory Tower’ compared to the complexity of the problems with which Mandy Chessell works every day, bringing to contemporary levels of security, reliability, ethics, and agility the computing systems of large companies and government organisations. These are enormous and heterogeneous computing systems created over decades and across different companies that have merged, and hardware platforms that have gone bankrupt, yet business and government processes depend on them.  Someone has to help issue them into the present and future. In technology, it is easy right now to walk away from problems like these. One can get paid a fortune to build toys but people like Professor Chessell are those who keep our society safe and whole.

In this century alone, Professor Chessell has been made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to Engineering on the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List in 2015; a Fellow of the Women’s Engineering Society in 2013; a Chartered Engineer (545583) in 2004; a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2002; a Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medalist in 2001 and a Fellow of the British Computing Society (BCS) 2001.

She has received previously a number of academic honours, including an Honorary Doctorate of Science, Plymouth University, in 2013, an Honorary Doctorate of Technology, University of Brighton, in 2015 and, most recently, an Honorary Doctorate of Technology, University of South Wales, in 2016. She is a visiting professor at the University of Sheffield. I should also highlight her work in supporting career development and mentoring of women in technology, for which she has also received numerous awards.

Chancellor, I present to you Amanda Chessell, who is eminently worthy to receive the Degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa