Wendy Hall is a British computer scientist. She was born on October 25, 1952 (68 years old) in London, England. She became a Dame Commander of the British Empire in the 2009 UK New Year’s Honours list, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society.
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She has previously been President of the ACM, Senior Vice President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, a member of the UK Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology, was a founding member of the European Research Council and Chair of the European Commission’s ISTAG 2010-2012, was a member of the Global Commission on Internet Governance, and until June 2018, was a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Futures Council on the Digital Economy.
Her nomination for the Royal Society reads:
Distinguished for her contribution to understanding the interactions of humans with large scale multimedia information systems. Her early ideas which developed in parallel with development of the world wide web, www, are now forming key elements of subsequent development into the Semantic Web. Her most recent work focuses on the development of a new field of Web Science focused on understanding and exploring the various influences, science, commerce, public, politics which drive the evolution of the www. Her research is aimed at both understanding the evolution of the web and engineering its future.
Computer science grew out of mathematics, and there were similar proportion of women in both the departments. In the early days of the subject, there were plenty of women working in industry and in academia, Hall says. But in the mid-eighties, the personal computer arrived, and with that, the culture changed beyond recognition.
“It became about playing and coding war games,” she explains. “This really turned women off the subject, and we’ve never really recovered.”
Hall suggests, the place to attack the problem is at the start of adolescence. “This is when the gender divide really sets in,” she says. “But there is no point painting these girls a picture of life as a sysadmin. Quite apart from it not being very exciting, that is the industry as it is now, not as it will be in ten years when they join the workforce.”
She reminds us that ten years ago, the internet hadn’t really happened. Anyone transported from 1994 to the present day would probably be surprised by what they would find here. There is no reason to think that the transformation of the industry over the next ten years will be any less dramatic.
“We are moving towards a situation where we’ll have zillions of processors all interconnected,” she says. “It’ll be a very large, very complex system, and we need to learn how to make something that complex adaptive, robust and flexible. Nature is very good at complex systems, and that is where we have to take our cue.”
There is a lot of this about in the industry. BT has researchers looking at how fruit flies can help us to develop smarter wireless networks; others are trying to make the way we interact with technology more human, and Microsoft has multidisciplinary teams at its Cambridge research facility looking at similar areas.
Hall paints a picture of a world where everything is smaller and cleverer, or at least less stupid. Systems will be more tailored than they are now, technology will be hidden behind a smarter interface, and we’ll have software agents that will negotiate services for us.
The sorts of skills required to deal with this brave new world with be the ones women have in abundance, and the subjects that attract more women will be the ones that become more important. Hall predicts that in the next five years, there will be computer science courses that require applicants to have a biology A-Level.
Traditionally women-dominated subjects, such as psychology and sociology, will grow in importance too, as the industry becomes more about personal support than systems support.
“The nature of the industry is going to change. So we need to look at that and say to these young women, ‘Here is an intellectual challenge that you’ll really enjoy’.”