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Scientist who invented the term 'artificial intelligence' dies
Source: University of Oxford

THE life of the scientist who coined the term 'artificial intelligence’ will be celebrated at a memorial service next week.

Dr Philip Mayne Woodward, who died aged 98, was a British mathematician, pioneering radar engineer and world-renowned horologist, or clock-maker.

Educated at Blundell’s School in Devon, he won a scholarship to study mathematics at Wadham College, Oxford, in 1938, and was drafted in 1941 to the Telecommunications Research Establishment, the home of radar research for the RAF.

It was then that he met Alice Robertson, newly graduated from the University of St Andrews, and they married in 1942. Alice pre-deceased him after a marriage of 57 years.

In 1950, he pioneered a new approach to radar signal detection, and in 1953 he wrote Probability and Information Theory, with Applications to Radar. which introduced a mathematical technique still in use over six decades later.

His publications led to a visiting lectureship at Harvard University. One day computer scientists Oliver Selfridge and Marvin Minsky called at the laboratory to discuss the programming of computers to exhibit quasi-intelligent behaviour.

Woodward recalled a snappy title was needed, if only to oust the phrase ‘electronic brain’. The word ‘intelligence’ had already been agreed when Woodward suggested prefacing it with ‘artificial’. In five minutes, the now-familiar term ‘artificial intelligence’ had been coined.

Returning to Malvern, Woodward gathered a mathematical team of exceptional talent to develop techniques for efficient computer use in scientific work.

He steered the Ministry of Defence to accept a programming language designed by his team as a standard for small military computers of the 1960s.

Woodward retired at a Deputy Chief Scientific Officer in 1980 and threw himself into his hobby of horology.

The culmination of his efforts is his masterpiece W5, acclaimed by Jonathan Betts of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, as "the nearest approach to perfection by any mechanical timekeeper not employing a vacuum chamber". It is now on display at the Science Museum, South Kensington.

Two decades after he retired, a new building for information technology was named after him at QinetiQ.

The Royal Academy of Engineering gave Woodward in 2005 its first Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2009 he received the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' Denis J Picard Medal for Radar Technologies and Applications.

In person, Dr Woodward was a kind and generous man with boundless enthusiasm for everything he did. It took only a few minutes of conversation for the power of his intellect to become apparent. He had a rare combination of charisma and intelligence which remained undimmed to the last.

A memorial service is being held at Great Malvern Priory on Wednesday, April 18, at 12.30pm.


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