Best of both worlds

20 November 2012
Prof Andy Hopper, IET president 2012/13

Computer science innovator and main player in the Cambridge Cluster, the new IET president Andy Hopper doesn’t like to be stereotyped as either a theorist or a businessman. “I’m an academic and industrial president,” he tells Nick Smith

“If you’re a practising engineer, it’s a bit like being a doctor,” says Andy Hopper. “You can’t just stick to the theory. You’ve got to get out there and do it.” He says that he feels that many of his contemporaries as well as his mentors suffer from the same disease as he does, which is “no matter how well you do, you always want to do better.”

We’re sitting in the Haslett Room at the IET’s London headquarters in Savoy Place, a venue dedicated to the memory of the engineering community’s most pioneering women. Caroline Haslett was a British electrical engineer in the first half of the 20th century and her portrait hangs on the wall overlooking the River Thames. On the table there is a morocco-bound volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica published by the Cambridge University Press dating back to 1911.

There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind about the gravitas and the heritage of our surroundings. And yet, “you won’t find the word computer in there,” says the IET’s new president, pointing to the leather-clad tome on the table with a smile. This one statement brings into sharp focus just how far and how quickly we have come. Hopper is, of course, among his many other titles and achievements, currently the head of the Computer Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. A century ago we simply couldn’t have been having this conversation. “There might be plenty about coal in there, I suspect,” he adds.

But it is another book that really serves as the starting point of our conversation. As we discuss the recently published ‘The Cambridge Phenomenon: 50 Years of Innovation and Enterprise’ it becomes clear that the world of computing is one in which the main players can find themselves in history books before their 60th birthday. I ask Hopper how he feels about this.

“On the one hand I’m delighted to be in a history book. But on the other hand there were things we missed. Things that my colleagues and my team could have done that we missed. And so I also feel a certain amount of frustration. To go back to the doctor analogy, some of the patients die, and I’m sure they don’t like that.” Like the Cambridge Phenomenon, the Rolling Stones are also 50 years old this year. The recurrent complaint in the music press is that in the 1960s it was so much easier to innovate. “I agree,” says Hopper, “and that’s one of the things I brought out in my inaugural presidential lecture. But you’ve got to be careful with statements like that. Because there are a lot of good things happening now.”

The reason for such caution is that while some things are worse, there are compensating improvements in the engineering sector, and so for Hopper, to become president of the IET is a great opportunity to develop a platform to put forward a view for discussion. “I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to present definitive statements. As one of the trustees of the University of Cambridge it is not always possible to make your personal views known. As a company director, well you have to continue to plough the furrow and get on with business. But within the IET, I hope that my views will make a useful contribution.”

Starting out at Swansea

Hopper’s career in computers started off at Swansea University in 1971. He says this was a good time to end up in a course called Computer Technology, because it combined “electronics, computer science and a little bit of what would today be called enterprise. Only at the time was called economics, or something like that.”

Hopper, who is Polish by background, used to spend his holidays in west Wales with some of his compatriots who had a farm at Llanybydder. This gave him a “soft spot” for that part of the world, but more importantly “it’s more than that because in Swansea I got really lucky to have a professor called David Aspinall. He had just set up a course that, looking back on it, was just brilliant. The timing was fantastic too, because the microprocessor had just become available at a reasonable price. And so you could get your hands on an actual computer rather than a big thing you had to queue for.”

Hopper, who describes himself as “quite a sporty chap” – he has an airstrip suitable for light aircraft in his garden – wanted to do his doctorate in the Alps, but, when that fell through in vague circumstances, his professor at Swansea told him to go to Cambridge, where he has remained ever since, a career trajectory analysis that he regards as “very fair”. Aspinall had realised that Hopper would be a good fit with Maurice Wilkes and David Wheeler. “I ended up doing a PhD on networks. At the back end of my PhD I found some money to become a post-doc and I became an assistant lecturer. But the reason I never left was simply that Cambridge is so multi-faceted that you can develop a CV without moving from your chair.”

Summing up the achievements on Hopper’s CV is not easy. This is because of his parallel track in academia and industry. On the research side there will be those who know him more for his work in the field of communications networks and in the design of the Cambridge Ring. He’s carried out research in virtual network computing, sentient computing and more recently he’s worked on the use of technology in global sustainability under the title of ‘Computing for the Future of the Planet’ (see panel).

In business, he was a founder of Orbis, a company that became absorbed into Acorn, where Hopper helped to design chips for the BBC Micro computer. He co-founded Qudos, set up Virata Corporation, co-founded Adaptive Broadband and Cambridge Broadband, followed in 2001 by Ubisense and RealVNC. The list goes on and on. On the policy side he is chairman of the Emerging Technologies and Industries Steering Group of the UK Technology Strategy Board as well as several academic advisory boards. And of course, as of October 2012, he’s the president of the IET.

A year is not long to leave an impression, but maybe a year is a long time in engineering? “Well there’s plenty to do. There’s the pragmatics of chairing the trustee body, and then there is helping to run the business.” But critically Hopper sees his appointment as a representative role. “I would hope to be able to represent everybody from those early in their career – a technician, or someone who’s just finished their degree course – right through to senior levels. I’ve been a CEO and can talk about the operations of large companies. I’ve worked for multinationals and so I hope I can bring that experience and influence in too. To some extent I hope to be able to help at the back end of careers where people have retired. Although in engineering there is no ‘retired’ really. Engineers become, elder statesmen. I’m not thinking of myself yet. But at Cambridge we have a tradition of showing respect to so-called retired people. My professor Sir Maurice Wilkes had an office next to mine until he was 94 and so I have some feel for how that kind of person can still make a contribution.”

Hopper says that his contribution will be based on the confluence of knowledge gained simultaneously in the worlds of academia and commerce. This knowledge was crystallised in his address to the IET at Savoy Place in October where he discussed some of the consequences of this union of ideas. “To be jovial about it, technology transfer really meant for me, talking to myself. And that is very easy: I talk to myself all the time. If you have the opportunity to do the academic thing (which can be quite applied) and the industrial thing (which can be quite wacky), then the application of the science takes care of itself. The only other angle you really need to have is access to financial information: scale of money, cost of doing things, bringing new products to market in different sectors and so on.”

Hopper’s address also examined how for much of his career he’s been responsible for starting new ventures in the hi-tech arena. He says he has “experience of what it takes and I thought it would be appropriate to talk about where this had been successful as well as unsuccessful, and to draw on the context and framework of how the industrial/academic interface has changed.”

His ideas are based on his direct knowledge of real things and while he makes no claim for this implying that he is the voice of reason “I am sure that helps. But I am the voice of experience and I’m not aware of another person who has done as much business while being a normal academic as well.”

“For example I mentioned projects from the early 1980s, when we started the ARM project, which is now hugely successful. I was there, and am able to talk about that chapter and verse. But the question really is whether something similar could happen today.”

An eye on the future

The importance of enterprise in the university system and, more broadly, engineering in society is according to Hopper much more recognised than when he first started out all those years ago in Swansea. “So in many ways, although I started out by saying it’s not as good as the Good Old Days, there seems to be a bright future. There are many success stories in the UK, many role models especially on the M4 corridor or the Cambridge Cluster. But, if it were as obvious as simply replicating this success, we’d all be doing it. But innovation comes often from a less obvious, less usual, slightly weird path. And this path, with boundary restrictions and all sorts of other obstructions has become more difficult to find.”

As our time comes to a close, Hopper warns me that I’d not be fully informing the reader if I were to depict him as an academic stereotype “involved in administration and that’s that. I think it behoves you to try to explain the simultaneity of the multiple aspects of what I am trying to do. And although I’m now one of the greybeards in the Cambridge thing, the point to really get across that mine is a CV that has concurrently held academic posts, while having been involved in 12 innovation companies.”

But for all the seriousness of his CV, Hopper is easy-going and good-naturedly resistant to the idea that by taking up his new role at the IET he is becoming an establishment figure: “I can’t be,” he says. “I’ve still got six months until my 60th birthday!” As this milestone takes place during his tenure, it will be interesting to see if the experience transforms him. But somehow it seems unlikely.

COMPUTING FOR A SUSTAINABLE PLANET

One of Hopper’s current research projects is about how to bring positive societal change about through the repositioning of computer technology. There are four components to focus on when researching computing for a sustainable planet, he says, but underneath it all is what he calls deep engineering. “By this I mean the platforms we use, based on hundreds of millions of computers co-operating in order to provide the facilities that increase our standard of living. Understanding that this is not finished yet, computer power is still required big time, and then we have to make sure that this power is used efficiently with no waste. And this in itself is deep engineering.”

• Greener and better. My research starts off examining the traditional viewpoint of simply why we are developing technology. This is normally to achieve “bigger, cheaper, faster and more wonderful”. But it needs to be “bigger, cheaper, faster and more wonderful” in a way that deals with the carbon footprint and sustainability in general. This cannot be done if there is a lack of innovation and research in engineering.
• Sense and optimise. The use of computers to optimise the use of resources – transportation, communication, business – is one of the key enablers to societal growth and wealth optimisation, whether this is in logistics, travel or anywhere there is a need to employ digital technology to optimise a cost function. But the twist is that it requires observation and so it is also a case of Big Brother (although big brothers can be quite supportive.) We need to strike a balance between intrusion and the gains that could be experienced while taking advantage of it. As a thought experiment, we are quite used to telecommunications telling us when the next bus or train will arrive. But supposing we knew where every private car on the planet was and that we could plan traffic flows based on the knowledge of where every car is? That’s not much of an extension of what we have already, but will we ever get to that? Would our lives be better if that was available?
• Digital infrastructure assuredness. If you turn off the Internet anywhere in the world now, effectively the world stops. And although the Internet works well in some ways, it can be brittle and it has to move towards being a pacemaker for the planet. We need to make sure that the computing behind big governmental policy-making fiscal projects, such as comparative global warming models, is as accurate, reliable and repeatable as possible. But this needs to happen in the pacemaker sense and not just in the sense that it will restart if it falls over.
• The joy of digital. The mobile phone and digital cellular networks in particular are the most amazing method of distributing information around the world that there has been since the book was invented. Perhaps more so. Access to information is a great societal benefit. For example, affordable access to courses in microelectronics is now available to the people of Bhutan. Another example. Every farmer on the planet has a mobile phone now. The phone is also a camera and the farmer can take pictures of the crop, upload it to a server, and feed back information about nitrogen dosage, disease, cross refer with climate patterns. All this makes for better food production and increases the sustainability of the planet.

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