July 4, 2022

Join us to discuss the implications of the Open AI codex on introductory programming Monday 4th July at 2pm BST

Automatic code generators have been with us a while, but how do modern AI powered bots perform on introductory programming assignments? Join us to discuss the implications of the OpenAI Codex on introductory programming courses on Monday 4th July at 2pm BST. We’ll be discussing a paper by James Finnie-Ansley, Paul Denny, Brett A. Becker, Andrew Luxton-Reilly and James Prather [1] for our monthly SIGCSE journal club meetup on zoom. Here is the abstract:

Recent advances in artificial intelligence have been driven by an exponential growth in digitised data. Natural language processing, in particular, has been transformed by machine learning models such as OpenAI’s GPT-3 which generates human-like text so realistic that its developers have warned of the dangers of its misuse. In recent months OpenAI released Codex, a new deep learning model trained on Python code from more than 50 million GitHub repositories. Provided with a natural language description of a programming problem as input, Codex generates solution code as output. It can also explain (in English) input code, translate code between programming languages, and more. In this work, we explore how Codex performs on typical introductory programming problems. We report its performance on real questions taken from introductory programming exams and compare it to results from students who took these same exams under normal conditions, demonstrating that Codex outscores most students. We then explore how Codex handles subtle variations in problem wording using several published variants of the well-known “Rainfall Problem” along with one unpublished variant we have used in our teaching. We find the model passes many test cases for all variants. We also explore how much variation there is in the Codex generated solutions, observing that an identical input prompt frequently leads to very different solutions in terms of algorithmic approach and code length. Finally, we discuss the implications that such technology will have for computing education as it continues to evolve, including both challenges and opportunities. (see accompanying slides)

All welcome, details at sigcse.cs.manchester.ac.uk/join-us. Thanks to Jim Paterson at Glasgow Caledonian University for nominating this months paper.


  1. James Finnie-Ansley, Paul Denny, Brett A. Becker, Andrew Luxton-Reilly, James Prather (2022) The Robots Are Coming: Exploring the Implications of OpenAI Codex on Introductory Programming ACE ’22: Australasian Computing Education Conference Pages 10–19 DOI:10.1145/3511861.3511863

July 7, 2021

Would YOU want to live in Alan Turing’s house?

The blue plaque on Alan Turing’s house, commemorating his work in cryptography which founded both Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence as new disciplines. Picture by Joseph Birr-Pixton on Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/3aYW

The house where Computer Scientist Alan Turing spent his final years is currently up for sale. The estate agent describes the property on 43 Adlington Road, Wilmslow as a Victorian family residence of significant historical importance. Wilmslow and the surrounding Cheshire countryside is popular with Manchester commuters, including many Man United, Man City & England football stars. Even if you could afford its premier league price tag, would YOU want to live in the house where Turing’s life ended so tragically? 

Turing was found dead at this house, on the 8th June 1954 by his cleaner. The cause of his death the previous day was established as cyanide poisoning. He was just 41 years old. When his body was discovered, an apple lay half-eaten by his bedside. 

The coroner recorded a verdict of suicide.

At the end of his life Turing was suffering mentally and physically. The homophobic British authorities were using a form of legalised torture, known as forced chemical castration, to punish him for being homosexual. At the time, homosexuality was a crime. Turing put on a brave face and joked about his castration (“I’m growing breasts!), but it must have been horrible to endure.

If you’re feeling suicidal or tortured, you don’t have to struggle with difficult feelings alone. If you’re suffering from emotional distress or struggling to cope a Samaritan can face your problems with you. Whatever you’re going through, samaritans.org are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They respond to around 10,000 calls for help every day. No judgement. No pressure. Call them free any time, from any phone on 116 123.

While everyone can have a good old nosey at Turing’s house through the estate agents window, no-one needs to suffer like its famous former resident did. Personally I think I’d find this property an enigmatically haunted house to live in, knowing that this was the place where a great man’s life ended in such tragedy. How about you?

Turing’s House: Copper Folly, 43 Adlington Road, Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 2BJ

  1. Rightmove details www.rightmove.co.uk/properties/109329428
  2. Savills.com details in a single pdf file bit.ly/alan-turings-house
  3. Turing’s house in Google maps goo.gl/maps/krMM3A2JfgTUVFfm8
  4. GCSE computing: Alan Turing: Creator of modern computing bbc.co.uk/teach/alan-turing-creator-of-modern-computing/zhwp7nb
  5. Alan Turing’s Manchester by Jonathan Swinton describes what it was like to make new friends and lovers in the smog-bound, bombed-out city of Manchester from 1948 to 1954 manturing.net
  6. Leslie Ann Goldberg, Simon Schaffer and Andrew Hodges discuss Turing’s ideas and life with Melvyn Bragg https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000ncmw
  7. Breast enlargement in men undergoing chemical castration https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gynecomastia


Thanks to Alan O’Donohoe for spotting Turing’s house on the market and to Joseph Birr-Pixton for publishing his picture of Turing’s blue plaque on Wikimedia Commons.

July 13, 2012

Animation 2012: Computer Science for Schools

Animation 2012 at the University of Manchester

Computer Science as a subject in mainstream UK secondary education is in a pretty sorry state [1,2,3] but it’s not all doom and gloom. While many long suffering school children are being force-fed a nauseating diet of Excel, PowerPoint and Access others are enjoying a nutritious platter of Raspberry Pi, Hack to the Future and Animated fun.

Here’s a brief report on one of these tasty appetisers: Animation 2012, a UK schools animation competition now in its fifth year.

The day kicked off with prizes being awarded for the animation competition. To get a flavour of the creativity and skill involved, you can see winning examples online.

Following the prize giving there was a carousel of activities which included:

Animation 2012 was great fun for all involved, congratulations to all this years winners, hope to see you again next year. There were 526 Schools involved from across the UK, with 914 entries. 58 students were involved in the 35 winning entries from 31 different schools. Thanks to Toby Howard, all the organisers, supporters (Google, Electronic Arts and NESTA) and associates (Computing at School, CS4FN and BAFTA young game designers) for putting on an impressive show.


  1. Steve Furber et al (2012). Computing in Schools: Shut down or restart? Royal Society Report
  2. James Robinson (2011). Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, condemns British education system: criticising division between science and arts, The Guardian
  3. Keith Stuart (2011). Michael Gove admits schools should teach computer science: education secretary recognises the failings of ICT courses, The Guardian

June 15, 2012

Alan Turing Centenary Conference, 22nd-25th June 2012

Alan Turing by Michael Dales

The Alan Turing statue at Bletchley Park. Creative commons licensed picture via Michael Dales on Flickr

Next weekend, a bunch of very distinguished computer scientists will rock up at the magnificent Manchester Town Hall for the Turing Centenary Conference in order to analyse the development of Computer ScienceArtificial Intelligence and Alan Turing’s legacy [1].

There’s an impressive and stellar speaker line-up including:

Tickets are not cheap at £450 for four days, but you can sign up for free public lectures by Jack Copeland on Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age and Roger Penrose on the problem of modelling a mathematical mind. Alternatively, if you can lend some time, the conference organisers are looking for volunteers to help out in return for a free conference pass. Contact Vicki Chamberlin for details if you’re interested.


  1. Chouard, T. (2012). Turing at 100: Legacy of a universal mind Nature, 482 (7386), 455-455 DOI: 10.1038/482455a see also nature.com/turing

January 2, 2012

Does Android Dream of Electric Sheep?

Androids by etnyk. What are they thinking?

With more than three million Android devices activated on the 24/25th December 2011 [1] and something like 200 million (or more?) Android devices in total, there are nearly enough droids around to build a primitive brain.

With all that processing power out there, I can’t help but wonder, like Philip K. Dick did, Does Android Dream of Electric Sheep? [2,3]


  1. Andy Rubin (2011) http://twitter.com/Arubin/status/151918325260226561
  2. Philip K. Dick (1967) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
  3. Ridley Scott et al (1982) Blade Runner

April 17, 2009

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Google

GoogleVia the Official Google Research Blog at the University of Google, Alon Halevy, Peter Norvig and Fernando Pereira have published an interesting expert opinion piece in the  March/April 2009 edition of IEEE Intelligent Systems: computer.org/intelligent. The paper talks about embracing complexity and making use of the “the unreasonable effectiveness of data” [1] drawing analogies with the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” [2]. There is plenty to agree and disagree with in this provocative article which makes it an entertaining read. So what can we learn from those expert Googlers in the Googleplex? (more…)

July 25, 2006

AAAI’06: Highlights and conclusions

The AAAI conference finished last Thursday, here are some highlights and papers that might be worth reading if you are interested in building and / or using a more “intelligent” (and possibly semantic) web in bioinformatics.

Here are the papers or talks I enjoyed the most and hope you might also find them useful or inspiring.

  1. Unifying Logical and Statistical AI talk given by Pedro Domingos.

    Intelligent agents must be able to handle the complexity and uncertainty of the real world. Logical AI (of which the semantic web is an example) has focused mainly on the former, and statistical AI (e.g. machine learning) on the latter. The two approaches can be united, with significant benefits, some of which are demonstrated by the Alchemy system

  2. Developing an intelligent personal assistant: The CALO (Cognitive Agent at that Learns and Organises) project talk given by Karen Myers.

    CALO is a desktop assistant that learns what you do in the lab / office. Sounds spooky, but involves some interesting technology and fascinating research questions.

  3. Bookmark hierarchies and collaborative recommendation by Ben Markines, Lubomira Stoilova and Filippo Menczer.

    Describes an open-source, academically-oriented social bookmarking site where you can donate your bookmarks to science at givealink

  4. Social network-based Trust in Prioritised Default Logic by Yarden Katz and Jennifer Golbeck.

    Who and how can you trust on the Web?

  5. Google vs Berners-Lee was a memorable debate. According to Jim Hendler, Tim and Peter are reconciling their differences now

Not particularly webby, but…

…entertaining nonetheless.

  1. Stephen Muggletons talk on Computational Biology and Chemical Turing Machines, went down well but unfortunately I was stuck in a parallel track, experiencing “death by ontology”.
  2. Bruce Buchanan gave a talk What Do We Know About Knowledge. A roller-coaster ride through the last 2000+ years of human attempts to understand what knowledge is, how to represent it and why it is powerful
  3. Winning the DARPA Grand Challenge with an AI Robot called Stanley talk given by Sebastian Thrun, amazing presentation on a driving a robotic car through the desert over rough terrain. However, it doesn’t take too much imagination to think of horrific applications of this. Next year they will try to drive it from San Francisco to Los Angeles on a public freeway, and Stanley hasn’t even passed its driving test yet!

Turing’s dream

Appropriately, the conference which was subtitled Celebrating 50 years of AI finished with two talks by Lenhart K. Schubert and Stuart M. Shieber about the Turing test. The first discussed Turing’s dream and the Knowledge Challenge, the second talk asked Does the Turing Test Demonstrate Intelligence or Not? Now I’m back in Manchester, where Turing once worked, I can’t help wondering, what would Alan make of the current state of AI and the semantic web? I think there are several possibilities, he could be thinking:

  • EITHER: Fifty odd years later, they’re not still wasting time working on that Turing test are they?!
  • OR: He is smugly satisifed that he devised a test, that no machine has passed, and perhaps never will, but has provided us with a satisfactory operational definition of “intelligence” ;
  • …AND What the hell is the “Semantic Web”?

We will never know what Alan Turing would make of todays efforts to make a more intelligent web. However, that won’t stop me speculating that he would be impressed by the current uses of computers (intelligent or otherwise) to drive robots through the desert, perform all sort of computations on proteins and to search for information on this massive distributed global knowledge-base we call the “Web”. Not bad for 50 years of work, here’s to the next 50…


  1. Alan Turing (1950) Computing Machinery and Intelligence: The Turing TestMind 59(236):433-460
  2. Stephen H. Muggleton (2006) Exceeding human limits: The Chemical Turing MachineNature 440:409-410
  3. Stephen H. Muggleton (2006) Towards Chemical Universal Turing Machines in Proceedings on the 21st National Conference on Artificial Intelligence
  4. Picture credit: Image from Steve Jurvetson
  5. This post was originally published on nodalpoint with comments

July 21, 2006

AAAI: Dude, Where’s My Service?

GogloAs the number of bioinformatics services on the web increases, finding a tool or database that performs the task you require can be problematic. At the AAAI poster session on Wednesday, I presented our paper describing a novel solution to this problem. It uses a reasoner to “intelligently” search for web services, by semantically matching service requests with advertisements and has some advantages over comparable solutions…

I won’t go into all the gory details here but our technique extends and complements current approaches for matchmaking services. Some of the key features described in the paper are that it allows you describe to relationship(s) between the input and output of a service. E.g. What is the relationship between the input and output protein sequence of InterProScan? This relationship can help match requests for services with their adverts with higher precision and recall. I don’t mind admitting its been hard work getting this research published because a large part of the AI community use shamelessly toy and fictitious scenarios to motivate their work. Then they build incredibly complicated software stacks that are only understood by the small clique of people that designed them. When you show some of these people real-world bioinformatics services, they don’t seem to care too much, preferring to bury their heads in the sand of make-believe. There, thats got it off my chest!

So it was re-assuring when people came by the poster, listened to my speel and asked lots of questions. Ora Lassila from Nokia (one of the people responsible for hyping the whole idea up in the first place) dropped by to have a look. He was interested in adapting the technique for locating services in a registry, used by mobile devices. (I wonder if anyone out there needs BLAST on their mobile phone?!) It was good to meet Ora, and talk about semantics.

There is nothing quite like standing in front of a poster for three hours and tirelessly explaining it to complete strangers who work in disparate fields. It certainly helps to get your ideas straight. Where would we be without conferences?


  1. Danny Leiner (2000) Dude, Where’s My Car?
  2. Massimo Paolucci, Takahiro Kawamura, Terry Payne and Katia Sycara (2002) Semantic Matching of Web Service Capabilities
  3. Duncan Hull, Evgeny Zolin, Andrey Bovykin, Ian Horrocks, Ulrike Sattler and Robert Stevens (2006) Deciding Semantic Matching of Stateless Services in the Proceedings of the Twenty-First National Conference on Artificial Intelligence (AAAI-06)

July 19, 2006

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