BCS Lovelace medal: Karen Spärck Jones

The British Computer Society awards its Lovelace Medal to “individuals who have made a contribution which is of major significance in the advancement of Information Systems or which adds significantly to the understanding of Information Systems”. The award is announced at a lecture given by the previous year’s medallist. This year’s event was a little different.

Karen Spärck Jones, the 2007 Lovelace medallist, died shortly after the award was announced. She was a pioneering researcher in computational linguistics, and received many awards through a long and distinguished career which started, continued and ended at Cambridge University. If you use a search engine, thesaurus-driven retrieval, automatic summarisation, relevance weighting, the Semantic Web, or any technology which depends on language analysis, you owe a debt to her work.

The 2008 Lovelace lecture was given in her memory by Dr. Ann Copestake, Cambridge’s Reader in Computational Linguistics. The lecture itself was a tour de force, ranging across the areas in which Prof. Spärck Jones so often led the way right up to the time of her death. Dr. Copestake educated us, but never baffled us. The logic and algebraic formalisms which she shared were not to be understood, but to illustrate how complex a field of study this is; when she needed us to understand a principle, she used a simple English sentence or, at one point, a Sudoku puzzle.

But, additionally, we were treated to glimpses of Karen Spärck Jones the person, and of her long partnership – academic as well as personal – with her husband Prof. Roger Needham. Fittingly, the vote of thanks was given by Dr. Andrew Herbert, who was closely associated with Prof. Needham in Cambridge research and succeeded him at the head of Microsoft’s Cambridge research lab. In his short speech, and in tributes from Prof. Wendy Hall and Prof. David Hartley, we learned also of the enormous range of charitable activities supported by the Roger Needham Trust and the depth of their joint contribution to Cambridge University and civic life.

Her work has touched my own career more than once: most directly in the 1980s when I managed thesaurus-driven databases and wrote an internal research paper on the then vogue issue of natural language database interfaces. But to my surprise I learned that, through Andrew Herbert, she also directly influenced a completely unrelated field which I was involved in: architectures for wide area distributed systems, developed through the ANSA project into an ISO standard. It was through this project that I met Andrew, who was its technical director. Conversation with Prof. Spärck Jones guided Andrew to one of the principles of that work, that of under-determination (essentially, working with the partial knowledge you do have) which is one of the foundations of modern computational linguistics. In Dr Copestake’s lecture, this is where the Sudoku came in!

Prof. Spärck Jones knew that she would not be able to receive the medal in person; Andrew’s comments brought home to us how much it genuinely meant to her. Surprisingly for a medal named for the first woman in IT, Prof. Spärck Jones was the first woman to receive it; this gave her great pleasure. Computing, as she once said, is too important to be left to men!

Links (follow these links not only for Dr Copestake’s lecture but also for a video lecture recorded by Prof. Spärck Jones herself as an acknowledgement for the Lovelace medal and for the ACM Athena Award which she received at the same time):

2008 Lovelace Lecture: A tribute to Karen Spärck Jones British Computer Society (Dr. Copestake’s presentation will be accesible via this page)
Obituary: Karen Spärck Jones University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory
Natural Language and the Information Layer Prof. Karen Spärck Jones, March 2007 (video lecture, 30 minutes)
Ann Copestake University of Cambridge
Dr Andrew Herbert Microsoft, Cambridge
ANSA project, 1985-1998 official record online

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