Interview with Mike Tipping

We talk robots, impact and goal-scoring abilities with the University of Bath’s new data scientist

July 7, 2016
Mike Tipping, University of Bath, Featurespace

Mike Tipping is an expert in the fields of machine learning and artificial intelligence and big data. From 2013 to 2015, he was director of science at Featurespace, a Cambridge-based start-up that pioneered “Adaptive Behavioural Analytics”, a new form of data analysis used to prevent fraud in some of the world’s largest banks and insurance companies. He was a member of the team that started Microsoft’s Research Laboratory in Cambridge in 1998 and invented and built the “Drivatar” model still used in Microsoft’s Xbox title Forza Motorsport. This year, he joined the University of Bath’s Institute for Mathematical Innovation (IMI) as professor of data science.

Where and when were you born?
Newcastle-under-Lyme, 1968.

How has this shaped you?
I’ve never really considered myself to be a function of time and place, but I enjoyed growing up in North Staffordshire and I still regularly revisit – I’m always struck by the friendly nature of the area after any extended time away. On reflection, I realise that I was lucky to have had thoughtful parents who worked hard to provide me with opportunities that they never had (I was the first in my family to go to university) yet without putting me under pressure. I think I was also fortunate to benefit from a very good local school education.

What will your role entail, and what do you hope to achieve in the position?
My role is somewhat multifaceted, but primarily I will be helping the IMI to realise its vision of developing and disseminating new mathematics research through project partnerships with both academics and industry. My brief focuses on data science, and it’s evident that we’re in an exciting new era for data-driven applications – everything from movie recommendations to medical diagnostic systems and even self-driving cars.

You’ve moved from the private sector to Bath having previously worked in higher education at Cambridge. What drew you back to the academy?
Ultimately, I was drawn back by the opportunity to re-engage in fundamental science. At the same time, I hope that the industrial experience will have ongoing value. Seeing the work done in the commercial world, and recognising how some of the emerging technology trends have been influencing business, has refreshed my personal perspective on which directions are important scientifically and which research questions still need addressing.

It has been claimed that there are many jobs a robot can do as well as, and often better than, a human. Do you ever see a scenario when human agency is no longer needed in the working world?
From a scientific or technological viewpoint, I see no impediment to robots being able one day to take on the large majority of jobs currently undertaken by a human, although I do think this day is a long time off. I would also anticipate that numerous other social and economic constraints will intervene before such a scenario might become reality (eg, at some point there will be insufficient humans in paid employment to buy the products made and/or services provided by the aforesaid robots).

Have you had a eureka moment?
In truth, no. Or put more optimistically: not yet.

What is the worst thing anyone has ever said about your academic work?
As far as I am aware, no one has ever said anything about my work that might offend me – the worst thing for an academic is generally to have it overlooked entirely!

If you weren’t an academic, what do you think you’d be doing?
Well, I did apply to be an astronaut, but Helen Sharman [the UK’s first astronaut] beat me to it. More realistically, I’d probably be engaged in developing something in the world of high-tech electronics.

What has changed most in higher education in the past five to 10 years?
That’s a particularly apt question – being away from higher education for more than a decade has inevitably made some of the changes more starkly defined in my field of view. Most noticeable to me from a research perspective is the focus on “impact”; one can’t help but feel that this will lead to some important longer-term generic directions being ignored in favour of nearer-term specific pay-offs.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Time will become an ever-more precious commodity, so make the most of it when you have it.

What keeps you awake at night?
The Great Western Railway mainline, which runs, quite literally, right under where I live.

What advice do you give to your students?
Take advantage of what may be a rare opportunity to indulge in creative scientific thinking for its own sake – it’s quite possible that such time and space will not come along again.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Slightly unmotivated by my studies back then, slightly too keen on all things football-related.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
Scoring my first goal for the university football team (Bristol 3rds). I’d like to say that it was followed by many others, but strictly speaking that wouldn’t be true.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
That an “artificial intelligence” capable of genuinely thinking for itself is just around the corner.

What project would you undertake if money were no issue?
I’d be tempted to set up a data science research institute with an exclusively scientific focus. Small data, big science, you might say. By essence, data science is a highly applied topic, but I think the longer-term payback of addressing some of the fundamental questions would be immense.

If you were the UK higher education minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
A revision of the funding structures to ensure that a critical mass of relevant, fundamental, curiosity-driven research is generously supported without reference to short-term impact metrics.


Rebecca Taylor, executive dean of the Open University Business School, has been named vice-president (academic) of the European Foundation for Management Development. The EFMD is an international membership organisation providing accreditation services that aim to raise the standards of management education around the world. “The EFMD…shares the OU Business School’s ethos of true collaboration between academia and industry, in order to develop best practice in management education,” she said. “I look forward to working with the EFMD’s influential network to support the continued advancement of management thinking across the world, to the benefit of the business education sector.”

Stephen O’Brien has been appointed dean of the new Faculty of Health and Society at the University of Northampton. Dr O’Brien, who takes up his position in August, previously worked at the university as a principal nursing lecturer, before joining Robert Gordon University. He joins Northampton from Coventry University, where he was head of the School of Nursing, Midwifery and Health. “I am excited to be joining the University of Northampton as it embraces change but maintains its emphasis on growth and excellence in teaching, research and innovation,” he said. “I will welcome the opportunity to further engage in this agenda to maximise national and international opportunities for innovation, research, enterprise and social innovation.”

Sarah Cooper has been appointed chief executive of English UK, the national association of accredited English language centres in the United Kingdom. The University of East London’s Royal Docks School of Business and Law has announced two new appointments. John Clifford has been made associate dean (curriculum and innovation), and Sunitha Narendran is now director of research. Jonathan Wolff has been appointed to the Blavatnik professorship of public policy in the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government with effect from 1 September.

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