UCSI students explore the limits of artificial intelligence with Dr Joseph Manning

KUALA LUMPUR: Terminator, The Space Odyssey; these are just a few of Hollywood’s classic blockbusters depicting supercomputers taking over the world. And with the incredible advancements made in technology over the past several decades, these plots today don’t seem quite far-fetched anymore. 

But Dr Joseph Manning, who leads the Department of Computer Science at University College Cork (UCC) in Ireland, was at UCSI University (UCSI) to explain why that will never happen. 

“Computers are getting faster and more powerful all the time,” he said. “So most people will be surprised that there are very clear-cut technical problems that, even a thousand years from now and with the brightest minds behind them, will always be impossible for computers.” 

Speaking to students from UCSI’s School of IT on the topic of ‘What Computers Can Never Do’, Dr Manning presented a series of non-computable functions serving as the Achilles' heel to the best of artificial intelligence such as the post correspondence and Halting problems – simple algorithms that confuse computers because they are unable to analyse different pieces of data and relate them to each other. 

These problems are mathematical proof that computers cannot perform abstract reasoning – a product of sentience – like the human brain, no matter how fast or how much memory the computer may have. This effectively ends any notion of computers achieving full consciousness and spelling the end of the human race. 

“There’s kind of a concept that computers are all-powerful and to a certain extent, it is true,” said Dr Manning. “They can and will do amazing things but this is conclusively beyond their scope.” 

Dr Manning also spoke of the huge demand for computer scientists back home. In the recent years, Ireland has established itself as a global technology hub, attracting tech giants the likes of Google, Facebook, IBM, Intel and Microsoft. 

“I think it is a worldwide trend,” he said. “And the beauty of a computer science qualification is that you can work anywhere in the world. Computers know no borders; they abide by the same rules and contexts wherever you are, unlike law or medicine. It’s very flexible.” 

Some might perceive computer science as very technical and logic-oriented, and Dr Manning concurs but he assures that there is equal scope for out-of-the-box ideas. 

“A good example is Facebook,” he said. “About 12 years ago, using computers to send messages to each other would’ve been a crazy idea but here we are, with Facebook being an incredible success. So you’ll actually need a good amount of creativity and imagination to invent new functions for our computers.” 

Dr Manning’s guest lecture followed a meeting with UCSI’s Vice-Chancellor and President Senior Professor Dato’ Dr Khalid Yusoff, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Dato' Dr Ahmad Haji Zainuddin, Deans and Academic Heads. 

They were also joined by UCC’s International Coordinator Dr Christopher Shepard who had facilitated the partnership between UCSI and UCC inked last year. 

“UCC is one of the leading universities in Ireland and we’re delighted to call them our partner,” said Professor Dr Ooi Keng Boon, Dean of UCSI’s Faculty of Business and Information Science under which the School of IT is parked. 

“We are currently looking into international degree pathways and articulations, and I’m confident that together, we’ll be able to offer the best in education to our students, not only in computing which UCC is well-known for but in other fields as well.” 

Earlier this year, Shin Nay Lin became the first UCSI student to be awarded UCC’s prestigious George Boole Merit Scholarship worth €11,000 (RM50,100) to pursue her Master’s in Computing Science. Dr Manning was on the panel that reviewed her scholarship application. 

“We receive a lot of submissions from students around the world but Nay Lin’s really stood out not only with her grades, but with her extra-curricular achievements,” he said. “She’s a very bright student and there was no question about awarding her the scholarship.” 

“I’m really proud to study at UCC,” said Nay Lin, who recently graduated with first class honours in mobile computing. “This opportunity will pave the way for better job prospects and I intend to work hard and strengthen my portfolio while I’m here.” 

It is trusted that she will for she did the same at UCSI. 

A recipient of the UCSI University Trust scholarship, Nay Lin made the most out of her time at UCSI by experiencing to the fullest all that university life had to offer. Beyond the classroom, she actively participated in campus activities, assumed leadership roles in multiple student clubs and associations, and even found time to tutor her course mates. 

She sought for a well-rounded education because she has an aspiration to fulfil – she wants to run an IT training centre back home in Burma for underprivileged teenagers. 

“My country is very much into mobile technology so I believe that by having solid IT skills, they’d be able to enjoy a stable income in this industry,” said Nay Lin. 

In regards to her own career, she believes that UCSI has built her a strong foundation for the future. 

“When I first came to UCSI, I was young and inexperienced and didn’t know much about the world,” she reflected. “Thanks to the support of my lecturers and the truly dynamic learning environment at UCSI, I’ve grown immensely in knowledge, confidence and leadership.” 

Dr Manning’s guest lecture is the second in a series of public seminars coordinated by UCSI’s School of IT for the new semester which started in September. The inaugural session featured Dr Suresh Ramasamy, former Head of Information and Cyber Security at Digi Telecommunications.