Obituary: Jon Reid Oberlander, academic, Professor of Epistemics, co-founder and first director of the Scottish Informatics and Computer Science Alliance

Professor Jon Oberlander has died at the age of 55. Picture: Douglas Robertson
Professor Jon Oberlander has died at the age of 55. Picture: Douglas Robertson
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Professor Jon Reid Oberlander MA, PhD, FBCS, FRSE. Born: 16 June, 1962 in Edinburgh. Died: 19 December, 2017 in Edinburgh, age 55.

Jon Oberlander, who died suddenly at home, was a ­Scottish academic who spent his entire career at the University of Edinburgh.

Born and raised in Edinburgh, he took a Philosophy degree at Pembroke College, Cambridge, returning in 1983 to the University of Edinburgh as a PhD student studying Cognitive Science in the School of Epistemics, where he completed his dissertation on the Semantics of Temporal Indexicals in 1987.

He remained at the now renamed Centre for Cognitive Science as a British Academy postdoctoral fellow for three years, then as a research associate for another three years before being awarded an EPSRC advanced fellowship as part of the Human Communication Research Centre. He joined the academic staff as a lecturer in the newly ­created School of Informatics in 1998, was promoted to Reader in 2000 and Professor in 2005 when he was awarded a ­Personal Chair in Epistemics.

Jon’s choice of formal title, Professor of Epistemics, was a declaration of his intellectual identity and the subject’s Edinburgh roots. The American term, cognitive science, may have supplanted the original Edinburgh coinage of epistemics, but the interdisciplinary commitment that informed Jon’s work throughout his career began in the School of Epistemics and he was proud to acknowledge that.

Cognitive science brings the tools and methods of hard sciences such as mathematics and computer science to bear on the subject matter of the human sciences such as psychology and linguistics, and all of Jon’s academic work was undertaken in that spirit. This started with his PhD on the particular linguistic puzzles posed by words such as ‘tomorrow’ and ‘last week’ and continued through to his most recent work on modelling the individual way in which ­people choose what to say to one another.

Jon’s training in philosophy gave him a flair for abstract reasoning and an abiding interest in language, meaning and logic. During his research career, he became increasingly interested in the potential of digital technologies to turn abstract structures into usable artefacts.

An early example was his involvement in the ILEX project, a collaboration with the National Museum of Scotland in the late 1990s, that reimagined the role of labels on museum display cases. The key insight was that keeping track of what you, the visitor, had already seen in the museum would enable an intelligent digital system to provide you with a personally tailored nugget of information about an exhibit as part of a broader narrative about the collection.

The theme of adjusting ­language to the needs of the audience ran through much of Jon’s research and raised two questions. First, what are the ways that we humans ­produce language specialised for the person we are speaking to, suiting it not only to the immediate context but to what we know of their personality, goals and background?

Most recently this led Jon to work with colleagues in politics, political psychology and international relations on the nature of political discourse expressed in social media, with a specific focus on the way in which cultural and international assumptions underpin the way that ideas are expressed in geo-political hot spots.

Second, given that computers can generate text and spoken language, how can we design them so that they adapt their language to the needs of their human users? One intriguing way of answering this question involved research projects with talking robots, programmed not only to function as museum guides and bartenders but also learning the norms of social interaction.

Throughout his research, Jon collaborated across the university and was able to devise research questions that were cutting-edge both in informatics techniques and in engaging with problems posed in other fields.

In collaboration with co-workers in the Centre for Design Informatics, he became increasingly interested in the emerging field of Human Data Interaction, homing in on the importance of developing a culture in which designers prioritise flows of data that “sustain and enhance human values”.

Jon was passionate about science communication and explored many ways of taking his research into the public sphere. He was a member of the steering group of the Institute for International Cultural Relations, the Science and Technology Advisory Panel of National Museums Scotland, the Recognition Committee of Museums Galleries Scotland and the Scottish Government’s Scottish Science Advisory Council. In recognition he was awarded the University’s 2017 Tam Dalyell Prize for Excellence in Engaging the Public with Science.

Jon increasingly took leadership roles in strategic initiatives within the university and beyond. In 2008, he co-founded and became the first director of the Scottish Informatics and Computer Science Alliance (SICSA). This brought together all university-level Informatics/Computer Science research activity in Scotland in an unprecedented and very successful community of interest and cooperation, with sufficient resources of its own to deliver real value to its members.

Jon’s enthusiasm for building bridges between Scottish academic and cultural life found concrete expression when he joined the board of New Media Scotland in 2007. This led to the 2009 creation of the Inspace Joint Research Partnership to explore the cultural significance of informatics and new media practice. Inspace was also a design laboratory and exhibition space within the new Informatics Forum building. During its six-year existence, Inspace welcomed over 500,000 visitors to become “the best interface between town and gown in this city”.

Inspace served as the early home for Design Informatics, an innovative collaboration between the Edinburgh College of Art and the School of Informatics. Jon was a driving force for its creation, and served as co-director as it expanded from support for industry and entrepreneurship to teaching and the creation of taught MSc degrees and went on to launch Informatics out into the city.

Bringing together computer scientists, designers and members of the Grid Iron theatre company to transform the Edinburgh International Climbing Arena into the science fiction performance Leaving Planet Earth in 2013, he then expanded his team to include artists and data scientists and his palette to the walls of the Usher Hall. Spectacular animations in The Harmonium Project enthralled 20,000 people, setting out a new vision for a digital Edinburgh at the opening of the 2015 Edinburgh International Festival.

Most recently, as assistant principal for Data Technology, Jon had academic responsibility for overseeing design and construction of the university’s Bayes Centre for Data Science and Technology, of which he was to be director. In this connection, he played a pivotal role in bringing City Deal funding to Edinburgh and South East Scotland, as part of the university’s transformative programme to promote Data Driven Innovation.

Jon was widely appreciated by colleagues across disciplines for his enthusiasm, imagination and humour. His many PhD students flourished under a combination of his focused attention, curiosity, open-mindedness and academic rigour.

Jon’s love of the city of Edinburgh extended to the surrounding countryside, and hillwalking was a constant source of pleasure.

Jon is survived by his wife Vina, their daughter Liberty and sons Hugh and Seth, his parents Hilary and Jack and brothers Alan and Eric.

EWAN KLEIN and

HENRY S THOMPSON