||Walter – The next Bill Gates?
Primary interview editor: Hanne Stedfe – Media Core Manageress for the Norwegian Special Games ’96.
Walter O’Brien is a recently qualified young man who will certainly shake up the computer world, and his impact will be felt intensely by the many businesses which depend upon this technology. His final year University project certainly had an impact being valued as an $11,000,000 franchise by industry experts.
Almost a decade ago, from a farm in Callan, Co Kilkenny, Walter had the first taste of what was to dominate the rest of his life. At the age of only 12, his first exposure to computers was the foundation for an interest which would snowball into his current position as one of the fastest programmers in the world! To achieve his incredible aptitude for logic Walter had to spend endless hours in front of the computer, barely getting any sleep while painstakingly teaching himself computers through trial and error. Walter’s self-taught background in computers would make him unique in comparison to the majority of computer wizards, for he would not receive a formal computer lesson until he entered university at the age of 18 years.
In 1990, Walter entered the Wisconsin International Computer Problem Solving Competition in Ireland for the first time. Amazingly, despite his apparently limited background, he came first in this prestigious competition, defeating by three to one, other child prodigies who had previously dominated the competition through their early entry to Universities like Trinity College Dublin. Walter received international attention for the first time when he repeated his success in the Wisconsin competition the following year (1991), and this time he was just 0.5 of a mark from being in the top five programmers in the world. In 1993, Walter flew with his crack programming team to South America to represent Ireland in the Information Olympics in Mendoza, Argentina, where he competed with teams of fellow computer wizards representing countries from all over the world.
At the age of nineteen, Walter once again astonished international experts in his field with his creation of a definition for a famous Artificial Intelligence (Thinking Computer s) dilemma known as the “frame problem”. Re calling the event, Walter says that “I simply came up with an explanation for something nobody could describe.” The breakthrough came during his first year at university in Brighton, England, where Walter was taking BSc degrees in Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence. This double-major is the only three-year course of its kind in the United Kingdom. In 1994 Time Magazine rated the institution where Walter studies as number one in a survey covering the whole of Europe and Asia, and the course which Walter has now completed is the toughest within the university, with up to 140 working hours per week, adding up to 20 hours per day, 7 days a week. Walter’s lecturers while at university have included Dr. Steve Easterbrook, who is one of the foremost international experts on Artificial Intelligence, and also other prominent members of the field, with Margaret Boden, Des Watson, and Rudy Lutz among them.
In the past three years while Walter has been at University, he has done much Consultancy work on the side, including redesigning the profile, security and business systems of a graphic design company. He has also provided an emergency service for companies that are in crisis due to a serious computer breakdown or virus infection. Walter is transported to the scene and calls in other contacts and experts as require d. While under pressure he keeps a cool head, man aging his expert team using a powerful and clear application of his logic and experience in similar situations. Frequently working his team through the night, he often manages to cure the fault and get the system up and running again within 48 hours so that the relieved workers may return to their jobs in a company whose essential data came close to being wiped out. On occasion, he has also been hired by companies to test their security systems, a practice known as “legitimate hacking”, where Walter is asked to use his skills in hacking network systems and bypassing password devices, to find the potential weak spots within the new security systems.
Earlier this month Walter graduated with honours in both BSc degrees and is currently considering many tempting job offers not only in Ireland and England, but from as far afield as Paris, Berlin, Israel and several parts of the United States. After a few years working full-time in the industry, Walter hopes to do full-time Virtual Reality (VR) “Blue Sky” research in California. Explaining his strong feelings for this area of computers, Walter says that “Virtual Reality has the power to change almost every aspect of our lives and is totally uninhibited. Its prospects excite me.”…“With funding of several million dollars annually from a scientific foundation to supply the equipment need, I’d be like a kid in a toy shop,” he laughs.
Walter is currently excited by his latest, largest project codenamed FALCON. While every student can testify to worries about work and money, Walter’s dilemmas are truly intense. Discussing his choice of project, Walter says that “I had had the idea for about a year and a half and I knew it would become a commercially viable product. Therefore I decide d to develop it further as my final year project at University. From leading experts in the field, I was told that what it proposed to do was mathematically impossible, all previous attempts at similar tasks had failed.” Walter did not let mathematical impossibility deter him from his ambitious project, although he admits having doubts when the core programming designs failed fourteen times. Previously, Walter had never had to review a core design more than twice. He persisted and finally developed a design that provided him with the world’s first working prototype, confirming that his proposal was indeed possible. With no time to celebrate the occasion or even take a rest, Walter had only three weeks left in which to write the two hundred and fifty page dissertation on the seven thousand five hundred lines of code project in order to make the deadline for submission. Walter made his deadline and then started exam preparation – Again it’s Go Go Go!
The software pro duct Walter invented is called WinLocX and has the ability to aid a software comp any in translating the sentences and commands displayed within its pro grams into other languages. This means that the software company can open up its market by 150% by selling its programs throughout Europe. This process used to be very slow, expensive, error prone and restricted the programming languages to a s elect few. This meant that “localizing” software to sell it abroad was not economically viable for small firms, until now. WinLocX allows these companies to translate their software very quickly, cheaply, safely and best of all with total flexibility. Walter s program is different in that it uses intelligent techniques to work on any language and any computer platform. This is the first pro gram with these abilities in the World.
When Walter gave his first public presentation of WinLocX, many people turned up, wanting to see “what he’s come up with this time.” Commenting on the complexity of his project, Walter said that after his presentation was over, “A PhD student came up to me, saying that the lecture was “mind-blowing” and that I had given him quite a headache. I’d like to think of that as a nice compliment.”
One of the greatest hurdle s Walter encountered in the completion of his project was to ensure his ownership of it, to legally obtain the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) for it. In general, universities hold legal ownership over the final year projects of their students; Walters project proved one significant exception, for he successfully contested his university’s claim to his project, winning the IPR by arguing that his own personal lab equipment had been powerful enough to support the entire FALCON architecture, and that he had not needed to use outside equipment in the completion of his project: “Basically, I managed to produce and develop the whole project on my own. No extra expertise or lab equipment from the University was available or necessary.”
The original idea for WinLocX has been calculated as having a value of $500,000, but the worth of the fully developed first prototype has been estimated at 3.6 million U.S. dollars. When the other parties involved became familiar with the actual value of the FALCON project, they considered a legal challenge to Walter’s IPR. However, having anticipated such a challenge, Walter had prepared enough technical evidence for the issue to never again reach the courts. While Walter has not yet sold his project, he has had tempting offers to buy it from companies in Italy, Poland, Ireland, England, and the US.
Walter has the work experience of someone who has been in the industry for several decades, as indicated by his innate business sense and maturity in dealing with customers. He is excited about working in the United States and looking forward to the opportunities he will have, to taking on bigger and more challenging problems.