WALTER THE WIZARD!
A young Callan man is creating a stir in the futuristic world of Artificial Intelligence. Computer wizard Walter O’Brien has succeeded where all the experts failed, in producing a definition for a central problem in Artificial Intelligence.
The 19-year-old, now a university student in England, has come up with a definition for a famous Artificial Intelligence dilemma known as the “frame problem”. His definition has now been accepted by international experts in the field.
“Basically, I came up with a definition for something no one could describe!” he explains.
The breakthrough came during his work at the University of Sussex at Brighton, where he is currently taking degrees in both Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence, which is all about getting computers to “think” like humans.
The coup is the latest in a series of successes for Walter who, as a member of the Irish team in the 1993 international Informatics Olympiad, is now rated among the top five computer programmers in the world.
Amazingly, this open and friendly young man, a son of Anne and Maurice O’Brien of Tinagarron, Callan, did not receive a formal computer lesson until he entered university.
And his brilliance in computing is surpassed only by his enthusiasm. After ten minutes in the company of Walter and his ever-ready laptop computer, even the most confirmed “computophobe” will be hooked.
A native of Enniscorthy, but living in Callan since 1988, Walter received international attention when he came first in Ireland in the prestigious Winsconsin International Computer Problem Solving Competition, for two years in succession.
On the first occasion, in 1990, he defeated maths genius Andrew Farrel, who entered TCD at the age of 13 and who was featured on the Late Late Show as a child prodigy.
Walter is noted for finding new ways of approaching problems and issues in computing, a talent which springs from the fact that he is entirely self-taught.
His love of computers began at the age of 12, when his class in Enniscorthy was given Turtle Logo courses for a couple of weeks. “I loved the first taste of what was going to change my entire life,” he recalls.
That summer he sold some livestock, which his father had given him in payment for chores and bought an Amstrad home computer. He worked with it constantly, barely getting sleep and learned the language through painstaking trial and error.
His purchases included software, military simulators, games and utilities and with each he experimented with the options and menus without reading instructions. As a result, while working on various forms of software packages and hardware today, he can adapt to even the most complicated problems within a staggeringly short time.
When the family moved to a farm in Callan six years ago, Walter was isolated from friends and occupied himself totally with his computer. To assess his ability, he visited computer teacher Luke Roche in New Ross, who designed computer programmes for the Department of Education.
“Following a two-hour session, Luke was astounded at my ability to grasp the structured programming of Pascal,” he recalls.
At the age of just 14, Walter set up his own company, Scorpion Computer Services, which offered tutoring courses in computing for people aged 7 to 70. The teenager’s customers included SIPTU and Waterford Foods.
In May 1991 the Director of Software Engineering at B.A.T. College in Dublin invited him to take an Aptitude and Assessment Test. Although competing against students twice his age, Walter qualified for the four-year degree course. The College was astonished to discover that he was still only 16 years old and had yet to sit his Inter. Cert.
Walter’s work came to the attention of a range of academics, including Waterford RTC Maths lecturer Professor Paul Barry Dr. Padraig Cunningham, Head of Hitachi Artificial Intelligence Research at TCDE. All were amazed at his ability and the fact that he could devise programme structures without any formulae or mathematical calculations.
The teenager’s impact on the experts is summed up in his description of a visit to a leading member of the Institute of Industrial Engineers:
“I visited this expert at 2 p.m. hoping he would give me half an hour of his time. We eventually emerged at 10 p.m.
“He was fascinated by the manner in which I devoured what he would consider to be six months’ courses in five minutes. That was over three months ago and now we are the best of friends.”
While still at school, Walter also his exceptional desk-top publishing skills to design the illustrations for the physics section of the Department of Education’s secondary level science book.
His extensive work and projects were examined by Professor John Byrne, Head of Computer Studies at the O’Reilly Institute of TCD, who, greatly impressed asked to be kept in touch with Walter’s future research and findings.
Walter’s fame travelled far and wide and among the job offers he received while still attending St. Kieran’s College was one from Computer Science Professor Henry Becker of Willshire. He spent the summer of 1992 working with the Professor’s Airport and Banking Computerised Security Company, where his brilliance made a lasting impression.
Later that year Dr. Padraig Cunningham of T.C.D. invited him to attend the two-day Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science Conference in Limerick University. It was a turning point.
“I was finally among my counterparts. I attended and questioned at every lecture. All the scientists there found me to be very competent in each of their fields of expertise, in spite of the range of talent there,” he recalls.
“I gained great respect and many of the specialists there have since sent me information about their work and asked me to keep in touch with them. Over lunch I discussed modern psychology, philosophy and lexicon analysis with ease. The majority of people there were amazed by my age and the fact that I was still at school.”
Walter is particularly interested in the practical applications of computing, Artificial Intelligence and the new science of Virtual Reality.
The programmes he has devised include a database designed specifically for farmers, the “Compufarm Programme”, which consists of a computerized Ordnance Survey Map.
He has also come up with a computer package which can be used by literally anyone even those with absolutely no knowledge of computing. Rather than using commands, people can simply key in questions or orders, in English, and the computer will answer them. The package is now being sold by Marble City Computers in Kilkenny and by some Dublin companies.
He has also set up a Virtual Reality facility for a joinery firm in New Ross which allows people to see their kitchen plans in 3D, This allows people to experiment in moving units around, with no physical exertion involved!
The Artificial Intelligence degree course at the University of Sussex is the only course of its kind in the U.K. Walter’s lecturers include Dr. Steve Easterbrook, author of the degree course textbooks and one of the foremost international authorities on Artificial Intelligence.
When he graduates in 1996 Walter hopes to do full-time Virtual Reality research in the U.S.
“Virtual Reality has the power to change almost every aspect of our lives and is totally uninhibited. Its prospects excite me,” he says. “In a company in the U.S. you could get three or four million dollars a year to spend as you like in research. I’d be like a kid in a toy shop,” he laughs.
Just for the record, Walter’s ground-breaking definition of the frame problem reads, “The frame problem is the discrepancy found in a computer’s movement in the representation of a three-dimensional state a four-dimensional state, the fourth dimension being time.”
Figure that one out. As Walter would say it’s really quite simple!