When opportunities are scarce and the path to success seems unattainable, a single act of kindness can change an individual’s life. Alexei Dingli, Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Malta, speaks about how Professor Yorick Wilks, a distinguished pioneer in artificial intelligence was an inspiration to him.
A globally recognised pioneer in artificial intelligence, Professor Yorick Wilks was a British scientist and Emeritus Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Sheffield and a visiting professor of artificial intelligence at Gresham College. Wilks was fellow of the American and European Associations for Artificial Intelligence. In the 1990s Wilks started to model human-computer dialogue for which he won the Loebner Prize in 1997. He passed away in April 2023.
LH: Professor Wilks was very influential in the career path you chose and he left a great impact on your life and choice of career. How did you first meet him?
Professor Alexiei Dingli: In my case, Professor Yorick Wilks, a distinguished pioneer in Artificial Intelligence (AI), recognised my potential two decades ago and allowed me to pursue my Doctorate in the field. His faith in me transformed my life and taught me the value of extending opportunities to others. Growing up in Malta, I faced numerous challenges in furthering my studies. Despite my passion for AI, computers were still rare at the time. Malta had limited educational opportunities; I couldn’t keep studying locally because the courses did not exist, and obtaining a scholarship to go and study abroad was very hard, thus making it difficult for me to envision a future in AI. However, after losing hope, faith brought me into contact with Professor Wilks. When everyone else turned a blind eye to me, he recognised my potential and immediately offered to become my supervisor. This allowed me to chase my dreams, and the rest is history.
LH: In what way did he support and mentor you?
Professor Alexiei Dingli: His unwavering support and mentorship throughout my Doctorate journey were invaluable, but his continued guidance, even after I finished my studies, truly impacted my life. Professor Wilks did not merely provide me with an opportunity to study; he became a lifelong friend, consistently encouraging me to strive for success and reach my full potential. It is because of his belief in me that I am where I am today. And for this, I will always be grateful. The power of opportunity cannot be understated. For many, it is the catalyst for personal and professional growth, igniting their passion for learning and opening doors to new possibilities. By giving someone a chance, you are investing in their future and empowering them to realise their dreams. This is especially true in the world of academia, where mentors like Professor Wilks play a critical role in shaping the lives and careers of their students.
LH: Aside from artificial intelligence, what else did you learn from him from a human aspect?
Professor Alexiei Dingli: In my journey, I have understood the importance of extending opportunities to others, particularly when they may not have the means to access them. This realisation has driven me to become a mentor, sharing the knowledge and experiences I have gained with those who need it most. By mentoring others, we pass on our knowledge and create a ripple effect of opportunity. When we provide someone with a chance to learn and grow, they, in turn, will likely do the same for others in the future. This cycle of support and mentorship has the potential to impact countless lives, allowing individuals to overcome barriers and achieve their goals. This is what I try to do with my students. I push them hard because I care; I believe in them and want them to reach their full potential. It pains me when one of them does not achieve the intended goal.
LH: Professor Wilks seems to have many amazing qualities, a generosity of spirit and humility. He seems to have possessed the ability to communicate as an equal. Is that a fair assessment?
Professor Alexiei Dingli: The story of Professor Wilks and the difference he made in my life is a testament to the power of opportunity. His generosity and faith in my abilities have influenced not only my path but also the paths of those I have mentored. In this way, his legacy lives on, and his impact on the world of AI continues to be felt. We can extend opportunities to others in numerous ways, whether through mentorship, scholarships, or simply offering support. I’ve seen countless students wanting to give up just before crossing the finish line, but a word of encouragement helps them through. The key is to be mindful of our impact on other people’s lives and seize any chance to make a difference.
LH: You speak about him offering encouragement, and teaching others not to give up. Although he was an icon in artificial intelligence, he found the time to interact and be inclusive, a quality that is rare today. How will you remember him?
Professor Alexiei Dingli: Sometimes, we may not be able to offer much in the way of assistance. However, there are times when we have the power to provide a life-changing opportunity, and we must act in these moments. By opening doors for others and investing in their futures, we contribute to a more inclusive and diverse landscape where everyone has the chance to succeed. So let’s embrace the power of opportunity, enrich lives and inspire others to do the same. Whether through mentorship, scholarships, simple acts of kindness and encouragement or just by sending a smile, let us strive to leave a lasting impact on those around us, ensuring that the legacy of individuals like Professor Yorick Wilks continues to inspire and empower future generations.
AIBC News spoke with AI expert Prof Alexiei Dingli. He is Professor at the University of Malta. With over 20 years of experience in the field, he has helped numerous companies successfully implement AI solutions. His work has been recognized as world-class by international experts, and he has received numerous awards from organizations such as the European Space Agency, the World Intellectual Property Organization, and the United Nations. In addition to his considerable peer-reviewed publications, he has also been a core member of the Malta.AI task force, working to position Malta as a global leader in AI.