God in the Life Of Nigel Crook

PROFESSOR Nigel Crook tells Jo Duckles how his life and career evolved from exploring a strong calling to a vocation as a Carmelite monk to working in robotics and artificial intelligence.

Nigel was born in Bolton, Lancashire, and grew up in a practising Roman Catholic family. “I don’t feel I had a moment of conversion but my faith has developed in stages,” he says. The interest in a monastic life began when monks visited his school when he was 14. “I felt they had something about them that I wanted. For the next six years, I was intent on joining a Carmelite monastery.”

Professor Nigel Crook with Eddie. Photo: Jo Duckles

Despite wanting to leave school at 16, Nigel was persuaded to do A levels and went on to Lancaster University. He studied Computing and Philosophy, a course that unbeknown to him, would prepare him well for his future career. There he met his first wife, choosing an alternative path from the monastic life. In 1985 he moved to what was then Oxford Polytechnic to embark on a PhD in expert systems. That saw him researching systems for the Special Care Baby Unit at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital.

Meanwhile, Nigel’s faith had started to move away from Catholicism. At university, he began worshipping at a United Reformed Church. “I found it interesting. It opened my mind a bit as I was probably strongly influenced by Catholic doctrine. I had my first experience of a charismatic church, St Thomas’s, in Lancaster too. They were singing in tongues and dancing in the aisles and I found that quite difficult to handle.” Nigel became a lecturer in knowledge engineering, which is strongly AI focused.

Around this time, Nigel went through a painful stage in his life, which led to the end of his first marriage. He re-married in 2004 to Denise and began to reflect on his life and his faith.

He has twice explored a vocation to the priesthood, once after a strong sense at Spring Harvest, that he was called to “make disciples”. Nigel also explored joining the Church Army but with five children spread across two sets of parents, the prospect of moving to a random part of the country would have made life even more complicated.
By then Nigel had changed churches, worshipping for some time at St Aldate’s before moving to Emmanuel Church, Bicester. Exploring a vocation to ordained ministry for the second time, he embarked on a Diploma in Biblical and Theological Studies at Wycliffe Theological College in Oxford.

Handing in his notice at the university, Nigel began to explore Christian apologetics, working with leaders from the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. They suggested he would be best doing apologetics in a university context, which was tricky given he had just quit a university job.

However, he did secure a position working for the Oxford Computational Linguistics Group and saw links between AI and apologetics. “AI raises questions about who we are. Are we just biological machines or are we more than that?”

The postdoc position saw Nigel working on a project entitled Companions with 15 European partners. It saw the development of a 3D animated avatar named Samuela, which is programmed to have a sympathetic social conversation with a human about their day at work. “What Samuela is trying to do is analyse your emotional state through voice patterns,” says Nigel.

“This took me into a new realm of AI interacting with ordinary people and that really grabbed me as a way forward in my research. Then I was motivated to develop my career in AI and use that as a basis for Christian apologetics.”

Becoming head of the Computing and Communications Technology department at Brookes, Nigel introduced a new cognitive robotics laboratory. The now-famous RoboThespian, Artie, (made by Engineered Arts) resides there. Artie has been in the newspapers, on the television and was featured on the front of the September edition of the Door, meeting the Rt Revd Steven Croft, the Bishop of Oxford. Artie can act out scenes from movies and interact with humans. However, when he first arrived he distracted the PhD students and has now been moved to another building.

Another interactive but spookier robot is Eddie, a skull on a box, with eight artificial pneumatic muscles that allow it to simulate the movement of a real human head. It can be connected to IBM Watson software and answer questions through a microphone.

Nigel’s work includes looking at psychological theories, including the one of mirroring, where someone may ‘mirror’ another person’s body language to connect with them.

“We researched this and found people thought a robot was more human and lifelike if it mimicked them,” says Nigel.

At the same time, Nigel was feeling that what was being preached in churches wasn’t helping him to grow spiritually. So, after some research, he discovered the American philosopher Dallas Willard, and found his work more helpful. From this Nigel has developed a discipleship course that he runs alongside Alpha, for anyone wanting to explore more about following Jesus, at Emmanuel Church, Bicester. Willard’s philosophy looks at concentric circles, with inner circles of the spirit and heart and the mind, and then the body, social context and the soul. Nigel looks at what can be simulated using AI and robotics.

More recently, Nigel has become interested in the moral consequences of AI. “Can we develop systems that are capable of recognising the moral consequences of their own actions?” His work has seen him supervise an MSc thesis into autonomous vehicles, and he is planning to get involved in the Oxford Character Project, helping students to develop virtues and wisdom to help them in their careers.

And what does Nigel think of the dystopian theories of robots taking over the world, or at least, taking much-needed work away from humans? “We may get job displacement, and that’s something we would have to get used to. I don’t believe robots will take over the world. There is the related question of what happens when AI becomes more intelligent than human beings. The problem with that question is that it tends to overestimate what AI can achieve and underestimate how intelligent people really are. It’s a bit like worrying about overcrowding on Mars.

“We aren’t on the planet yet and if it ever does come, it will be a long way into the future. We may need to be mindful of the ethical implications and to adapt as a society. It may be that jobs done by humans are being done by robots, but we also need to ask whether, if a job can be done by a robot, is it ethical to expect a human to do it? Should we treat humans like machines?”

Nigel lives in Caversfield with his wife Denise. He worships at Emmanuel Bicester. He has five children aged from seven to 26. In his spare time, he plays bass in the church music group, is learning jazz piano and enjoys DIY.