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In the rapidly evolving field of artificial intelligence (AI), the journey from research to public discourse is both challenging and essential. Prof. Mike Wooldridge (Professor of Computer Science, Dept. of Computer Sciences), has navigated this path with distinction, becoming a prominent and trusted voice in the public understanding of AI. This case study chronicles Mike’s journey into public engagement, highlighting his initial motivations, the milestones he has achieved, and the lessons learned along the way.

At a Glance

  • Prof. Mike Wooldridge, from an early AI researcher to a key public figure, navigates the evolving landscape of artificial intelligence (AI) and its societal implications.
  • Prompted by the desperate need for informed voices in the AI debate, his engagement has spanned writing, festivals, media discussions, and contributions to policy.
  • The highlight in his journey was presenting the prestigious Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in December 2023.


Introduction to AI's Public Discourse

Prof. Mike Wooldridge’s (Professor of Computer Science in the Department of Computer Sciences) venture into public engagement began as AI transitioned from a quiet academic backwater to a field of global significance. Reflecting on his career's start, Wooldridge notes, “I started my PhD 35 years ago and for a lot of that time… people didn't take it terribly seriously and progress in AI for most of that time was really rather slow.”

Professor Michael Wooldridge

The Turning Point: Getting Involved

Wooldridge's entry into public engagement wasn't planned but emerged from an urgent need for expert commentary amidst AI's rising prominence and controversy. This need became apparent in 2014, when a major media outlet sought his insight on AI risks—a pivotal moment for him considering entering into public discourse. “I was Head of Department at the time, sat in my department office, and the phone rang… Would I appear on live TV to discuss AI risks? I didn't do it because I just thought they would get somebody better than me to do it” he recalls, highlighting the initial hesitation. “They didn’t”, he adds.

The subsequent realisation came when, as he puts it, “I guess I was kind of looking around thinking `Who's going to be the voice that responds to all of this?’ and just somehow imagining that there would be some organisation who would come out with a measured response and so on. And that didn't happen.”  

Bridging Academic Expertise and Public Curiosity

Wooldridge tackled the challenge of public engagement through various platforms: authoring accessible books on AI (The Ladybird Expert Book on AI and The Road to Conscious Machines), participating in discussions at literary and science festivals, and contributing to multiple government committees and inquiries.

These efforts were bolstered by media training, which prepared him for the spotlight. “Training is useful just so that when somebody points a camera at you for example, you know not to look at the camera and instead to look at the interviewer,” Wooldridge shares, emphasising the growth in confidence this training provided.

Prof. Wooldridge stressed how each experience provided an opportunity to build his confidence and perspective. Reflecting on his experience with a House of Lords inquiry, he shared an enlightening anecdote that captures the initial fear and subsequent understanding of the shared human experience: “The first time I turned up I was terrified. But one of the things I realised is that the people on the opposite side of the table might have very grand titles but don’t know much about the subject… you're worried about saying something stupid for your part, but they're worried about saying something stupid in front of an Oxford professor.”

The Christmas Lecture: The Latest Milestone

A significant milestone in Mike’s journey was being approached in early 2023 to present the iconic Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution.

The Christmas Lectures have a long history, delivered every year (excluding the WWII years) since 1825. They have covered diverse scientific disciplines, and are aimed at a teenage audience. Televised by the BBC since the 1960s, these lectures are a cherished holiday tradition for many households and are watched globally.

Having never done serious television before, this was a daunting experience, “It's the 198th year and I didn't want it to be the year that it went wrong,” he said, underscoring the blend of honour and pressure accompanying this opportunity.

You can watch the Christmas Lectures on iPlayer here (if you're in the UK) and on YouTube here (if you're outside the UK). 

Collaboration and Preparation: Keys to Success

The preparation for the Christmas Lectures underscored the collaborative nature of public engagement, involving a team of demo experts and production staff. Mike highlighted the dynamic process of developing content that is both informative and engaging, explaining that in addition to his own ideas: “The Royal Institution have a demo team who are experienced at doing these. And they had a ton of really good demos that they came up with entirely on their own”.

Mike reminisced, “I remember saying, I'll just be much happier when it's the script is settled and finalised, and everybody laughed and said it literally won't be, we will still be changing it on the day.”

Having worked throughout the remainder of the year to continually refine the outline and scripts, and then basically full time in the preceding two weeks, Prof. Wooldridge added, “no way remotely would I have had time to do it all [on my own]”.

Engaging with the Audience: The Live Experience

Interacting with a live audience, especially young minds, added a unique dimension to Wooldridge's public engagement work. This direct engagement brought unpredictability and instant feedback. “You've relying on a 12-year-old that you’ve never met to make it work. You just literally don't know whether it's actually going to work until the day,” he recounts, reflecting on the challenges and joys of live demonstrations.

Having ignored the showbiz adage, ‘never work with children or animals’, it’s no surprise that Mike’s experience reflects the complexities involved: "it's as close to live as you can get it. And so, it's like a play except with robots and teenagers… and a dog”.

Add in to the mix a small space, multiple guests, props and cameras, and you can start to understand the complexity. The only way this could be managed were multiple rehearsals to work out and fine-tune the choreography of all the constituents. Mike explained, “I did not realise quite how much careful scripting that takes. That went on literally right up to filming.”

Reflecting on the Journey and Looking Ahead

Reflecting on his experience and what he’d gained, Prof. Wooldridge said, “apart from anything else, confidence, I think it's probably quite a big one. I don't feel intimidated by camera, which is good. I think I have a lot more respect for what film crews do and the mechanics of making something like that work”.

He spoke of the feeling of gratification that came from positive feedback received from colleagues, students and strangers. He recalled his pride in getting a 1980s film reference in the lectures, and the fun response that garnered on social media, as well as seeing the instant rapport between a guest and a teenage volunteer: “it was just really glorious. It was a lovely little moment”.

Conclusion: A Call to Action for Researchers

Throughout his public engagement journey, Wooldridge reflected on the critical role of researchers in contributing to public discourse, especially on topics of significant societal impact like AI. He emphasised the importance of dispelling myths, informing public opinion, and addressing misconceptions through accessible and engaging communication. His experience underscores the need for researchers, particularly those funded by public money, to be prepared to engage with the public and government, especially when their field of study becomes a focal point of societal attention, highlighting “it goes with the territory”.

If you’d like to get involved but aren’t sure where to start, Mike recommends:

Seek Opportunities for Engagement: Start by looking for public speaking opportunities, writing for broader audiences, or participating in science festivals. You can start close to home – through departmental school and wider public-facing programmes, or our gardens, libraries and museums. Let your department know you’re interested and keep an eye out for opportunities in newsletters and on social media.

Click here to sign up to the University's expert database

Take Up Media Training: These can be invaluable in preparing you to communicate effectively with non-specialist audiences and handle media interactions with confidence.

Click here to find out more about the ‘Media Interviews: Method and Delivery’ course from IT Services

If you want to learn more about developing interactive science demonstrations, click here to sign up to our ‘hands-on science’ training course.

Contribute to Online Platforms: Engaging with the public doesn't always have to be through formal lectures or media appearances. Contributing articles to popular science websites or creating content for social media can also have a significant impact.

Click here to find out how to write for The Conversation

Click here to find out how to make a video or appear as a guest on a podcast with Oxford Sparks

Partner with Educational and Science Communication Organisations: Organisations like the Royal Institution, science museums, and educational TV channels often look for experts to contribute to their programmes. These partnerships can provide platforms for reaching wider audiences. Chief amongst these, if you’re particularly keen to contribute to wider public discourse through news media, is to work with the Science Media Centre. Mike explained, “the Science Media Centre are always looking for people to comment on news stories and the way that works is that they will get a news story or get advance notice of a news story and ask for comments on it”.

Start Small: Even small-scale engagements, such as guest lectures at local schools or community groups, can be a great way to start, and are a great way for you to gain experience and hone your communication skills.


This case study was drafted with the assistance of AI: the interview transcript was generated with AI. ChatGPT was used to generate text according to human directed key points. The final text was edited for content and clarity by Michaela Livingstone-Banks.