Remembering Heinz Wolff

Chris Yapp remembers the ever excitable and inspirational scientist and raconteur, Professor Heinz Wolff.

Like many people I found Heinz Wolff inspirational, funny and engaging. I’d like to share an anecdote to mark his passing. My thoughts are with his friends, family and colleagues at this sad time.

25 years ago, I accepted an invitation to speak after a lunch in Manchester. It was only after I accepted that I discovered that I was following Heinz Wolff. It is fair to say that he was the hardest act to follow I’ve ever known. Witty and engaging, he delivered some profound messages on science, technology and education to an audience without hectoring or complaining, a rare gift. Plus he was wonderful to chat to over the lunch.

In my talk I gave an example of a prototype of what was called a 3D fax machine; we’d now call it a 3D printer. He immediately saw the potential for replacement parts to tackle the throwaway society.

About three months later, I was at Schiphol Airport waiting to fly back to London. The news came through that at the time we were due to board the flight, the plane had still not yet left London, creating a delay of around three hours. I turned to find the bar and coming towards me was Heinz. He waved, and the conversation went something like this:

‘Chris, I’ve been thinking about your talk and I have a few questions, do you mind?’

‘Of course, that’s flattering, and would help three hours go quicker!’

His interest was in adapting technology for an ageing population. He explained that voice input would be the future of computing and drew a home hub on a notebook. It is very close to what Alexa and others do now. Another example was a watch that could help you navigate to the local railway station and might one day be able to buy your tickets on the way.

He was fizzing with ideas, but would sometimes be very specific:

‘When will voice computing be good enough to deal with accents?’ (His own, perhaps?)

‘When could he install image recognition on a kettle for £30?’

‘Is anyone doing serious research on lip reading?’

The three hours went by very quickly and we had an audience, which I suspect he played to.

Some of the ideas we batted around I used in my talks for years:

Every cow will have its own email address. The FT recently had an article on the connected cow. Every lamppost will be on the internet; the infrastructure for what we would now call smart cities.

I only saw him once more a couple of years later, when he showed me prototypes of some of the ‘crazy’ ideas we had discussed that day.

His ceaseless quest for knowledge appeared to have no bounds in scope or depth. His child-like love of playing with ideas, but also wanting to see them happen to tackle real human and societal needs was wonderful.

I don’t know if he had the chance to play with Alexa or the Apple Watch. For him the future was full of possibilities, many of which have come to fruition, but at the time would have felt like science fiction.

I realise now that I am the age he was when we met. It’s an important reminder that whatever the present feels like, the future is buzzing with possibilities. It requires creative minds and creative problem-solving to deliver those possibilities.

So, may I wish you a Merry Christmas and may 2018 be full of buzzy ideas and crazy creative teams meeting real world needs.

I’ll raise a toast to the memory of Heinz, an inspirational figure. RIP.

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    Dave Cresswell wrote on 2nd Jan 2018

    It was sad to hear that Heinz had passed away as I could have watched him for hours on TV with his excitement and enthusiasm. Thank you for brining some further incite to the way Professor Heinz was.

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About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

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