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In memory of Ross Anderson

Ross Anderson, professor of Security Engineering at the University of Cambridge and University of Edinburgh, my mentor, colleague, and friend, passed away recently. Ross was my thesis advisor during my PhD at Cambridge, and the debt I owe him for his mentorship and guidance is incalculable.

During the pandemic, he was one of the first people I learned how to "socially distance" with as we met for the occasional walk and chat. He was also one of the first people to invite me to his home when pandemic guidance changed to allow for such visits. I wasn't his research student at that point, but we'd kept in touch. Whenever a Signal-chat evolves into a longer discussion and Ross suggested "how about a coffee or walk then?" (usually after working hours or on weekends) I'd always accept of course, even if sometimes it meant I'd drop whatever I was doing, get on my bike, and cycle to wherever in Cambridge we'd decided to meet up. An opportunity to chat with Ross was invaluable, and it didn't matter if the topics were technical or not; Ross would undoubtedly distill some wisdom.

We travelled together to Kenya in 2016 for our financial inclusion project. He said after that trip, that essentially I'd put more work into my thesis than virtually most people. But then Ross is the kind of leader who would say--in another much earlier discussion about academic work and generating papers where I wasn't the main audience--"it doesn't matter how much input you put in, what matters is the output". The latter wisdom has far more practical applications than the former (rare) remark.

Daniel Kahneman recently passed away as well; another legend was lost. It's not the proximity of the dates of their passing that is the only connection here: Ross was one of the few computer scientists to essentially make Kahneman et al.'s work, as well as many disciplines of economics and game theory, part of the core curriculum and teachings. In fact, Anderson et al. pioneered the domain of Security Economics. To me--and I am biased--this domain has far greater implications than behavioural economics alone, and I believe that Anderson et al. deserve the same recognition for their groundbreaking work. One could say "Ross Anderson is the Daniel Kahneman of computer science", and Ross may have liked that, yet I think it doesn't do justice to how great this intellectual giant was.

Ross was not just applying behavioural economics to computer science. He knew computer science, psychology, philosophy, business management, economics, maths, physics, politics, vast knowledge about multiple diverse cultures, and he played at least one musical instrument. Ross is the only polymath I know in modern times: most other thinkers are specialised in their domains and know perhaps one or two other domains. Ross essentially knew it all and could draw on, and synthesise, multiple domains. He still represents what a true scholar, academic, intellectual, and genius really is. Bruce Schneier wrote in the foreword of Ross's Security Engineering book, more than twenty years ago, something along the lines of "Ross can think like an alien, and can explain that thinking to humans". That stemmed directly from Ross's vast knowledge as a polymath, resulting in an extraordinary human being respected by many.

Furthermore--and perhaps more importantly for his status as a legend--his humble nature, approachability, and accessibility were extraordinary given his career. Ross would always make anyone feel involved and welcomed. If anyone's interested in learning how to make STEM more inclusive, you must learn from Ross's example and life. His emotional intelligence was extraordinary. He was a master of "know your audience" when the audience already knows him. Not many who reach his status, or have his career path, would show such characteristics. Since I began working with him, I have always aspired to be a Ross Anderson.

I've lost a mentor and a dear friend. Ross -- I will miss you my friend ... you left us too early.

Khaled Baqer
March 2024
Cambridge, England