A David Hawkins is attempting to prove that the transatlantic ''brain drain'' in computing skills can be put into reverse gear. Mr. Hawkins, a graduate in mechanical sciences at Cambridge University, has just started his second enterprise in artificial intelligence in a little over two years. Artificial intelligence is the science of making computers that behave like people.
The computer entrepreneur left his native England 17 years ago to work for Schlumberger, the multinational oil-services company. Eventually he wound up as head of a project on advanced computing techniques at Schlumberger's research center in Connecticut.
But Mr. Hawkins is keen to show that Britain can make a name for itself in artificial intelligence. His original decision to return in September 1981 ran counter to the current trend in which leading United States electronics and computer companies are enticing many young British programming experts with the offer of high salaries.
Back in 1981, Hawkins telephoned Sir Ernest Harrison, boss of Racal, one of Britain's top electronics companies. Hawkins persuaded Harrison to set up a division of the company to specialize in artificial intelligence, with Hawkins as the head.
For two years Hawkins, with a team of nine, worked away on special computer programs for the oil industry. With these programs, called expert systems, non-oil specialists can interrogate computers crammed full of survey information - in this case data about geological structures or soil characteristics. With the help of the systems, the nonspecialists attempt to determine the most likely place for oil deposits.
Events didn't quite work out the way Hawkins expected. Racal decided it did not want to sell these systems. Instead it has regrouped the staff in the artificial intelligence division into other parts of the company.
That didn't satisfy Hawkins, who has left to begin afresh, starting a new company, Oilfield Expert Systems. This is partly owned by scientific computers of Burgess Hill, Sussex, a U.K. company that distributes computers made by Symbolics of Boston, the Maches used by Hawkins in his artificial intelligence programs.
''I left Racal amicably,'' says Hawkins. ''We both decided to concentrate on the areas that we knew best.''
Hawkins is adamant that the skills exist in Britain for the country to become second to none in computer expertise. ''I love the country - that's why I wanted to return. There's an enormous amount of talent in this area of work.''
Hawkins plans to build up a team gradually, supplemented by the work force of scientific computers. The company's main product will be the system that Hawkins was working on at Racal. This is called IKBM - Integrated Knowledge Based Modelling.
Managers in oil companies will add data to adapt the software to their own requirements. Hawkins hopes to sell over the next two years between three and five packages of software to the world's top oil companies.