History makers: Informatics
For more than half a century, Edinburgh has been home to leading lights in the field now known as informatics.
The University of Edinburgh defines informatics as “the study of the structure, the behaviour and the interactions of natural and engineered computational systems”. Edinburgh has been at the forefront of that field of study for more than five decades, having set the pace in areas such as computer science and artificial intelligence from the beginning.
Today the School of Informatics, united under a single identity since 1998, continues to be a global leader, as the biggest research and teaching establishment of its kind in the UK, and widely regarded as being among the foremost centres of expertise in the world.
In our interactive timeline, we mark out a selection of the many historic people, creations and events that have helped establish Edinburgh’s reputation. We hope some of our milestones trigger fond memories, but we also hope you will suggest additions to our timeline, to create an ever-growing record of Informatics at Edinburgh, built with the help of alumni who witnessed history being made first hand.
Help us build our timeline
We’d love to receive contributions to add to History Makers: Informatics. Tell us about the part you played in the School’s history, or about a person, creation or event that deserves a place. Please use the comments box below, and we will add your recollections to the timeline where appropriate. Please also email us any photographs to be included in the timeline entries.
Computer Science: Sidney Michaelson
The study of Computer Science began at the University of Edinburgh in 1963 with the formation of the Computer Unit. Sidney Michaelson (1925–1991) was appointed its Director, and in 1967 he became the first Chair of Computer Science.
Initially, the Unit had no computing equipment of its own, and Professor Michaelson had to develop a service based on the use of a phone line to the Atlas computer in Manchester.
Nonetheless, the Unit attracted research students from 1963, launched a postgraduate diploma in 1964, and introduced undergraduate classes in 1965.
In 1966, the Unit was split into the Department of Computer Science, led by Professor Michaelson, and the Edinburgh Regional Computing Centre, led by Dr Gordon “Tommy” Thomas.
Professor Michaelson initiated a groundbreaking research project to develop a multi-user operating system, which emerged in the early 1970s as the Edinburgh Multi-Access System (EMAS), on which the University’s main computing services were based for the next two decades.
He remained Professor of Computer Science until his death in 1991, and was remembered as a lively character and generous teacher.
Artificial Intelligence: Donald Michie
At the same time as the Computer Unit was being established, Donald Michie, Reader in Surgical Science, formed a small research group at 4 Hope Park Square, which went on to become the Department of Artificial Intelligence.
During the Second World War, through his membership of Max Newman’s code-breaking group at Bletchley Park, and while working with Alan Turing, Professor Michie had been introduced to computing and had come to believe in the possibility of building machines that could think and learn.
Professor Michie went on to establish the Department of Machine Intelligence and Perception in 1966, and worked at Edinburgh until 1985, later returning as Emeritus Professor of Machine Intelligence.
In 1968 Professor Michie made the following prediction about computers: “Along with question-answering services, which will allow us to inquire about the restaurants in our locality or politics in Paraguay, will come the games opponent, the puzzle setter and the quiz master.”
Professor Michie was a founding Fellow of the American Association of Artificial Intelligence. His awards included the 1995 Achievement Medal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers for contributions to computing and control, and the 1996 Feigenbaum Medal of the World Congress on Expert Systems for his development of machine learning. In 2001 he received the IJCAI Award for Research Excellence.
He devoted the latter years of his life to the UK charity The Human Computer Learning Foundation.
The University installed its first mainframe computer, an English Electric Leo KDF9, in 1966, and established the Edinburgh Regional Computing Centre (ERCC), providing access to computing facilities nationally and internationally via a growing network. ERCC was led by Dr Gordon “Tommy” Thomas.
The establishment of the ERCC immediately followed the government’s “Flowers Report”, which recommended that every university should have a computer laboratory and that Regional Centres should be established in London, Manchester and Edinburgh to provide computing services for other universities and research establishments. The Flowers Report recommended that Edinburgh should take a leading role in the development of conversational systems – where a user interacts directly with the computer – as a matter of national importance.
Processing on the KDF9 was done in “batches”. Individual computer commands were written as a series of holes punched in 80-column cards or reels of paper tape, which were fed into the computer, with results emerging from a line printer.
The KDF9 was installed as a temporary measure in Buccluech Place Lane, before the arrival of an English Electric 4/75 computer in September 1968, which enabled the development of the pioneering Edinburgh Multi-Access System (EMAS).
Freddy and Freddy II
Freddy (1969–1971) and Freddy II (1973–1976) were ground-breaking robots built in the Department of Machine Intelligence. They were able to assemble wooden models given a jumbled heap of pieces, using vision to identify and locate parts.
The best-known of the robots, Freddy II, was a heavy mechanical arm fixed to an overhead gantry with a large pincer-like “hand” that could move up and down and rotate about two axes. Two cameras – binocular vision – were also mounted on the gantry, enabling Freddy II to look at objects on a table, which itself could also be moved in two directions.
Given randomly arranged parts of a wooden car and boat, Freddy II could recognise and pick out the right parts of one particular model and assemble them. The process took 16 hours, because of the limited computational power available for movement control – a Honeywell H316 with 4k of memory controlled the robot motors and cameras.
Even today, this would be ambitious robotics. In 1973, the researchers had to design and build the robot, the programming system and the vision system from scratch. It was such an achievement that some peers had to see it at work to believe it was possible.
World's first artificial intelligence spin-out
Donald Michie and his colleague Jim Howe established a small company, called Conversational Software Ltd (CSL), to develop and market the POP-2 symbolic programming language. It is thought to have been the first artificial intelligence (AI) spin-out company in the world.
In symbolic programming, the program can manipulate its own formulas and program components, as if they were plain data, meaning complex processes can be developed that combine multiple units of logic. Such programs can effectively modify themselves and appear to “learn”.
The POP-2 symbolic programming language, which supported much subsequent UK research and teaching in AI, was designed and developed by Robin Popplestone and Rod Burstall. It ran on the University’s multi-access interactive computing system, only the second of its kind to be opened in the UK.
CSL’s POP-2 systems supported work in UK industry and academia for more than a decade, long after the company ceased to trade.
Robin Milner joined the University of Edinburgh in 1973, and he later co-founded the pioneering Laboratory for Foundations of Computer Science. His vision of a new science of information, broader than computer science, inspired the formation of the School of Informatics, and he chaired the international committee that recommended the School’s foundation.
During his time at Edinburgh, Professor Milner developed ML, a general-purpose functional programming language that is still used in various forms and has influenced the development of numerous other computer languages.
Unreliable software was a major issue in early computing, and ML helped programmers to verify, with mathematical rigour, that their programs were correct.
Later, ML was redefined as Standard ML, for which Professor Milner won the 1987 Technical Award from the British Computer Society.
During the 1970s, computing evolved from sequential machines, executing one program at a time, to concurrent systems, enabling several programs to be executed simultaneously. In 1980 Professor Milner published a mathematical method for understanding concurrent systems, called the Calculus for Communicating Systems (CCS).
ML and CCS were cited in Professor Milner’s 1991 ACM Turing Award, computer science’s highest honour.
Before Professor Milner left Edinburgh in 1998 to take the Chair of Computer Science at the University of Cambridge, he donated a sum of money to fund an annual lecture in Computer Science. Edinburgh’s annual Milner Lectures continue today.
Artificial Intelligence Applications Institute
The Artificial Intelligence Applications Institute, a technology transfer organisation, was created in 1983 and continues its work to this day. The AIAI promotes the application of artificial intelligence research for the benefit of commercial, industrial and government clients.
As commercial interest in information technology in the early 1980s exploded, the Department of Artificial Intelligence was bombarded by requests from UK companies for various kinds of technical help.
The most effective way of providing this was to set up a separate non-profit organisation to support applications-oriented research and development. Professor Jim Howe, Head of Department, launched the Artificial Intelligence Applications Institute in 1983 to help clients acquire skills in the construction and application of knowledge based systems technology, enabling them to support their own product or service developments and so gain a competitive edge.
AIAI was in some ways an experiment in developing ways of transferring leading edge AI methods and techniques to companies, both in the UK and overseas. It broke even from the start, with an initial turnover close to £1m a year, and it quickly achieved a reputation as a world centre of excellence for applied AI, with about half its income coming from overseas, including major clients in the US and Japan.
Today AIAI is part of the Centre for Intelligent Systems and their Applications within the School of Informatics. AIAI’s international clients and collaborators have included major corporations, government agencies and other academic institutions. It is led by Professor Austin Tate.
Top of new university rankings
The UK’s Universities Funding Council began assessing research quality in 1989, and the University’s Computing Science unit of assessment gained the highest possible “5” rating, establishing itself as a leader in the field.
The School of Informatics and its predecessors have consistently been at the top of the UK rankings in the various assessment systems that have followed the 1989 assessment. Highlights include achieving the UK’s only 5*A score for computer science research in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise.
In the latest Research Excellence Framework (REF), Edinburgh produced more world-leading and internationally excellent research (4* and 3*) than any other university in the UK in computer science and informatics. For REF 2014, the School of Informatics submitted more staff than any other equivalent school or department. With a submission of 94.85 FTE staff, Edinburgh was more than 20 staff larger than its nearest competitor (Oxford, with 73.40 FTE staff).
Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre
Contributed by William Hern (BSc Computer Science 1992 and EPCC summer student 1991)
The Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre (EPCC) was founded in 1990, with a mission statement that remains unchanged today: “To accelerate the effective exploitation of novel computing throughout industry, academia and commerce.”
EPCC grew out of research collaborations between physicists and computer scientists. For many years it was a self-funded institute unattached to any of the University’s schools. From 2002 it has been formally part of the School of Physics & Astronomy, though it retains strong links with the School of Informatics.
Its blend of academic and commercial interests has played an important role in the development of parallel computing.
In 1991 EPCC acquired a CM-200 machine, the fastest, highest-profile computer in the UK, and in 1994 it became host to a 256-processor Cray T3D, at the time Europe’s fastest supercomputer. EPCC has continued to host globally leading computing services: today it hosts the £43 million ARCHER (Advanced Research Computing High End Resource) national supercomputing service.
EPCC has worked on industrial projects covering just about every imaginable type of business – from local SMEs to blue-chip multinationals – and many different technologies. It has also carried out industrial technology transfer projects with well over 400 companies since 1991.
The School of Informatics
The School of Informatics was created from the former Department of Artificial Intelligence, the Centre for Cognitive Science and the Department of Computer Science.
In 1998 the School was housed across various sites, including 80 South Bridge, home of its renowned Artificial Intelligence Library, which was destroyed in the Cowgate fire of December 2002. In 2008 the School’s research moved into its new home, the award-winning Informatics Forum, while teaching continued at Appleton Tower.
Today the School is home to seven research institutes, and nearly 1,000 students split roughly evenly between undergraduate and postgraduate.
It is also home to three Centres for Doctoral Training: Data Science, Pervasive Parallelism and, run in partnerships with Heriot-Watt University, Robotics and Autonomous Systems.
In June and July 2008, the School’s research moved into its new home, the Informatics Forum. With a brief to provide a “forum for interaction”, the building was designed by architect Bennetts Associates and Reiach & Hall and engineering firm Buro Happold. It has won multiple prizes, including the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors’ Scotland Project of the Year Award and the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland Andrew Doolan Prize “Best Building in Scotland”.
In the video above, made in September 2008, the then Head of School, Professor Michael Fourman, gives a tour of the newly opened buildling.
Tom Griffiths (MSc Informatics 2004) and Chris Stafford (MSc Artificial Intelligence 2004) are among the five co-founders of FanDuel, which went on to become the world’s biggest daily fantasy sports service. Today FanDuel is a “unicorn” company – a rare breed of tech start-ups valued at more than $1bn.
FanDuel was founded with the help of LAUNCH.ed, the University’s commercialisation service for student and graduate entrepreneurs. It has grown from five founders to a staff of more than 150, based in Quartermile, Edinburgh, and New York City. Many of the company’s talented developers have been recruited from the School of Informatics.
FanDuel players build fantasy teams across a range of US sports leagues and win cash prizes if their teams do well that week or that day. Winnings currently amount to $10 million a week. The company takes a small percentage of users’ entry fees – revenue is expected to top $100 million in 2015.
Over five funding rounds the company has raised a total of $363 million from investors. It has more than 1 million paying users.
Two Informatics alumni, Michael Berger (PhD Informatics 2012) and Gregor Hofer (MSc Informatics 2004, PhD Informatics 2009), established Speech Graphics Ltd in 2010. The company is today a leader in lip-synced facial animation, produced automatically from audio, for the computer gaming and other sectors.
Speech Graphics’ founders worked with LAUNCH.ed, the University’s support service for start-ups, which helped them to established their company and win a Smart:Scotland award to finance a commercial feasibility study.
In July 2015 Speech Graphics won the Creative Outsourcer – Visual Development prize at the Develop Industry Excellence Awards, for its work on the Warner Brothers game 'Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor'.
It has previously won the John Logie Baird Award for innovation, an LT-Innovate Award, and a Santander Entrepreneurial Award.
Two Big Ears
Two Big Ears, which designs 3D sound software for virtual reality and other emerging technologies, was set up in 2013 by Varun Nair (MSc Sound Design 2012) and Abesh Thakur (MSc Acoustic and Music Technology 2012), with support from the Edinburgh Technology Transfer Centre and the School of Informatics.
The two founders worked with LAUNCH.ed and went on to win a Smart:Scotland award from Scottish Enterprise and a Royal Society of Edinburgh Enterprise Fellowship.
Two Big Ears worked with singer-songwriter Bjork on the launch of 'Stonemilker', the first track of her 2015 album 'Vulnicura', in 360-degree virtual reality, powered by Two Big Ears’ 3Dception technology. 3Dception is also used in the recently released interactive video 'Battle for the Avengers Tower', launched for Samsung Galaxy S6 and Gear VR Headset.
Professor Johanna Moore became Head of the School of Informatics in August 2014, having joined the School as Chair in Artificial Intelligence in 1998.
She is the fourth Head of School since its creation in 1998, following Professor Alan Bundy (1998-2001), Professor Michael Fourman (2001-2009) and Professor Dave Robertson (2009-2014).
As well as Head of School, Professor Moore is Director of the Human Communication Research Centre. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the British Computer Society, and was President of the Association for Computer Linguistics in 2004.
Professor Moore’s main research interests are in computational linguistics, intelligent systems for education, personalised information presentation, multi-modal interaction, user modelling and knowledge representation.
Edinburgh Centre for Robotics
The Edinburgh Centre for Robotics was officially launched in September 2014. The Centre, a collaboration with Heriot-Watt University, brings together dozens of researchers and industrial partners, with the aim to develop robots that meet real-world commercial and societal needs. The Centre also welcomed its first cohort of students to the Centre for Doctoral Training in Robotics and Autonomous Systems.
The Centre hosts the Robotarium, a national facility for academic and industrial research into robotics, funded by £7.2 million from the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council. Overall the Centre was launched with £13.2 million from the EPSRC and £9 million from almost 30 industry supporters.
The Centre “aims to help the country realise its industrial potential by producing a new generation of highly skilled researchers”, says Director Professor Sethu Vijayakumar.