Highlights in the history of Edinburgh computer science and AI research
In 2023, the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh celebrates 60 years of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence (AI) research. The timeline below highlights selected events and achievements in the rich history of these two vital research areas at Edinburgh. This year we will be looking back at our history in hope to determine other vital milestones, but we will also be looking into the future and reflect on how we can shape it.
The University of Edinburgh traces the origins of its activities in AI to a small research group established in 1963 by Donald Michie. The same year the Computer Unit was created and Sidney Michaelson was appointed its Director.
35 years later, in 1998, different activities around science of information (including computer science, artificial intelligence, cognitive science and others) were brought together and a new Division (later changed to School) of Informatics was formed.
The start of Artificial Intelligence (AI) research at Edinburgh can be traced back to a small research group established at 4 Hope Park Square in 1963 under the leadership of Donald Michie, who was a member of code-breaking group at Bletchley Park and worked with Alan Turing. In 1965 this became the Experimental Programming Unit with Michie as Director. In 1966 the Department of Machine Intelligence and Perception (DMIP) was formed, funded by a large Nuffield grant held by Donald Michie, Christopher Longuet-Higgins and Richard Gregory. The latter two had left Cambridge to come to Edinburgh. Bernard Meltzer set up the Metamathematics Unit in the Faculty of Science in the mid 1960s, and was the founding editor of the Artificial Intelligence Journal in 1970. At this time Edinburgh was one of the few centres in the world working on AI.
Also in 1963, the University created the Computer Unit, and Sidney Michaelson was appointed its Director. In 1966 the Unit was split into the Department of Computer Science (DCS), led by Michaelson, and the Edinburgh Regional Computing Centre. Sidney Michaelson was appointed the first Professor of Computer Science in 1967. 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.
In 1969, Jim Howe, Donald Michie, and Andrew Colin joined forces to found the first ever AI spin-off company, Conversational Software Ltd. It traded successfully for a number of years, developing and marketing AI programming language systems to large software houses, before being taken over by Systems Consultants Ltd.
Also in 1969 Christopher Longuet-Higgins founded the School of Epistemics, an interdisciplinary group which brought together people with an interest in the mind - and which might be considered a 'research spin off' of the work on artificial intelligence. Longuet-Higgins defined epistemics as "the construction of formal models of the processes - perceptual, intellectual, and linguistic - by which knowledge and understanding are achieved and communicated".
However, from the outset these scientific achievements in AI were marred by significant intellectual disagreements about the nature and aims of research in AI and growing disharmony between the founding members of DMIP. Gregory resigned in 1970 to go to Bristol University, and Longuet-Higgins moved to Sussex University in 1974. In 1974 the Department of Artificial Intelligence was formed. Its first head was Meltzer, who stepped down in 1977 and was replaced by Jim Howe who led it until 1996. A separate unit, the Machine Intelligence Research Unit, was set up to accommodate Michie's work.
DCS moved to the James Clerk Maxwell building at the King's Buildings site in 1971. One of the major projects in DCS was the Edinburgh Multi-Access System (EMAS), an early multi-user operating system.
In 1972 the original version of POP-2 was implemented on an Elliott 4130 computer in the University of Edinburgh. POP-2 is a symbolic programming language designed and developed by Robin Popplestone and Rod Burstall.
In 1973 Edinburgh started working on a ground-breaking robot Freddy II (more famous than the original Freddy, or FREDERICK: Friendly Robot for Education, Discussion and Entertainment, the Retrieval of Information and the Collation of Knowledge). 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.
In 1984 the Artificial Intelligence Applications Institute (AIAI) was formed to promote the application of AI research for the benefit of commercial, industrial, and government clients. Austin Tate was appointed Director of AIAI in 1985.
In the early 1980s an "Advanced Personal Machine" was developed for teaching, and 60 were installed by 1985.
In 1985 the School of Epistemics became the Centre for Cognitive Science, a department within the Faculty of Science devoted exclusively to research and postgraduate teaching.
In 1987 the Laboratory for Foundations of Computer Science was formed by Rod Burstall, Robin Milner and Gordon Plotkin to foster research on theoretical computer science.
In 1989 the Human Communication Research Centre (HCRC) was formed, involving the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Durham, with funding from ESRC.
In 1991 the first director of LFCS Robin Milner was awarded the Turing Award, the highest honour of the Association of Computing Machinery; considered the highest honour in Computer Science. The citation mentioned in particular three distinct achievements of major importance to computer science:
LCF, the mechanisation of Scott's Logic of Computable Functions, probably the first theoretically based yet practical tool for machine-assisted proof construction. ML, the first language to contain polymorphic type inference together with a type-safe exception handling mechanism. The type-inference algorithm applied to a full language is a major theoretical advance. CCS, a general theory of concurrency.
The Division of Informatics (later the School of Informatics) was created in 1998 from the Department of Artificial Intelligence, the Centre for Cognitive Science and the Department of Computer Science, along with the Artificial Intelligence Applications Institute and the Human Communication Research Centre. This process was led by Michael Fourman. Robin Milner's vision of a new science of information, broader than computer science, inspired the formation of the School.
When the School of Informatics came to existence, it was dispersed over six sites: 80 South Bridge, Buccleuch Place, Forrest Hill, and the James Clerk Maxwell Building. The 80 South Bridge building, which housed around 25% of the School was destroyed in the Old Town fire of December 2002, also resulting in the loss of a unique collection of literature in a field where Edinburgh University has been widely recognized as a leader since the 1960s. Many researchers also lost personal archives, although more recent research data was largely stored electronically.
Staff and students were temporarily relocated to Appleton Tower.
In June 2008, the Informatics Forum was opened, finally bringing all the School's research activities together under one roof.
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 was the first woman in this position, and was followed by Professor Jane Hillston, Chair in Quantitative Modelling in 2018.
Bayes Centre, adjacent to the Informatics Forum was open in 2018, named after Thomas Bayes whose theorem has been enormously influential in probability theory and statistics, and is considered by many to be that foundation of modern-day machine learning, one of the key methods used in Data Science and Artificial Intelligence.
Following the announcements of REF2021 results the School of Informatics and EPCC are ranked #1 in the UK for research power in Computer Science and Informatics Times Higher Education ranking. The research environment and all impact case studies received top grades (4*, world leading). Overall, 97% of our REF submission is world leading (4*) or internationally excellent (3*). The submission included both the School of Informatics and the EPCC.
This article is based heavily on "A Short History of the Antecedents of the School of Informatics" prepared by Chris Williams