History of the School of Informatics

In 1998, the School of Informatics was created through the merger of the Department of Artificial Intelligence, Centre for Cognitive Science, Department of Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence Applications Institute, and Human Communication Research Centre.

It originally formed part of the Faculty of Science and Engineering, but since major university restructuring in 2002, has been part of the College of Science and Engineering.

The School over the years

60 years of computer science and AI research

In 2023, the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh celebrates 60 years of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Computer Science research. We are leading on a programme of events and activities throughout 2023. Throughout the year we will be looking back at our history in hope to determine vital milestones, but we will also be looking into the future and reflect on how we can shape it.

Link to the 60 years of computer science and AI website

The Beginnings

The study of Computer Science in Edinburgh, however, dates back to early 1960s when a Computer Unit was created and Sidney Michaelson was appointed its Director. 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. 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. That’s when the University installed its first mainframe computer, an English Electric Leo KDF9.

From Computer Unit to Cognitive Science

At the same time as the Computer Unit was being established, Donald Michie, Reader in Surgical Science, formed a small research group into AI in a flat at 4 Hope Park Square. The University soon recognised Artificial Intelligence and established the Experimental Programming Unit in January 1965 with Michie as Director, which was then transformed into the Department of Machine Intelligence and Perception in October 1966.

Donald Michie was a member of Max Newman’s code-breaking group at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. While working with Alan Turing, he had been introduced to computing and had come to believe in the possibility of building machines that could think and learn.

Richard Gregory and Christopher Longuet-Higgins were also instrumental in setting up the new department, with Longuet-Higgins taking on a leading role in starting the School of Epistemics, an interdisciplinary group, which brought together people with an interest in the mind. Together with postgraduate and postdoctoral workers he made important early contributions in informatics, neural networks, and language generation by computer. Longuet-Higgins, unsure what to call the sort of research he conducted, coined the term “cognitive science” in a paper in 1973.

AI Achievements

Some of the seminal achievements of AI researchers in Edinburgh throughout the years include:

Freddy the Robot (or FREDERICK: Friendly Robot for Education, Discussion and Entertainment, the Retrieval of Information and the Collation of Knowledge), which was capable of assembling objects automatically from a heap of parts and is now in the National Museum on Chambers Street. Another mention should go to the POP-2 symbolic programming language designed and developed by Robin Popplestone and Rod Burstall. Other outstanding achievements in the 70s and 80s include: the design and development of the Edinburgh Prolog programming language by David Warren, Alan Bundy's demonstrations of the utility of meta-level reasoning to control the search for solutions to maths problems, and Howe's successful development of computer-based learning environments for a range of primary and secondary school subjects, working with both disabled and non-disabled children.

In 1983, Jim Howe also established the Artificial Intelligence Applications Institute (AIAI) to expand applied AI work between academia, industry and government agencies with many successful and award-winning deployments of AI technology over the years.

In 1984, the Department combined forces with the Department of Linguistics and the Centre for Cognitive Science to launch the Centre for Speech Technology Research and by 1989, the University's reputation for research excellence in natural language computation and cognition enabled it to secure funding in collaboration with a number of other to establish the Human Communication Research Centre.

Watch Alan Bundy's RSE talk about the early years of AI in Edinburgh 

Turing Award for Robin Milner

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.

Robin Milner's Turing Award citation

Division of Informatics

In 1997  external reviewers, appointed by the University to report on Informatics at Edinburgh, wrote in their paper:

Even a casual look at the world around us makes clear that we are living in the information age. As scientists come to understand informational phenomena (language, thought, computation, inference, communication and the like), they will enable ever more powerful technological advances. Equally, the technology of computing and communication prompts scientific understanding. Thus the natural science and the building of systems feed each other.

Report on Informatics at Edinburgh, 1997

The case for consolidating different activities around science of information was made and in 1998 a new Division (later changed to School) was formed, bringing together the researchers in Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence, Cognitive Science and others. Soon, the wheels were put in motion to bring them under one roof.

Relocation to the Forum

When the School of Informatics came to existence, it was dispersed over six sites: 80 South Bridge, the Appleton Tower, Buccleuch Place, Forrest Hill, the James Clerk Maxwell Building, and the Darwin 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.

2018 thus marks the 20th anniversary of establishing the School of Informatics in its current shape and the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Informatics Forum.

Over the next year, we will be publishing historical articles and trivia about the School and the Forum. Watch this space!

Further reading

History makers: Informatics

Artificial Intelligence at Edinburgh University: A Perspective

Robin Milner's Obituary

About the Forum

A Short History of the Antecedents of the School of Informatics