We are celebrating 60 years of computer science and AI research

[26/01/2023] During 2023, the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh celebrates 60 years of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Computer Science research, highlighting the heritage of this extraordinary place as one of the leading centres for advanced technology research. A programme of events in 2023 will mark achievements over the past six decades, and look to the future of AI and computer science at Edinburgh.

Two hands: a robotic one and a human one, holding two fitting puzzles - blue and red.

Looking back

The opening event, “Informatics: 60 Years of History” gave us the opportunity to look into early research activities that led to the formation of the Division of Informatics in 1998. Professors Alan Bundy, Don Sannella and Mike Fourman recalled the beginnings of research interests in computer science and AI, challenges and achievements, as well as people who led the way. Professor Bundy observed that in the 60s there were only four research groups in AI in the world: MIT, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and at the University of Edinburgh. Professor Sannella in turn recalled that when the Computer Unit was established in 1963, it ran University's computing service through overnight batch access to the Atlas computer at Manchester University. Allowance was 15 minutes per day. The First University of Edinburgh computer, PDP-8, arrived in 1965. We went a long way since then.

The recording of all the talks, as well as short presentations by a panel of invited guests, are now available online.


Beginnings and history

The University of Edinburgh traces the origins of its research around AI to a small group established in 1963, led by Donald Michie, who was a member of the code-breaking group at Bletchley Park and worked with Alan Turing. The same year the Computer Unit was created, and Sidney Michaelson was appointed its Director.

During the first AI winter (1974-84) Edinburgh was one of three UK universities that continued to carry out AI research and it gave us a unique perspective on AI research as a distinctive discipline rather than a sub-discipline of computer science.

In 1998, the university consolidated activities around the science of information in the new Division of Informatics. This later became today’s School of Informatics dedicated to the study of the transformation of information which encompasses Artificial Intelligence, Computer Science and Cognitive Science.

Edinburgh has a proud history of being at the forefront of research and education in both computer science and artificial intelligence.  The 60 year anniversary is a perfect opportunity for us to reflect on the many research achievements that have originated in Edinburgh over this period, as well as the many, many students we have graduated.  CS and AI from Edinburgh have had significant impact in the world through both our graduates and our research, and continue to do so.  The anniversary also encourages us to look forward and contemplate the future, for Edinburgh and for the disciplines more broadly.  In the last decade, digital technology has progressed to pervade all aspects of our lives --- research and training in CS and AI are of increasing importance.  Thus we have much to celebrate, but also much to do!

Professor Jane Hillston, FRS FRSE
Head of School of Informatics

Present and future

The University of Edinburgh keeps going strong in the two disciplines that we started studying here in the sixties. We are consistently ranked in the top 30 universities in the world in QS and THES rankings by subject for Computer Science. Currently, we are 23rd and 24th respectively.

Our research in computer science and informatics currently ranks top in the UK for quality and breadth (power), in both Times Higher Education and Research Professional rankings based on the results of the Research Excellence Framework 2021. As evidenced by our impact case studies, our research has a global reach: it underpins some of the technology in billions of processors and smartphones produced every year, and thanks to our scientists millions of gamers enjoy state-of-the-art animation features. Giants such as GitHub, Uber, Facebook, Microsoft and Lingo24, adopt or use ideas first developed in the School of Informatics and EPCC, the Supercomputing and Data Science Centre at the University of Edinburgh. Applications of our research extend to COVID-19 vaccine development, the prediction of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic activity, delivery of public and economic services in a number of countries across the world and – interestingly - improving the provision of subtitles on BBC and Channel 4. 

Currently, Edinburgh continues to shape the future of AI through its new Laboratory for Integrated Artificial Intelligence (ELIAI) - an interdisciplinary research hub that integrates expertise in different strands of AI within the School of Informatics, led by Professors Mirella Lapata and Chris Williams.

At the same time, the recent establishment of the Quantum Software Lab and the appointment of Professor Elham Kashefi as the National Quantum Computing Centre Chief Scientist are examples of Edinburgh leading the way in computer science.

Our taught and research programmes receive thousands of applications each year, with only the best students globally securing their place. Currently, the School of Informatics has a cohort of 2,000 taught and research students. Our graduates are highly sought-after by employers: most industries rely highly on computer systems, from media to entertainment and medicine.


2023 is all about celebrating and we will celebrate these two vital areas of research that are at the core of its existence by leading on a programme of events and activities throughout 2023. The programme of events will be building up throughout a year and we will be regularly adding them to the 60 years of computer science and AI website. If you’d like to get involved, or have an activity that fits in with the rest of the programme, contact the organisers using the link below.

Related links

60 years of computer science and AI website

Contact the organisers