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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Computer Science: Sidney Michaelson
The study of Computer Science begins at the University of Edinburgh with the formation of the Computer Unit. Sidney Michaelson (1925–1991) is appointed its Director, and in 1967 becomes the first Chair of Computer Science.
Artificial Intelligence: Donald Michie
At the same time as the Computer Unit is being established, Donald Michie, Reader in Surgical Science, forms a small research group at 4 Hope Park Square, which goes on to become the Department of Artificial Intelligence.
The University installs its first mainframe computer, an English Electric Leo KDF9, and establishes the Edinburgh Regional Computing Centre, providing computing access nationally and internationally via a growing network.
Freddy and Freddy II
Two groundbreaking robots, Freddy (1969–1971) and Freddy II (1973–1976), are built in the Department of Machine Intelligence. They are able to assemble wooden models given a jumbled heap of pieces, using vision to identify and locate parts.
World's first artificial intelligence spin-out
The first artificial intelligence spin-out company in the world, Conversational Software Ltd, is established to develop and market the POP-2 symbolic programming language.
Robin Milner joins the University of Edinburgh, where he later co-founds the 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.
Artificial Intelligence Applications Institute
The Artificial Intelligence Applications Institute, a technology transfer organisation, is created. The AIAI promotes the application of artificial intelligence research for the benefit of commercial, industrial and government clients.
Top of new university rankings
The UK’s Universities Funding Council begins assessing research quality. In 1989 the University’s Computing Science unit of assessment gains the highest possible “5” rating, establishing Edinburgh as a leader in the field, a position the School of Informatics continues to hold today.
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, building on research collaborations between the Department of Computer Science and the Department of Physics. Its blend of academic and commercial interests has since played an important role in the development of parallel computing. When founded, EPCC shared many members of staff, and premises, with the Computer Science Department.
The School of Informatics
The School of Informatics is created from the former Department of Artificial Intelligence, the Centre for Cognitive Science and the Department of Computer Science. Since its formation it has consistently been ranked among the world’s biggest and best centres of expertise of its kind.
In June and July 2008, the School’s research moves 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”.
Tom Griffiths (MSc Informatics 2004) and Chris Stafford (MSc Artificial Intelligence 2004) are among the five co-founders of FanDuel, which goes 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.
Two Informatics alumni, Michael Berger (PhD Informatics 2012) and Gregor Hofer (MSc Informatics 2004, PhD Informatics 2009), establish Speech Graphics Ltd. The company rapidly becomes a leader in lip-synced facial animation, produced automatically from audio, for the computer gaming and other sectors.
Two Big Ears
Two Big Ears, which designs 3D sound software for virtual reality and other emerging technologies, is set up 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.
Professor Johanna Moore is appointed Head of the School of Informatics, having joined the School as Chair in Artificial Intelligence in 1998.
Edinburgh Centre for Robotics
The Edinburgh Centre for Robotics is launched. 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 welcomes its first cohort of students to the Centre for Doctoral Training in Robotics and Autonomous Systems.