The informatics man

February 7, 2003

Mike Fourman is credited with bringing together three of Edinburgh University's departments to work as a single informatics body. He talks to Caroline Davis about the 'science of the 21st century'

Edinburgh University's computer science department is not only bigger than most others in the UK, it is also broader, taking in linguistics, neuroscience and psychology as well as the more traditional computing disciplines. And the three disciplines are now known as informatics: the "study of the structure, behaviour and interactions of natural and artificial computational systems".

Edinburgh's informatics department was born in the 1960s. Its three parents were the departments of computer science, robotics and epistemics, which all worked separately. Their work might have appeared different, but they shared many roots in underlying theory. Independently, the three departments developed an interest in the same fundamental subjects: logic systems, the mathematical foundations of computation and semantics, the study of language (either natural or artificial) and the meaning of words.

By the 1990s, staff changes led the three departments to realise that they had much in common and were all dealing in the same currency: information.

The computer scientists were looking at how machines processed information.

The robotics section, which had expanded into artificial intelligence, game-playing and music perception among other subjects, was looking at how the human brain processed information. And the epistemics department, now a centre for cognitive science, was looking at how natural systems and languages processed information.

In 1996, the three merged and became informatics, a department with three aims: to determine how far theories of information processing in artificial devices could be applied to natural systems; to determine how far principles derived from natural systems were applicable to the development of new kinds of artificial systems; and to explore the ways in which artificial information systems could help to solve problems facing mankind and to improve the quality of life for all living things.

Mike Fourman is credited with having the vision that brought the three departments together. The mathematicians considered Fourman, originally a mathematical logician, to be a philosopher, while the philosophers thought him a mathematician. Having also worked in electronic engineering, he now considers himself to be a computer scientist.

"By 2025, we will have, in our pockets and on our desktops, computers that each have the raw computing power of the human brain, computers linked to each other by pervasive communication networks," Fourman muses. "We have little idea of how we might structure and program such devices to achieve what we find straightforward, but already today's machines extend our capabilities by performing tasks we find impossible. By bringing together the study of computation, cognition and communication, we are providing the scientific foundation for systems that will transform how we work, think and play, and change our understanding of thought itself."

The department scored top marks in the last research assessment exercise, submitting a higher percentage of internationally acclaimed researchers than the 5* departments at Manchester, Cambridge, York and Southampton universities and Imperial College London. With Glasgow University, it jointly hosts the National E-science Centre, which is developing the computing software for managing the data generated in sciences such as genomics, astronomy and particle physics.

Together with IBM and the Daresbury Laboratory, it has won a contract to provide the next-generation HPC-X, the 22 teraflop supercomputer facilities, to Britain's research community. The £65 million supercomputer, due for completion in 2006, will be able to perform 22 million operations a second, making it the most powerful in Europe.

Since the 1960s, informatics research at Edinburgh has parallelled that at Stanford University. The two work closely together under the Stanford Link initiative funded by Scottish Enterprise, which supports research in computational linguistics, organises student exchanges and plans to launch spin-off companies. This is doing wonders for reversing the brain drain: in the past five years, 18 academics have come to the department from abroad, five at professorial level.

The latest addition, database expert Peter Buneman, is a Brit who went to work in the US 26 years ago. The Royal Society approved Buneman for a research merit award, adding him to the list of Britain's "David Beckhams of science".

The next stage for the department is to bring together the constituent parts on one site. The university is launching a fundraising initiative to create an informatics hub at the heart of the university, near Old College.

Fourman says: "Informatics, the science of the 21st century, concerns the storage, processing and communication of information. It will provide new understanding of organisation and process in computational, biological, social and cognitive systems, and may even answer the question, 'What is mind?'"

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