Daniel Winterstein - The intelligence may be artificial, but the excitement is genuine

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LAST week, Alex Salmond officially opened the new Edinburgh Informatics Forum, a world-leading centre at Edinburgh University for research in Artificial Intelligence (AI), computer science, cognitive science, and linguistics.

The old university AI department was abandoned five years ago. On the evening of 7 December 2002, Professor Mike Fourman, head of Edinburgh University's department of artificial intelligence, sent an e-mail to staff and students. He asked anyone in the building to leave immediately, as he had just been informed that it was on fire.

The fire started in the nightclub below, and quickly spread through the vaults under South Bridge into the AI building.

Fire-fighting proved difficult in the confined spaces of the Old Town. Although no-one was hurt, the flames consumed most of a block and the site is still derelict today.

But for the AI department, the fire may turn out to have been a blessing in disguise. Prof Fourman used it as an opportunity to put in place an ambitious scheme. He would build a new facility bringing together AI, computer science, cognitive science and linguistics, departments already unified on paper as the "school of informatics", but scattered across Edinburgh. The new building would resolve that, and encourage collaboration between disciplines.

At the opening, Mr Salmond said the new facility would "advance Scotland and Edinburgh University's position as a world leader in the new science of informatics". The facility, he said "will act as a hub for the academic, commercial and civil development of a range of informatics disciplines ranging from e-science and medicine to business and humanities."

Although situated in Edinburgh's Old Town, the Informatics Forum is a very modern building. A four-storey central atrium provides a sense of space and light. As well as computing and robot labs, there are spaces for informal discussions, including a roof garden lined with pampas grass. It cost 42 million and provides facilities for more than 500 researchers.

One such facility is HECToR, the UK's most powerful computer, which is the size of two tennis courts. Costing more than 100 million, it is housed in a secret underground facility to prevent sabotage and has the processing power of 12,000 normal PCs.

At the other end of the scale is the "speck" project. A "speck" is a self-contained miniature computer, complete with batteries, wireless networking, and sensors for detecting motion. Currently the specks are the size of a matchbox, though they may become as small as a 1 coin in the next few years.

By attaching a handful to a person's limbs, a nearby computer can calculate the wearer's body position. Researchers strapped some on to Mr Salmond, allowing him to control a robot body-double.

Besides giant computers and small robots, the new facility houses a diverse range of research projects. These include projects on language acquisition in children (linguistics), bluffing in poker (psychology), modelling sections of the human brain (biology), and, of course, computing. The combination is initially surprising – at first sight a linguist, a biologist and a computer scientist have little in common.

The unifying thread is the study of information – which is what the word "informatics" means. The patterns and structures of information are at the heart of all informatics projects. Similar patterns recur in seemingly unrelated subjects.

Recognising this allows insights from logic to be used in biology, and vice-versa. Computers are both a key tool in Informatics, and a subject for study in their own right.

The Informatics Forum thus embodies the old Enlightenment ideal of rational investigation into all areas of life, but with modern scientific tools.

It will bring together researchers too often isolated in separate worlds, and this should foster new innovations and science. It is appropriate that Edinburgh, home of David Hume, the father of the Enlightenment, should be leading the way.

Edinburgh University is the UK's top IT research centre, and among the best in the world. The Informatics Forum was financed by the Scottish Government, Scottish Enterprise, the Wolfson Foundation and university alumni.

&#149 Dr Winterstein is a commercial AI consultant with links to the university.