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Bernard Meltzer, pioneer in Artificial Intelligence, died on 4th of July 2008, aged 92

Bernard MeltzerBorn in South Africa, he was educated at the South African College High School, took a first degree at the University of Cape Town in 1934 and a doctorate in Mathematical Physics at the University of London in 1953. After a spell as demonstrator in physics at Cape Town, he emigrated to Britain. Prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, he undertook ionospheric research in Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company, transferring to the Government’s Telecommunications Research Establishment after the outbreak of hostilities to carry out research on radar. In 1941, he enlisted in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, leaving in 1943 to go to Aberdeen University to run a special degree course for radio officers under the wartime Hankey Scheme. After the war was over, he returned to industrial research, first until 1949 in Mullard’s Radio Valve Company on microwave electronics and then on television and photo-electric tubes at EMI’s Research Laboratories. In 1955 he was appointed to a lectureship (later readership) in the University of Edinburgh Department of Electrical Engineering where he undertook research on both solid-state and high-vacuum electronics, and also contributed to the development of the Postgraduate Diploma Course in Electronics and Radio. His work on dense beams of electrically charged particles was taken up by the National Aeronautics and Space Agency in the USA for the design of ion propulsion of space vehicles, and at its invitation he spent time working at Stanford University during 1962.

An old interest in mathematical logic and a growing appreciation of the unexploited possibilities of the use of digital computers combined to spark him into exploratory work on programming computers to do mathematical reasoning and not merely arithmetic computation. A year’s appointment for this purpose in 1964-65 at the Science Research Council’s Atlas Computer Laboratory led to a decision to forsake the comparative security and tranquillity of electrical engineering to set up an independent research unit to pursue his new interests. Called the Metamathematics Unit, it quickly established an international reputation as a centre for research in artificial intelligence, extending the scope of its work for automatic proof of mathematical theorems to the programming of the other activities such as induction and ‘commonsense’ reasoning, as well as finding applications in the field of operational research. Many of the researchers who emerged from that Unit became major figures in AI: Bob Kowalski, Pat Hayes, Bob Boyer, J Strother Moore, Alan Bundy.

In 1971, the Metamathematics Unit was re-named the Department of Computational Logic and incorporated into the School of Artificial Intelligence, and in the following year Bernard Meltzer was appointed to a Personal Chair in Computational Logic. In 1974 he became Head of what was now the Department of Artificial Intelligence, a position which he held until 1977. Under his guiding hand Edinburgh’s reputation as a centre for excellence in AI research grew and embarked on an undergraduate teaching programme. Thanks to an initiative by Alan Bundy, Sylvia Weir, Richard Young, Rod Burstall and Jim Howe the first course, AI2, was launched in 1974/75. An introductory course, AI1, was launched in 1978/79 and by 1982, the department was able to offer its first joint degree, Artificial Intelligence and Linguistics.

Bernard Meltzer retired on 31 December 1978.

Besides his scientific contribution, Bernard Meltzer also worked energetically on behalf of the national and international development of artificial intelligence. He co-edited the well-known series of Machine Intelligence volumes. In 1970 he started the journal of Artificial Intelligence and edited it until his retirement. He was a member of the International Joint Council in Artificial Intelligence and he chaired the UK professional body, the Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and the Simulation of Behaviour. Taken together with his pioneering work, this will ensure that he will be remembered as a member of that small select band of scientists, which includes John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky in the USA and Donald Michie in Edinburgh, who founded Artificial Intelligence as a discipline in its own right.

In addition to his academic work Bernard Meltzer put his energy into humanitarian causes: he was chairman of both the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Scottish Anti-Apartheid movements. His curiosity, openness and enthusiasm inspired all those working with him.

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