In the hush-hush surroundings of Bletchley Park, as the Nazi threat marched ever closer, two charismatic characters were deep in thought.

At one side of the chess board sat mathematical genius Alan Turing, a complex character whose name became synonymous with the heroic effort to decode the German military’s Enigma cipher machine. Cracking it would help save countless lives, fast-forward the end of the war and set the course of history.

And at the other side was 20-year-old Donald Michie. Perhaps a name less well-known than Turing’s is today, but his equal when it came to chess: neither, despite their brilliant minds, seemed to have totally mastered it.

As each mulled over their next move, the conversation drifted as to whether one day a machine might have more success at conquering the game.

According to Prof. Drew Hemment, director and principal investigator at Edinburgh’s AI, creativity and futures research hub, The New Real, those late-night Bletchley Park chess sessions would lay the foundations for a remarkable six decades of pioneering work, hundreds of miles north of 1940s Milton Keynes.

And they would help set Burma-born Prof. Michie, his razor-sharp mind ignited by the potential of machines that might think for themselves, on his way to helping Edinburgh become a world leading centre for the advancement of artificial intelligence.

Although the age of AI, chatbots, digital assistants and robotics may seem a very modern one – and set to be explored by a range of expert voices later this month at the Scottish AI Summit in Glasgow - this year marks six decades of artificial intelligence research at the University of Edinburgh, rooted in a small group established in 1963 in a flat at 4 Hope Park Square by Prof. Michie.

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That led to the establishment of the University’s Experimental Programming Unit two years later – with Michie at its helm – and the Department of Machine Intelligence and Perception in 1966, positioning Scotland’s capital as the first centre of its kind in Europe and one of just four in the world to explore the futuristic landscape of artificial intelligence.

The 60th anniversary has led Prof Hemment to explore university archive documents, including weighty press releases which fought to explain the complex emerging field of AI, and Prof. Michie’s own writings.

They have revealed long forgotten details of his early work, the challenges his team faced and their successes.

One document, from 1968, reveals Prof. Michie’s salient prediction of how AI could touch tomorrow’s world, as he pondered its future use.

“Along with question-answering services, which will allow us to inquire about the restaurants in our locality or politics in Paraguay, will come the games opponent, the puzzle setter and the quiz master,” he wrote.

With some of the world’s sharpest minds attracted to Edinburgh by Prof. Michie’s work, the capital would become the birthplace of major breakthroughs and multi-million pound businesses.

“Edinburgh is the home of artificial intelligence in Europe and has constantly led from those early days,” says Prof. Hemment, who was recently awarded a newly-created position of Personal Chair and appointed Professor in Data Arts and Society at the University of Edinburgh.

“He was an incredibly inspirational figure. While he was a founding figure for AI in Edinburgh, its history spans 60 years and goes back further, to Bletchley Park, the site of the codebreakers and Enigma.”

The top-secret Government Code and Cypher School was a melting pot of brilliant minds brought together to unravel German coded messages.

While code-breakers strove to unpick the German messages using their mathematic and linguistic skills, automatic machinery was devised to help. It led to the development of Colossus, the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer.

The Bletchley Park operation is said to have helped to shorten the war by two years, saving countless lives.

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“Prof. Michie and Alan Turing bonded over playing chess badly - both were pretty rubbish at it, but still stayed up late in the night playing,” says Prof. Hemment.

“This was one of the fundamental moments in AI. It led them to wonder whether a machine could be taught to play chess and could a machine think.”

But while the seed had been planted, the end of the war saw the Bletchley Park team dismantled. Alan Turning went on to work on the development of computers at the Victoria University of Manchester. Prosecuted in 1952 for homosexual acts, he later took his own life.

Prof. Michie, meanwhile, found few options to meet his interest in computing. “After the war, I had been switched on to computing, but there weren’t any computers to do experiments with,” he later wrote. “I had to do something, so I became a biologist.”

He arrived in Edinburgh from graduation in Oxford in 1958 planning to continue in biology, but accepted a friendly bet that he could produce a learning machine.

It led to MENACE – Matchbox Educable Noughts and Crosses Engine – one of the first programs capable of learning to play a game. With no actual computer to work with, Prof Michie perfected it by using more than 300 matchboxes, each representing an individual board. He filled each one with scores of coloured beads representing a potential move, which he used to develop the program.

“He built a machine that, through trial and error, learnt to play noughts and crosses perfectly, which we call today 'reinforcement learning',” adds Prof. Hemment. “He won the bet.”

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He went on to guide Edinburgh researchers through a string of ground-breaking achievements such as the early 1970s development of experimental robots FREDDY I and its more sophisticated second model, FREDDY II, lauded for the ability to identify parts of an object, lift it and assemble.

However, a shift in government support – despite Scotland’s world-leading status – saw funding for AI research come and go. By the 1980s and by then retired, Michie, who never publicly spoke of his time at Bletchley Park, created the private sector-led Machine Intelligence Research Unit in Glasgow, later named the Turing Institute in homage to his former chess rival.

In operation until 1994, its achievements included work on Nasa’s space shuttle’s landing system and an early version of the World Wide Web.

While back in Edinburgh, researchers were busy developing early chatbots and behind the scenes technology that crunches and makes sense of data, aids gaming and computer graphics, and hugely successful spin-off businesses such as fantasy sports platform, FanDuel.

What started in a small flat with a lot of matchboxes is now the internationally-renowned School of Informatics, which continues to shape the future through new labs for Integrated Artificial Intelligence and Quantum Software, and the National Robotarium, a joint multi-million pounds purpose build facility combining Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh Universities.

While The New Real, a partnership between Edinburgh University, Alan Turing Institute and Edinburgh’s Festivals acts as a hub for AI research, creativity and the arts, and is exploring how AI may be used in new, creative and life-enhancing ways.

Prof. Michie died aged 83 in a car accident alongside his wife Anne McLaren, a pioneering biologist who worked on human in vitro fertilisation, in 2007.

Prof Hemment adds: “Many key people who went on to build technology that companies like Google use, were trained in Edinburgh where there has been hugely significant and pioneering work.

“Even when AI fell out of fashion, when governments felt it wasn’t really delivering the breakthroughs and funding was pulled, Edinburgh remained committed and pioneering, leading throughout these ‘AI winters’ as a place where major breakthroughs happen.

“It is still pioneering today. Edinburgh is at the forefront, continuing to invest and make big steps forward.”