Organisation profile

Organisation profile

The University of Bristol has a long tradition of excellence in Artificial Intelligence, with research groups in Engineering dating back to the 1970s and 1980s. Now all these traditions have converged to form the Intelligent Systems Laboratory (ISL), a new research unit counting 16 members of staff (five professors) and about 50 PhD students and postdocs. 

Research activities include foundational work in machine learning (many of the ISL members work in this central area of research), and applications to web intelligence, machine translation, bioinformatics, semantic image analysis, robotics, as well as natural intelligent systems.

For example, current projects involve: tracking of flu levels in the UK by monitoring the contents of Twitter; constantly translating and analyzing the content of hundreds of EU newspapers in 23 languages, in order to discover patterns in their content; analyzing protein sequences to understand their evolutionary history; analyzing genes that may be related to cancer; predicting the risk of river floods; automating the design of scientific experiments; designing new robots; modeling the behavior of insect colonies, as well as decision making in human brains.

Besides these applications, research in ISL is a key enabler in a number of strategic research directions. One of the main frontiers for modern AI is to deal with vast masses of data, both enabling their exploitation and benefiting from them (the Exabytes Informatics theme). Another key frontier for intelligent systems research is to interact with modern biology, both taking inspiration by it, and providing tools for it (Predictive Life Sciences theme). ISL research is also closely connected to research taking place at the Bristol Robotics Lab. Members of ISL are also very involved with the Bristol Centre for Complexity Sciences.

Research in the general area of intelligent systems has a long history in Bristol, dating back to the 1940s when cybernetics pioneers Gray Walter and Ross Ashby were based in the city (at the Burden Institute, now part of Frenchay hospital). In this university, it dates back at least to the arrival of Richard Gregory from Edinburgh in 1970, and in the Faculty of Engineering at least to the early work of Jim Baldwin in Engineering Mathematics (late 1970s), and then to the creation of research groups in Computer Science (early 1980s). The groups in the 2 departments grew throughout the 1980s and 1990s, to include research in logic programming, uncertainty modeling, computer vision, neural networks, genetic algorithms, and robotics.

The creation of a single laboratory, based in a single building and with a dedicated space for students, is an important step in a direction that had started with the creation of many joint activities linking the various groups. Students and staff meet weekly over pizza (IS-LabMeet, tuesdays 1pm) to discuss informally of new research directions, while external seminars are held on Thursdays at 2pm. The various groups were already part of the same unit of assessment during the past RAEs.


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