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Rob Milne

Single-minded AI scientist

Robert William Milne, AI scientist: born Libby, Montana 12 July 1956; Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering, US Air Force Institute of Technology 1982-85; chief scientist, US Army Artificial Intelligence Centre 1985-86; managing director, Intelligent Applications, 1986-2005; FRSE 2003; married (one son, one daughter); died Mt Everest 5 June 2005.

Rob Milne was a key figure in pioneering artificial intelligence applications. He died on Sunday while climbing Mount Everest. His objective had been to climb the highest peak on each continent, and Everest was the last of the eight.

He was born in Libby, Montana, in 1956 and later held dual US and UK citizenship. Brought up in Colorado, he was educated at MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), receiving a BSc in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in 1978. He then moved to Edinburgh, where he met and married his wife, Valerie, in 1981. Following the award of a PhD in Artificial Intelligence from Edinburgh University in 1983, he began to seek increasingly innovative applications of AI in the real world, becoming in 1985 Chief AI Scientist for the Pentagon.

Returning to Scotland in 1986, he founded Intelligent Applications Ltd in Livingston, West Lothian, one of the first UK companies to market expert systems technology. Under his astute direction, the company became an industry leader in developing intelligent software solutions; a fact recognised by many awards, including the Queen's Award for Technology.

Milne was a leader in the information technology field in Scotland, having for a time been Director of ScotlandIS, the industry body for IT and software companies in Scotland. He was a mentor to a number of start-up companies and guided other entrepreneurs in their efforts to establish successful businesses.

Despite these demands on his time, he also engaged enthusiastically with academia and the wider AI and software engineering communities. He was one of those rare individuals able to maintain a link between academic and industry work. Through a variety of visiting and honorary posts, including a visiting professorship in the Artificial Intelligence Applications Institute at Edinburgh University, he assisted universities in maintaining their relevance to industry and still found time to publish the results of his own work in traditional academic journals.

He chaired many of the major conferences in AI fields and played a leading role in European AI, in 2000 becoming the President of the European Coordinating Committee for Artificial Intelligence. Most recently, he led the successful bid to bring the world's major AI conference, the International Joint Conference in Artificial Intelligence, to Scotland in 2005, only the second time that the meeting has been held in the UK (the last was in 1971). In recognition of his research work and leadership, Milne was elected to Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2003.

Rob Milne was already a keen mountaineer when he arrived in Scotland to begin his PhD studies. Indeed, in his first meeting with his prospective supervisor he demonstrated how to climb a vertical brick wall; the supervisor declined to try. As Munroist number 1860, he "bagged" his final Munro in 1997; he went on to become a senior figure in the Scottish Mountaineering Club and the author of a book on the Scottish Corbett hills (The Corbetts and Other Scottish Hills, 2002).

Milne's life was characterised by setting very ambitious goals and single-mindedly pursuing them until he succeeded. His prominence in AI and software engineering and the achievements and accolades that followed are testament to his vision and tenacity. He led, inspired and befriended many of the people he met.

Alan Bundy and Austin Tate