'It conjures up images of human-like androids walking the earth'

What are the entry requirements for this course?

240 Ucas points or equivalent.

Who applies?

Anyone with an interest (as well as A-levels) in computing, IT and business studies could look to a career in artificial intelligence (AI). Those who are fascinated by complex systems and the technologies evolving to help us create and manage such systems should, perhaps, look to the rising number of courses offered by UK universities in AI-related fields.

What does the course involve?

There was a time when AI related to the efforts of scientists and mathematicians to somehow create a working model of the human brain.

The subject conjures up images of human-like androids walking the earth - perhaps relatives of prototypes like ASIMO, the humanoid robot created by Honda and seen recently on our TV screens interacting with its surroundings in a museum, which would make you believe that AI is at an advanced stage.

ASIMO is very clever. The little robot that looks like an astronaut wearing a backpack interacts by recognising movement, postures, gestures, sounds, even faces, but he doesn't have the capacity to think. He can only do what he is programmed to do and while he can move by means of remote control, he's very much earthbound by the technology that controls those movements.

Bournemouth University is one of many in the UK to offer honours degrees in artificial intelligence and human computer systems. Learning is achieved by doing projects with students that develop a keen commercial awareness, building on their research, teamwork and management skills. Programmes like these provide a good grounding in software development and modern computing with an option to spend the third year in placement, applying the skills developed at university in a professional, paid capacity.

How long does it last?

Four years with the 40-week industrial placement, three years without. Placement opportunities are provided by companies including IBM, Barclays Bank, Sun Microsystems and British Aerospace. This is in a software systems environment, in order to develop a deeper understanding of the industry, design processes, technological aspects and project management practices.

Following the placement year, students return to university for a final year to specialise in AI, with an opportunity to look more closely at artificial neural networks, fuzzy logic and case-based reasoning.

How will I be assessed?

Exams and continual assessment are all a key part of the learning process, but there is a real emphasis on personal development and group work, as modern software product design is usually accomplished in the context of a team.

Are there opportunities for further study?

At Bournemouth you can study an MSc in applied AI for one year full-time, and other institutions offer similar opportunities.

What career options are there when the course is completed?

For graduates, the shortage of software personnel worldwide opens the door to a range of prospects across various fields, including software design and development, design and evaluation of user interfaces, and project management. Demand for research is also high, including the development of "smart" systems that use nature as a source of inspiration to help us in our personal and professional lives.

Things have certainly come a long way as AI is used in smaller, more effective ways as part of larger projects by solving practical problems faced by businesses and other organisations.

A company in California, for example, uses AI to help retailers mine for consumer data by sifting through the ages, postcodes and buying habits of people who buy goods over the internet. Nasa uses AI to help plan and schedule space shuttle maintenance and companies such as Toyota and Bausch & Lomb use the technology to streamline their production supply chains.

Charles Elder, press and PR officer at Bournemouth University, www.bournemouth.ac.uk

Current student: Christopher Kimber, 21, is in his fourth year studying computing at Bournemouth University

"I studied computing, maths and business studies at A-level and electronics and human biology at AS-level.

I wanted to study AI because the prospect of getting a computer to learn something on its own is really exciting. The course has covered a large number of topics, from low-level assembly programming to formal methods. Generally we have one lecture for each module a week, along with a supporting lab or seminar depending on the subject being taught. Most of the modules have an exam and two assignments, although some - usually the programming modules - are entirely coursework assessed."

Recent graduate: Michael Haddrell, 25, is a scientist at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL)

"I wanted to study technology because it is a large part of the world that we live in, and helps to make it more fun. I received my results in June 2006 and successfully applied for my current role.

DSTL is an agency of the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and supplies scientific and technical research and advice to the MOD.

Since joining I have had exposure to many aspects of science and engineering systems. In each area, I've been involved in blue-sky research and with the support of DSTL, I've become a chartered IT professional with the British Computer Society and a member of The Institution of Engineering and Technology."



Get more facts on the humanoid robot world.honda.com/ASIMO

Defence Science and Technology Laboratory

Find out more on recent graduate Michael Haddrell's employers www.dstl.gov.uk

The Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and Simulation of Behaviour

Useful contacts and resources www.aisb.org.uk