Lighthill Report: Artificial Intelligence

Professor Sir James Lighthill FRS

Artificial Intelligence: A General Survey

Published: July 1972


To supplement the important mass of specialist and detailed information on Artificial Intelligence (AI) available to the Science Research Council its Chairman decided to commission an independent report by someone outside the Al field but with substantial general experience of research work in multidisciplinary fields including, fields with mathematical engineering and biological aspects. I undertook to make such an independent report on the understanding that it would simply describe how Al appears to a lay person after two months spent looking through the literature of the subject and discussing it orally and by letter with a variety of workers in the field and in closely related areas of research. Such a personal view of the subject might be helpful to other lay persons such as Council members.

Sir James Lighthill

Lighthill’s report was commissioned by the Science Research Council (SRC) to give an unbiased view of the state of AI research primarily in the UK in 1973. The two main research groups were at Sussex and Edinburgh. There was pressure from Edinburgh to buy a US machine, the Digital Equipment Corporation DEC10 which was used by most US researchers. AI research was funded by the Engineering Board of SRC as part of its Computer Science funding. The Lighthill Report was published early in 1973. Although it supported AI research related to automation and to computer simulation of neurophysiological and psychological processes, it was highly critical of basic research in the foundation areas such as robotics and language processing. Lighthill’s report provoked a massive loss of confidence in AI by the academic establishment in the UK including the funding body. It persisted for almost a decade.

AI research continued but the next attempt to mount a major activity in the area did not come until the September 1982 Research Area Review Meeting on Intelligent Knowledge-Based Systems. The findings of which were accepted by SERC (Science and Engineering Research Council, a change of name) and became the IKBS part of the Alvey Programme.

A video of a BBC TV Debate – June 1973 – Lighthill Controversy – at the Royal Institution with Professor Sir James Lighthill, Professor Donald Michie, Professor Richard Gregory and Professor John McCarthy concerning the findings is available at