Professor Robin Milner, computer scientist.
Born: 13 January, 1934, in Plymouth. Died: 20 March, 2010, in Cambridge, aged 76.
VERY few people know that their computer works the way it does because of the life’s work of Professor Robin Milner. Born near Plymouth, the son of an army officer, Arthur John Robin Gorell Milner seemed destined to continue the family’s military history. He attended Eton College, where his academic prowess earned him a scholarship and led to him being educated with pupils two years his senior.
Graduation from Eton was followed by two years of national service in the Royal Engineers as a second lieutenant, serving in the Suez Canal, teaching soldiers to drive bulldozers. Despite being born in to a military family, Milner had academic ambition, and the talent to back it up. He enrolled on yet another scholarship at King’s College, Cambridge, gaining a first in mathematics in just two years before completing his final year in philosophy. Milner always had a passion for shared knowledge, and he felt that information should be accessible to as many people as possible. It was partly this that led to his first job as a maths teacher before, rather tentatively and against his initial judgment, he took a job in programming at electronics company Ferranti. He had been exposed to programming during a ten-day course and was not impressed. His love for mathematics, which he said was “beautiful”, was in stark contrast with programming, which he described as “not a very beautiful thing”. In fact, that course had convinced him that he had no desire, or need, to go near a computer ever again. He joined Ferranti in 1960 as a programmer and stayed for three years before moving into academia, where he would spend the rest of his career.
He married Lucy in 1963 and had two sons and a daughter. Their eldest son, Gabriel, died in 1992. His first lecturing position was at City University, London where he taught maths and computer science. While there he developed an interest in artificial intelligence and the theory of computing, which led to a research position at Swansea University in 1968. His work earned him another research post at Stanford University, California, in 1971 and it was here that he began to develop the first of his three significant contributions to modern computing: LCF (or Logic for Computable Functions), a tool for automated theorem proving. The second of his significant contributions was the language he developed for LCF, ML, a programming language. He returned to lecturing in 1973 to take up a position at the University of Edinburgh, where he was awarded a Personal Chair in 1984 and completed his work on LCF and ML. During his 22 years at Edinburgh he co-founded the Laboratory for Foundations of Computer Science (LFCS) which was to become an institute of world renown. The third of his significant contributions also came at Edinburgh when he invented CCS, Calculus for Communication Systems, which provides descriptive analysis on how computing processes interact. This work led to another of his inventions, pi- calculus, which is now used for the design of web programming languages and by biologists to model cell interaction. The LFCS has an annual Milner lecture, towards which Milner donated funds given by “an outstanding theoretical computer scientist whose work has perceived significance for practical computing”.
Milner moved to Cambridge in 1995 to take up the first established Chair of Computer Science and was head of department until 1999, before becoming Research Professor and later Professor Emeritus in 2001. This is a rare achievement for an academic without a doctorate degree. More recently, he led work on the Grand Challenge Projects, which explored the possibility of a computer-orientated world where appliances could think and communicate in an autonomous fashion with the outside world. Milner was excited at the prospect of a fridge being able to contact a supermarket and restock itself, but he was also aware of the sociological dangers of being too heavily reliant on a computer-driven world. Milner worked with complex and baffling concepts that few outside of his immediate academic circle could keep up with. The demand for his work from the private sector was immense and could have earned him a fortune had he ever sold himself to the multinationals. He never made that move; such was his adamant belief that his work should benefit as many people as possible. Milner’s impressive body of work earned him awards and plaudits the world over. He won the Computer Society Technical Award for the development of Standard ML in 1987. In 1988 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society; a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society; and a founder member of Academia Europaea. In 1991 he received the “Nobel Prize” for computing, the Turing Award, and in 1994 he was made a Fellow of the Association for Computer Machinery. He was also awarded the Royal Medal by the Royal Society of Edinburgh or his “bringing about public benefits on a global scale”. He also received ten honorary doctorates from universities all over the world. At the time of his death Milner was working on biographs, a topic on which he had published a book in 2009. He had also re-established a working relationship with Edinburgh University where he gave lectures and courses on the subject.
Outside of academia he was a passionate musician, and had played and composed for both the oboe and cello while studying at Cambridge. He even came close to pursuing a career as a musician. Despite his undisputed genius Milner was a modest man who had no wish for the limelight. He enjoyed his work, and was well liked by academics and students. For more than 45 years he was one of the world’s top computer scientists, who provided an insight into how computers actually behave, enabling future systems to operate more efficiently and effectively.
Robin Milner died of a heart attack just three days after the funeral of his wife Lucy. He is survived by his son and daughter.