3.1.2 Connected nation: Enhancing future digital technologies

Digital technologies underpin much of modern life and advances will continue to transform society and play a critical role in delivering prosperity. We will take the lead within UKRI in generating scientific and technical advances that ensure the benefits of digital technologies can be realised for the UK, whilst working closely with UKRI partners to ensure risks such as security and privacy are understood and managed responsibly.

We will build on the UK's world-leading position (based on citation analysis of relevant research areas) in research in areas as diverse as AI, data analytics, communications networks, mobile technologies and next-generation electronic hardware and materials, and at the interface between these technologies and society. We will capitalise on the UK's strengths across engineering, the physical sciences, and the computational and mathematical sciences to develop innovative technologies with the potential to deliver transformational impact. For instance, we will harness the concentration of excellence at The Alan Turing Institute to help put the UK at the forefront of the AI and Data revolution. We will also extend our investments in PhD training through, for example, the AI Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs), to train tomorrow's research leaders.

To deliver this priority, EPSRC will invest in:

Digital technologies for creativity, discovery and innovation: Exploiting the potential and power of computation and automation, alongside new computational and mathematical approaches, to advance our creative industries, make new scientific discoveries, and transform approaches to innovation. Collaboration with AHRC in working with the creative industries sector represents an exciting opportunity.

Trustworthy and accountable data, AI and autonomy for a successful society: Enabling widespread industrial and social adoption of autonomous systems, by developing decision-making methodologies that are verifiable, transparent, and trustworthy. Currently, autonomous systems and data analytic tools designed to make decisions are developed and deployed without users understanding the basis of those decisions. We are engaging closely with ESRC in this field.

Secure and connected infrastructure for national resilience to risk and threat: Positioning the UK at the forefront of new communications infrastructures such as the next generation of communications networks, and ensuring that critical national infrastructures, frequently operating on outdated or 'egacy' systems, are secure and resilient to attacks through innovative computational technologies and advances in cyber security. 

New ways of powering future digital technologies for continued innovation: Designing future digital technologies (both computational and hardware) within an energy-aware context to ensure that they will be deployed and adopted across society. Many of the world's current cutting edge digital technologies (autonomous cars, data analytics, mobile devices) have significantly higher energy demands than traditional technologies to an extent that could limit their broad adoption and further development.

Long-term ambitions

We will build upon EPSRC's investments to ensure the UK is a global leader in developing and adopting digital technologies, and a go-to location for potential partners seeking to work with talented innovators operating within a world-class innovation system. Our long-term aspiration is to ensure that:

  • there are strong interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary communities which have a fundamental understanding of the challenges relating to technology use, security, acceptability, trust and risk, including legal and economic barriers facing transformative research. Success will be reflected in the number of researchers with the skillset to drive responsible digital innovation and engage with policy and regulation
  • advanced digital technology, including AI, is routinely used and UK industry's adoption of autonomous systems has accelerated. Success will be reflected in the level of adoption of advanced digital technology initiated by our research community
  • we reduce the risks and negative impacts of new digital technologies while increasing investment in technologies for public good. Success will be reflected in greater public understanding of the benefits and opportunities offered by technologies such as AI
  • EPSRC plays a leading role in delivering relevant aspects of e-infrastructure and exascale computing capacity to meet the aspirations of our researcher base.

Near-term actions

In 2019-20 we will:

  • refresh the Digital Economy critical-mass research centres through a scoping workshop and a £20 million research call
  • work with government and industry on AI and related fields, particularly through the AI & Data Grand Challenge and the AI Sector Deal. Review the AI research landscape with UKRI colleagues and wider stakeholders to produce an investment strategy enabling AI to realise its full potential
  • work with The Alan Turing Institute, the Office for AI and colleagues at DCMS and BEIS on the design and delivery of the £50 million Turing Fellowships
  • with colleagues across UKRI, deliver the £100 million investment in 16 AI CDTs; the first cohorts start in October 2019
  • invest in calls on natural language processing (£4 million) and software engineering (£4 million), both of which are central to adoption of AI technologies and delivering the AI & Data Grand Challenges
  • deliver a £0.3 million call to identify new Centres of Excellence in cyber-security research, sponsored by the National Cyber Security Centre and UKRI, to enhance academic cyber-security research and training
  • scope a joint cyber-security activity of up to £10 million with UKRI partners, Dstl, MoD, GCHQ and NCSC, to reduce cyber-attacks on UK businesses and citizens
  • deliver with colleagues across UKRI (lead Council in bold):
    Strategic Priorities Fund: AI and Data Science for Science, Engineering, Health and Government (EPSRC, BBSRC, STFC, MRC, NERC (being delivered by the ATI): £39.3 million) and Ensuring the Security of Digital Technologies at the Periphery (SDTaP) (EPSRC, IUK, AHRC, ESRC: £30.6 million).
    Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (all with IUK): Audience of the Future (AHRC, EPSRC: £33 million); and Next Generation Services (ESRC, EPSRC: £20 million).

Case studies

Commercialising cyber-security research and technology

The Centre for Secure Information Technologies  (CSIT) at Queen’s University Belfast has grown into one of the world’s largest centres in cybersecurity and a recognised global leader in cyber-security research. Established in 2009 as one of seven EPSRC-sponsored IKCs, and with co-funding from Innovate UK and Invest Northern Ireland, this flagship centre has helped to attract significant high-tech foreign direct investment and to support start-ups that are on course to employ over 1,600 people. CSIT has developed a global innovation hub with a range of industrial partners such as Allstate, BAE Systems and Infosys, and spin-outs delivering new benchmarks for content inspection, visual speech recognition, cryptography, intrusion detection and platforms for automatic and intelligent image and video processing. Seventeen start-ups have graduated from the CSIT incubator programme and CSIT also leads the £5 million UK Research Institute in Secure Hardware and Embedded Systems (RISE), as well as being a delivery partner on the £13.5 million London Office for Rapid Cybersecurity Advancement (LORCA).

Making the high-speed connected world a reality

Internet users now exchange over 2,000 petabytes of data every month. Most travels through optical fibres using erbium-doped fibre amplifiers (EDFAs) developed at the University of Southampton. Invented in 1987, the EDFA resulted from EPSRC-funded blueskies research and, in 1989, we also funded the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) at the university. The ORC is now a world-leading centre for photonics, optical telecommunication and high-power lasers and has, for example, developed non-toxic glass fibres for use in key-hole surgery; thanks to ORC research, the number of surgical stents manufactured with fibre lasers worldwide has increased by 30%. Overall, ORC technologies have been spun-out into 10 companies, generating revenues of over £100 million and creating over 500 jobs.