Connected Nation - Interview: Liam Blackwell, EPSRC

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Liam Blackwell is Head of the Information and Communications Technology Programme at the EPSRC.

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Liam Blackwell, EPSRC

Ok, so I’m Liam Blackwell. I'm the ICT theme leader at EPSRC, so I look after the Information and Communication Technologies portfolio alongside John Baird who looks after the Digital Economy. The remit really spans all those areas of the portfolio, that are contributing to it being connected; that includes maths, it includes computer science, electronic engineering, photonics, communications, and all those aspects of digital economy which are relating to ICT in a transformational way. So you have things like Big Data, things like the Internet of Things, things like autonomous systems, smart tools, issues such as privacy and trust, etc.

I think actually it's very interesting, if I may, if you just take an object out of your pocket today (mobile phone); this is just the tip of the iceberg really. What gets forgotten often, and this is a very obvious example, but everything from our power stations, to our airplanes, to our ships, to the power generation network that's going on around us, to how the roads are managed - almost everything now has a connected element, even if it’s just a GPS-type element, eg. food distribution. Modern society is massively technological, and a lot of that technology is actually connecting things together, or is reliant on that connectivity. It is unimaginable now, to think in terms of us doing our shopping, having our pay, getting things in the shops – it’s not just doing the shopping but the stuff actually being there. Understanding what’s going on in the world without a degree of connectivity.

Some of the interesting research I’ve seen is some of this stuff around emotional awareness and detection, so things which are trying to understand how people are actually thinking and behaving. I mean people think in terms of autonomous systems in the future whether they’re robots in the home, or your interface with some sort of health provider that’s assisted by some computerised technology. Things that start to understand what you’re thinking and feeling. I think that’s really exciting stuff actually and things that can help with that are quite interesting. Actually when we think about the Internet of Things, it’s very easy to forget that that’s part of a dynamic that goes on.

So if you think about Big Data, you think of smart tools, autonomous systems like driverless cars and connectivity becomes really quite interesting and exciting. The next big thing I think is more device-to-device, and machine-to-machine communication. People mentioned earlier about the floods in Lancashire, and the idea that with one subsystem going down you couldn’t get tweets and mobile phone signals. Well, actually that’s interesting. If people’s phones were able to communicate directly to one other, and via cars, and road networks, some of those systems have their own power – they either have batteries or they have internal combustion engines, or battery-powered electric cars. You can imagine the series of signals going up the M6, and then whatever the next A road is because I can’t remember the number, right into the Lake District.

Then we have a situation where people have got connectivity. Now it might not last days, because of batteries, but at the moment there’s nothing. This sort of connectivity we get has all sorts of areas it can open up; right from gaining data for health records from devices that you might have in the home, right through to extra resilience in the network, which is not to do with having power straight from the wall, it can be because its connected to other systems which have their own power, or temporary power. I think that’s the sort of thing we’ll start to see with these sorts of developments. I think one thing that is important actually is that - and Philip Nelson our CEO referred to this earlier, in terms of a resilient nation, and a productive nation - having a connected nation actually enables all the rest. We won’t have a resilient nation that doesn’t have connectivity, and doesn’t exploit it, as well as dealing with the issues of when it falls over as well; we have to be realistic, it can fall over.

So issues on connected nation contribute to us being resilient, they also allow us to be more productive in future. We’re actually much more productive now than we were, because of computers, in the workplace, in every workplace in fact, because we don’t have to spend time sending lots of pieces of paper in memos and writing letters in triplicate. Equally, health. There are lots of issues now in health that are actually quite difficult to deal with in traditional ways, and connectivity allows us to really get the most out of technologies we have now, and potentially open up new pathways for treatment. So I think actually it is an enabler of underpinning technologies in this space for all of the nation.