EPSRC announces Connected Nation Pioneers competition winners

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Photo of Kari Clark with Professor Lynn Gladden

The winners of the Connected Nation Pioneers competition were announced last night (Tuesday 20 November 2018), at an awards ceremony held at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester.

The competition is organised by EPSRC with sponsorship from major industry partners. It aims to recognise and celebrate exceptional UK doctoral research students in the digital and ICT arena, who have demonstrated the commercial potential and impact of their research to business.

There were 16 finalists, who were spread across four categories:

  • Safe and Secure Cyber Society
  • Making Digital Technology Work for People
  • Intelligent Informatics
  • Creative Computing for the Digital Economy

This year's overall winner is Kari Clark, who was the Intelligent Informatics category winner.

  • Thyla van der Merwe was first in the Safe and Secure Cyber Society category
  • Lauren Ward won the Making Digital Technology Work for People category
  • Marc Green topped the Creative Computing for the Digital Economy category

Congratulating the winners Professor Lynn Gladden EPSRC's Executive Chair, said: As one of the most connected nations in the world our continued growth needs to be supported by research in ICT and, most importantly, we must have a skills base that is based in excellent, internationally-leading science, and is also both highly innovative and in touch with industry. I want to congratulate all the finalists on getting this far. The UK's future success is highly likely to be linked to your own and I look forward to seeing your careers bloom in the coming years.

Each category winner will receive a cash prize of £2,000 and an NVIDIA graphics card, with the overall winner receiving a further £1,000. All prizes have been kindly donated by the industry sponsors: Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (dstl), Facebook, BT, Samsung, Huawei, Thales, Amazon and NVIDIA.

The finalists' research is summarised in their own words below:

Finalists: Safe and Secure Cyber Society

Thyla van der Merwe - Royal Holloway, University of London

The Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol is the de facto standard for securing communications on the Web. It's used by millions, if not billions, of users on a daily basis, working tirelessly in the background to protect our online purchases, our Facebook logins, and our instant messages. Over the course of the last decade, the TLS protocol has suffered a number of increasingly practical attacks, leading the custodians of the protocol, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) to develop a new version of the protocol, TLS 1.3. In contrast to previous versions, the IETF has welcomed academic analyses of the protocol prior to its official release, so as to catch and remedy weaknesses before the protocol sees widespread adoption.

My work contributes to this newer, collaborative standardisation effort, covering both sides of the TLS design transition: I've found attacks against TLS 1.2 and below that uncover user passwords, hence helping to motivate the need for a new protocol version, and I've analysed TLS 1.3 prior to release, uncovering a serious attack which called for a fix of the protocol. TLS 1.3 has recently been released, and is hopefully free of the problems that plagued previous versions.

Alasdair Price - University of Bristol

My work on quantum cryptography prevents cyber-attacks being carried out on our national infrastructure by emerging quantum computers, enabling them to be used to enhance drug discovery and tackle climate change without sacrificing our security. I have addressed key hurdles that must be overcome before quantum cryptography can be deployed for use in our everyday lives. Denial of service is one of the most common and most damaging attacks. Intruders can target quantum cryptography systems in this manner, remaining undetected for the duration. I have invented a new protocol that can detect such an attacker in fractions of seconds. It also provides increased efficiency, approximately doubling the impact of my work on time-sharing quantum technology across the internet, which on its own reduces implementation costs by a factor of 79. Now, the speed of quantum communications becomes a limiting factor, so I have developed millimetre- and centimetre-scale chips that can scale to speeds comparable with typical data rates, thereby improving the cost-reduction even further. Finally, I have augmented quantum cryptography using alternate next-generation cryptography, introducing compatibility with legacy networks and circumventing the distance limitation of quantum communications, which is currently around 100km in real-world environments.

Richard Baker - University of Oxford

Wireless systems are growing wildly and, sadly, so are wireless attacks. It is easy to find five or six different wireless technologies in any modern smartphone, presenting different problems if they are attacked. There are so-called Wireless Intrusion Detection Systems to identify attacks on these technologies, but unfortunately they tend to focus on only one or two systems each. In practice, this usually just means Wi-Fi.

My work is about making these intrusion detection systems far more flexible, so that they can integrate the different detection concepts for each technology into a single platform. This would allow far easier coverage of an organisation's attack surface and greater flexibility to react to new threats. The goal is to have a system that can adapt to support any emerging wireless technology with only configuration changes.

Achieving this generalisation requires developing configurable sensors and designing a new system architecture to take advantage of the extra information they provide. The prototype presented for the competition is software-configurable and can already detect a new type of rogue network.

Claudia Peersman - Lancaster University

The proliferation of the Internet has transformed child sexual abuse and exploitation into a crime without geographical boundaries, posing a significant challenge to law enforcement agencies all over the world. To combat the current and future challenges of this type of cybercrime, there is a need to re-examine standard digital forensic procedures and the use of investigative technology by incorporating intelligent technologies, i.e. techniques from artificial intelligence, computational modelling and social network analysis. During my project, I have developed a text mining component, which can automatically (a) identify a social network user's age group and gender based on textual information found in only one single message, (b) aggregate the results on the message level to the user level and detect both false user profiles and offenders' grooming behaviour on social networks and (iii) identify child sexual abuse media in peer-to-peer (P2P) networks based on their filename.

My approach has been implemented into a software package that is designed to perform live forensic analysis on P2P network environments. Finally, a user evaluation by law enforcement officers highlights the approach's potential to complement and enhance extant investigative workflows pertaining to online child abuse.

Finalists: Intelligent Informatics

Jiawen Sun - Queen's University, Belfast

My PhD project aims to design an efficient graph analytics system to make a balance between high performance, scalability and high utilisation of the hardware. GraphGrind adapts and analyses graph-structure data efficiently for customers, who have knowledge on data analysis but less skills in the intricacies of achieving high performance, such as managing parallelism, load imbalance or control of memory systems. GraphGrind outperforms many state-of-the-art graph analytics systems. For instance, one iteration of the PageRank algorithm applied to the uk_union graph (134 million vertices and 5.51 billion edges), a time-aware graph generated by combining twelve monthly snapshot of the .uk world wide web domain, takes 41 seconds for GraphLab and 23 seconds for GraphX (Spark), two Apache systems executing on a cluster. In comparison, the Ligra system developed at Carnegie Mellon University takes 3.8 seconds per iteration and GraphGrind takes only 1.2 seconds in a single large machine. Hence, GraphGrind will have a positive impact for large-volume intelligent informatics across the globe.

Stephen Henthorn - University of Sheffield

I'm working on new technology to enable low-cost implementation of the Internet of Things. This is where systems as diverse as your home central heating, wind turbines, and sensors in farmers' fields, can all be monitored and controlled remotely through a wireless network. However, connecting all these devices to the networks needs more infrastructure, particularly wireless access points to transmit and receive data to and from these devices.

Currently, transmitters at these access points put information onto a radio wave, a process called modulation, at low power. This signal is then amplified, and transmitted through an antenna into the air. Unfortunately, amplifying these modulated signals without distorting the information on them is inefficient, losing over half of the energy used. However, by amplifying only the carrier wave and modulating at the antenna, amplification is over 90% efficient. This makes access points more energy efficient, enabling green and low-cost implementation of the Internet of Things.

I am developing the first modulating antennas for this purpose. I'm using metamaterials, which are more often used to hide objects from radar, to modulate information onto radio waves. I have successfully transmitted data at 10 Mbit/s with industry standard modulation using my prototype antennas.

Kari Clark - University College London

The storage, delivery and processing of trillions of gigabytes of data is performed within warehouse sized 'hyperscale' data centres, containing hundreds of thousands of interconnected computers. The amount of data transferred per second between computers within these data centres is doubling every year.

Optical switching is a strong contender for keeping pace with this data growth. In optical switching, momentary light paths are formed between computers through interconnecting optical fibre. A critical challenge for optical switching is that every computer connected to an optical switch has its own unique clock, which must be recovered before data from a computer can be read. Currently, the time taken to recover the clock leads to 50% underuse of optical switch communication links.

In my project, by distributing a clock signal through optical fibre and using a technique I invented called 'clock phase caching', I demonstrate that the clocks of thousands of computers can be synchronised to within 10 trillionths of a second of each other, which is the time taken for light to travel 3 millimetres in air. Through these techniques, I eliminate the time taken to recover the clock, leading to a 100% increase in data transmission rate for optical switches.

Huanfa Chen - University College London

My project is about improving the efficiency of police activities by optimising the way in which the police target crime hotspots while on patrol. Currently, policing relies mainly on human knowledge and experience, but this approach fails to keep pace with the challenges of increasing crime rates and decreasing police funding. This motivates a more intelligent, technology-driven approach. In this project, by integrating big data collected by police forces with state-of-the-art computational technologies, I have developed multiple police patrol strategies based on the street network layout in urban areas. This project addresses different aspects of police patrolling, such as the design of patrol district, route planning, and the cooperation of multiple officers. These strategies can substantially increase police efficiency, thereby reducing crime and increasing public confidence. This project is a cooperation with the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS), and I anticipate that the strategies will be adopted in the daily practice of MPS. Further, the strategies can be tailored and applied to police patrolling in other cities, as well as to other fields such as logistics and delivery.

Finalists: Making Digital Technology Work for People

Lauren Ward - University of Salford

Hearing loss is on the rise, affecting 1 in 6 people in the UK and we are consuming more and more of our news and information via audio-visual media - videos currently make up over 70% of internet traffic. This makes improving media accessibility more important than ever.

My project exploits the next generation of broadcast audio technology, object-based broadcasting, to reduce the barriers to television content experienced by people with hearing loss. The balance between different sounds within a television soundtrack has been shown as a significant barrier in my research. Experiments have shown that some non-speech sounds which help normal hearing listeners understand speech still provide some benefit for many people with hearing loss.

I have been working with the EPSRC funded 'S3A Future Spatial Audio Project' to translate this understanding into end-user technology. We have developed a simple control which allows the viewer to adjust the complexity of a television sound mix and personalize it for their needs, allowing usability whilst maintaining the producer's creative intent. We have had positive feedback from end-users and producers and are currently working with broadcasting and technology partners to implement this into production workflows and into end-user systems.

Christopher Beach - University of Manchester

Medical wearables can be used to keep people healthy and out of hospital. They can be particularly helpful for the elderly population, as they may be a convenient alternative to frequent check-ups from a medical professional. My research looks to improve these devices so that they can be used in a 'fit and forget' fashion, that don't need to be charged by their user. These devices are instead powered by the movements of the person wearing them, known as energy harvesting. Doing this with the elderly population is challenging, as they are typically more sedentary, and there is less energy available to 'harvest' from their movements. I look at moving these wearables, which we typically know as the 'fitbit' type devices that go on our wrist, down to the foot. Here there is more energy available for our devices, including a large pulse of power every time we make a footstep. By taking models of how different demographic groups move throughout the day, I can tune my devices to run continuously without any need for battery recharging. My project goal is to make devices that work for a range of different physical and mental health impairments for all of society.

Ruodan Lu - Cambridge University

Bridges are a key infrastructure which provides important services to worldwide citizens. Over 700,000 bridges in the US and the UK need to be inspected at least once every 2 years. This causes asset owners roughly $12.8 billion and £4 billion spending every year on bridge maintenance, respectively. The reasons behind these massive costs are partly because asset owners face a major challenge with collecting, structuring and managing the inspection data needed for rapid repair, maintenance, and retrofit of their bridges. The inspection data available are manual interpretations from different inspectors across time that lack reliability and are not properly integrated with the bridge geometry.

My research provides a step change in the way asset owners inspect existing bridges in virtual 3D space by using point cloud data to automatically generate their Digital Twins (DT). The software prototype derived from my research encapsulates bridge engineering knowledge and AI techniques. It provides the unprecedented ability to automatically model bridge components, based on quantitative measurements. This is a huge leap over the current practice of bridge DT generation, which performs this operation manually. This means that prioritization of bridge repair and maintenance programs can be quantitatively rationalized, resulting in considerable economic savings.

Asha Ward - Bournemouth University

I have been working alongside a special educational needs school to research accessible ways to make music. Whilst there is a growing trend of research in this area, technology has been shown to face a variety of issues leading to underuse in this context such as; lack of guidance on how to incorporating technology, cost, and the ever-changing world of technology. My research explores the development of novel bespoke hardware and software with the aim of increasing accessibility to music-making. Working alongside music therapists, technologists, and teachers, my work combines engineering doctorate research alongside embedded practice. The aim has been to develop flexible innovative systems that can be tailored to individual's capabilities and enable interaction with sound in new and exciting ways using technology. New instruments have been created and will be distributed to practitioners to trial in the field. The research is all about making technology work for people and has at its heart the idea of allowing people who are not experts to utilise the power of technology, by developing innovative tools with them in a participatory way.

Finalists: Creative Computing for the Digital Economy

Marc Green - University of York

In my work, I'm researching how artificial intelligence and spatial audio can be used to assist in our understanding of the environmental sound of the places we live in - also known as soundscapes.

The first stage of my project was the creation of a large database of over 60 surround-sound location recordings of various types of soundscapes. Now available to download for other researchers and members of the public, this is the largest database of its kind ever released.

I was able to create an AI system that can 'listen' to the 3D aspects of these recordings and successfully identify the type of location each recording came from almost 70% of the time. The next stage of my work will be to go one level deeper and train an AI to identify the individual sounds that make up the whole scene.

Using this technology, I hope to be able to create a system that can build up a complete statistical picture of a soundscape. This data could be used to improve the audio in immersive experiences by enabling intelligent synthesis of artificial soundscapes, and could also assist in environmental sound monitoring for urban planning applications.

Christian Guckelsberger - Goldsmiths, University of London

How can we design AI systems capable of supporting and challenging us in any situation, not only those that can be foreseen during development? My research tackles this grand challenge of AI by using video games as experimentation platform. Modern games approximate our reality with more and more accuracy. At the same time, even advanced AI techniques such as deep learning fall short of driving characters to support or challenge the player, as they rely on the designer to specify the AI's goals. The designer thus has to anticipate everything that could possibly happen in the complex game world - a task destined to fail. My research complements modern AI while resolving a main shortcoming: instead of relying on externally specified goals, it creates their own - it is intrinsically motivated. We get more believable game characters capable of supporting or challenging the player in any situation, even if their abilities or world changes. This can save game studios time and money, and yield more exciting, open-ended interactive experiences for the player. As a form of creative computing, my research will benefit digital economy beyond games wherever people require supportive AI with little human intervention - e.g. in rescue robots.

Cameron Steer - Swansea University

My research involves working with artists and designers to develop new tangible technologies to aid the way they express themselves in digital mediums.

I am currently studying how we might design tangible interfaces for digital art applications, along with how to bring elements of realistic art to the digital experience.

My approach involves direct observations and interviews with both physical and digital artists to gather user research that informs the design and development of new prototypes.

Within my approach, I have explored different interaction modalities for deformable input and output.
This aids in identifying the possible advantages they bring about.

I also explore new and unique materials aiming to provide realistic interaction possibilities.

My contributions so far have involved a deformable interface with force input that enhances interactions with digital painting applications. These controls can then be pressed or squeezed to change the colour or size of digital brushes.

My other work explores new materials for realistic art interactions using hydrogel; a chemical substance that changes its stiffness based on temperature.

We have emulated the viscosity of paint giving artists textured sensations.

My ongoing research works with professional digital artists to learn how colours are chosen in teams.

Sagar Joglekar - King's College London

Cities speak to us at subconscious levels. They influence our moods, our happiness, our wellbeing. Their beauty or their design has a bearing on how we carry on with our lives.

My project "Facelift", which is done in collaboration with Bell Labs UK, aims to take urban planners one step ahead in their pursuit of ideal cities.

Facelift is a deep learning driven tool that learns what makes an urban scene beautiful, and then presents the user with a simulated "what could be" version of a target urban scene. It takes as input any urban scene - for example the "Google Street View" images. It then transforms such images through a technique known as generative deep learning, and creates a simulated scenes that users generally find more beautiful. Facelift is also able to compare the differences between the generated and simulated street views through the prism of urban design metrics and explain to the user "what changed?" that resulted in the increased beauty.

Facelift paves the way for urban planners to simulate different versions of an urban place to maximise its sense of beauty. Developers could then get inspired from these simulated transformations to create real places that look beautiful. With further research we could help beautify cities around the world, one click at a time.

Notes to editors:

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.

EPSRC is the main funding body for engineering and physical sciences research in the UK. By investing in research and postgraduate training, we are building the knowledge and skills base needed to address the scientific and technological challenges facing the nation.

Our portfolio covers a vast range of fields from healthcare technologies to structural engineering, manufacturing to mathematics, advanced materials to chemistry. The research we fund has impact across all sectors. It provides a platform for future UK prosperity by contributing to a healthy, connected, resilient, productive nation.

Reference: PN 74-18

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