Artificial intelligence and robotics

 

Introduction

Artificial Intelligence and Robotics hold great potential to benefit society and the economy. Advances in both fields have already driven extraordinary changes in areas as diverse as agriculture and energy, food and business productivity.

The AI & Robotics team has a key role in ensuring EPSRC and UKRI capitalise on opportunities in AI and Robotics, seeking to maintain and build the UK’s internationally leading position in AI and Robotics research and innovation. We work to understand the AI and Robotics landscape through engaging with our communities and key organisations.

Many of the challenges in AI and Robotics require a multidisciplinary approach, both in terms of growing foundational capabilities and in developing technologies to address real world challenges for society, the economy and the environment. We therefore work closely with colleagues across UKRI to develop our understanding and to create an ecosystem where different disciplines work together to address key research questions. The UKRI AI Review has been a key part of this collaboration and was one of the first truly cross-UKRI multidisciplinary activities.

 

The AI & Robotics team also work closely with other thematic areas within EPSRC, such as ICT, Mathematical Sciences and Engineering to support a portfolio built on core disciplines, as well as  addressing user needs and real-world problems. The team collaborates on the delivery of peer review activities with other themes.

In order to realise the huge potential of AI and Robotics research and innovation for the UK, the team works closely with stakeholders from across the public, private and third sectors. Collaboration with colleagues across government is particularly important to the team, who have a strong relationship with the government’s Office for Artificial Intelligence.

AI and Our Approach

Through the UKRI AI Review we have sought to understand the complex UK AI Research and Innovation landscape, and to set out a clear vision and ambition for the role of the research and innovation community and our plans to support AI research. The UKRI AI Review, led by EPSRC in collaboration with colleagues across all parts of the organisation, is enabling us to better understand the current UK AI research and innovation landscape. It also allows us to better understand the opportunities and barriers to progress and to shape a vision for what is needed to optimally support AI research and innovation in the UK. This broad exercise included colleagues from more than 300 organisations across the UK.

UKRI’s vision is for advances in UK Artificial Intelligence to benefit society, provide skilled employment, and deliver significant economic growth. The UK currently has an opportunity to position itself as a leader in AI research and innovation internationally. UKRI has a key role to play in realising this opportunity through working in partnership across the ecosystem. The UKRI Statement of Opportunities on AI sets our vision and aspirations to support a world leading, highly interconnected & interdisciplinary UK research & innovation ecosystem. Our vision is made up of four elements: to build ambitious new UK AI capability; to sustainably grow UK AI research and innovation capacity; to enable adventure and creativity in AI research and innovation and to build high connectivity in the landscape.

The UKRI Statement of Opportunities on AI sets out a vision of an interconnected AI research and innovation ecosystem which requires a cohesive approach to support and investment which can be organised into two fundamental parts:  

  1. Investing in key priority areas of AI research and innovation:
    • Next Generation AI - building on our strengths in computational and mathematical sciences, investing to develop the AI technologies of the future
    • Responsible AI - interdisciplinary approach focussed on the broad question of what makes AI responsible & trustworthy
    • AI to tackle real world challenges - this includes issues such as net zero and health
  2. Creating a supportive environment for AI research & innovation which focuses on limiting barriers and enabling an inclusive, creative & interconnected ecosystem. This includes:
    • Investing in people, talent and skills at all career stages
    • Promoting interdisciplinarity
    • Facilitating businesses of all kinds to develop and deploy AI
    • Working to ensure that access to data and computers are not a barrier to research and innovation
    • Supporting international collaboration, positioning the UK on the world stage
    • Increasing engagement between researchers and innovators and the public

In order to support AI research and innovation following the UKRI AI Statement of Opportunities, EPSRC continues to work collaboratively with colleagues across UKRI. AI’s origins lie in mathematical and computational sciences, which is why EPSRC plays a key role in supporting AI. However, we also recognise that developing AI technologies that address real world challenges and the needs of users will require ongoing effective collaboration across research and innovation communities supported across UKRI.

Find out more about the UKRI AI review: Transforming our world with AI.

 

Robotics and Autonomous Systems

Robotics and autonomous systems are key to building a more resilient, sustainable, and prosperous UK. Some of these technologies are already used across society, and it is forecasted that they will drive significant productivity improvements, economic growth and better-quality jobs in all major sectors including construction, transport, energy, agriculture, health, and defence.

Developing the robotics and autonomous systems required to unlock these benefits is complex. Advances to the physical attributes of these technologies needs to be accompanied by improvements in the way the technologies understand their surroundings and act as a result. In addition, robotics and autonomous systems must be developed responsibly and allowing the technologies to be trusted and adopted by society.

The AI & Robotics team lead on the strategic direction of robotics and autonomous systems within EPSRC, working alongside the Engineering and ICT themes to support the development of the core capabilities that underpin these technologies, in addition, our team also leads on the stakeholder engagement in this area.

EPSRC’s robotics and autonomous systems portfolio includes major strategic investments managed by the AI & Robotics team such as the Trustworthy Autonomous Systems Programme, the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund Robotics and AI in Extreme Environment Hubs and the UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems Network.

Key Strategic Investments

AI for Science and Government

In 2018, The Alan Turing Institute was awarded a £38.8 million research programme through Wave 1 of UKRI’s Strategic Priorities Fund.

The programme (AI and Data Science for Science, Engineering, Health and Government) now commonly known as AI for Science and Government (ASG), is delivered in partnership with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and in collaboration with a number of other research councils and research organisations, including BBSRC, STFC, NERC, the Home Office, and the Ministry of Justice.

The investment delivers an integrated programme aimed at supporting UK priority areas which are nested within existing Institute programmes and aims to deploy AI and data science through six themes:

  • Digital Twins: Urban Analytics, underpinning the planning system;
  • Digital Twins: Complex Engineering Systems, in industry;
  • Health, revolutionising health services through precision medicine;
  • Criminal Justice System, laying foundations for AI in government departments and agencies;
  • AI for Science, delivering AI into national labs;
  • Tools, Practices and Systems, bringing best practice into domain areas.

EPSRC is the UKRI Delivery Partner of the investment, and is represented on its governance structures, including the Management Board, and the External Advisory Board.

In consultation with the programme’s External Advisory Board, the ASG Management Board agreed in July 2020 to fund several new and strategic research initiatives to build on research outcomes from the first two years of the ASG programme and address important issues for the UK government and public sector made more urgent since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. These are:

  • Shocks and Resilience
  • Ecosystems of Digital Twins
  • Environment and Sustainability

Further information: https://www.turing.ac.uk/research/asg

Trustworthy Autonomous Systems

 

The UKRI Trustworthy Autonomous Systems (TAS) programme is a £33.7 million investment funded through the Strategic Priorities Fund. It was developed from a community-led submission to the EPSRC Big Ideas Process and is led by EPSRC, working across UKRI with AHRC, ESRC, Innovate UK and STFC.

This activity aims to bring together research communities and key stakeholders from across all sectors and disciplines, to drive forward multi-disciplinary fundamental research to ensure that autonomous systems are safe, reliable, resilient, ethical and trusted

The TAS programme consists of two discrete and interdependent parts: a central Hub, with a key leadership and coordination role for the programme and the broader community, and six research nodes that undertake fundamental, multidiscipline research into a particular topic, and support the Hub in delivering the objectives of the investment.

The Hub and the six Nodes were funded in 2020:

The TAS Hub has a key role in connecting the autonomous systems landscape and fostering collaborations. It undertakes community building activities to facilitate engagement across disciplines and drive culture change around the design of autonomous systems. In addition, the Hub delivers funds to pump-prime new research ideas and opportunities across the community. Stakeholders with an interest in autonomous systems and wishing to engage with the programme are encouraged to contact the TAS Hub via their website www.tas.ac.uk

Turing AI Fellowships

The Turing AI Fellowships are a £46 million investment by the UK government in the retention, attraction and development of world-leading academic talent in AI. EPSRC is delivering these fellowships on behalf of UKRI and in partnership with the Office for AI and The Alan Turing Institute.

The aims of this investment in Turing AI Fellowships is:

  • To accelerate and/or support the careers of a diverse cadre of the best and brightest AI international researchers, retaining them in and/or attracting them to UK academia;
  • To enable enhanced connectivity between AI academia and industry across sectors, and facilitate career mobility for leading AI researchers and thinkers between academia and industry or the third sector, accelerating the pathway to impact of AI technologies;
  • To enable leading researchers to undertake world leading creative and innovative AI research in the UK, with a broad range of potential impacts across sectors and timescales;
  • To boost the UK’s global reputation as a great place to study, invest or work in AI.

The investment has three components:

20 fellowships have been awarded to date. 

UKRI AI CDTs

The UKRI Artificial Intelligence Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) will train a new generation of PhD students who will develop and use AI technology in areas such as improving healthcare, tackling climate change and creating new commercial opportunities. The PhD students are being trained at 16 centres based at 14 universities with over 300 partners, including AstraZeneca, Google, Rolls-Royce, and the NHS.

These UKRI AI CDTs are funded by £100m from government along with additional leveraged funding to bring the total investment to over £200m. This leveraged funding comes from project partners investing £78 million and the universities committing a further £23 million. Around 1000 students will be funded over eight years.  

Following Professor Dame Wendy Hall and Jérôme Pesenti’s independent 2017 report in Growing the Artificial Intelligence Industry in the UK government committed to investing in AI skills in the AI Sector Deal.

“The investment will sustain a pipeline of [AI] talent and ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of emerging technologies, supporting the commitment in the government’s AI Sector Deal.”

ISCF Robotics and AI in Extreme Environments

The ISCF Robotics and AI in Extreme Environments Hubs are strategic investments and are part of the wider ISCF Robotics for a Safer World Challenge. The four academic-led, user-inspired Hubs have received a £44.5m investment from UKRI, £1m from the UK Space Agency and £52m leveraged from industry. The hubs undertake collaborative research and development to accelerate the deployment of robotics in artificial intelligent technologies in industrial settings where operators may be exposed to hazardous environments, such as in the offshore energy, nuclear energy and space sectors. This research contributes improving the performance of UK industries, reducing costs of operation and reducing the health and safety risks to the workforce.  

The four Hubs are:

AI and Robotics Case Studies

Funding into Artificial Intelligence and Robotics has enabled the development of core capabilities within AI that are taken forward into a wide range of applications, some of which have profound economic and societal benefit. Below are some examples of the impacts created by our funding opportunities.

 

Harnessing a Sea of Data

Major multinational AkzoNobel operates in a range of markets, including decorative paints, performance coatings and speciality chemicals. To explore how the huge data mountains generated by the company could be exploited to support its activities in the ship paint sector, AkzoNobel approached the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Cloud Computing for Big Data. The aim was to assess the feasibility of extracting value from data on the position of every ship worldwide (information collected every 15 minutes) and on which ships were coated with AkzoNobel paints. A team of four CDT students undertook the project, analysing the data in the ‘cloud’ over an eight-week period. This produced valuable findings that the company could harness to inform its commercial strategies and help shape its decision-making as it sought to expand its share of the ship paint market. As well as producing insights into vessel movements over time, the students developed a clear understanding of the skills needed to tackle data cleansing/modelling and of different challenges and priorities relating to the utilisation of data resources in future.

 

Self-Driving Vehicles

In 2016 self-driving vehicles equipped with autonomy software Selenium were tested successfully in public for the first time in the UK on pedestrianized streets at the heart of Milton Keynes.  Selenium was integrated onto an electric vehicle developed by Oxford University spin-out Oxbotica. The long-term EPSRC-funded research team behind the LUTZ Pathfinder pod demonstrated how the vehicle can navigate autonomously while avoiding unpredictable obstacles or hazards, such as children running into the road, by using the software to build 3D models of its surroundings.

 

Unlocking Applications Using Next Generation Computing and Artificial Intelligence

The Visual Geometry Group at the University of Oxford, led by Professor Andrew Zisserman and Professor Andrea Vedaldi and supported by EPSRC, are developing next generation computer vision algorithms that can analyse, describe and search image and video content with human-like capabilities.

Artificial Neural Networks developed by the Group have had a transformative impact on the field of computer vision, because they enable large image datasets and video content to be searched with ever greater degrees of accuracy. VGG 16 and two-stream architectures – two types of neural network models developed by the Group – have been used in wide ranging real-world applications. The Visual Geometry Group has contributed to many high-impact projects in natural sciences, material science bibliography, zoology, conservation and beyond. An example is Chimpanzee Face Recognition, where software can analyse decades’ worth of video recordings of wildlife in its natural habitat automatically, identifying individuals and social structures with ease.

Useful Information

General enquiries can be sent to the AI & Robotics team mailbox ai.robotics@epsrc.ukri.org  

The UKRI AI Review was published in February 2021 and can be found on our website https://www.ukri.org/about-us/what-we-do/ai-review-transforming-our-world-with-ai/

Funding opportunities can be found on our website here https://www.ukri.org/opportunity/

Further information on eligibility to receive funding can be found here https://www.ukri.org/apply-for-funding/before-you-apply/check-if-you-are-eligible-for-research-and-innovation-funding/

We encourage multi-disciplinary research. If you are interested in submitting a multi-disciplinary application, we encourage you to contact us to discuss what council is more suitable for your research. This should be done via the remit enquiry form: https://epsrc.ukri.org/funding/applicationprocess/basics/remit/remitqueries/