Our changing relationship with computers

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The Royal Academy of Engineering hosted an event in September showcasing world-leading research from the University in the fields of energy systems, citizen science and disaster response. The research stems from the hugely successful ORCHID project, a five-year study into human interaction with computers, led by Southampton’s Professor Nick Jennings.

The ORCHID project has been studying the way in which we work with computers. Instead of issuing instructions to passive machines, we will increasingly work in partnership with agents, highly interconnected computational components that are able to act autonomously and intelligently, forming human-agent collectives (HACs). Agents can be in sensors collecting and analysing information to give the ‘bigger picture’ of an emergency situation as it develops or in a smart meter monitoring the energy consumption of your home.

The exhibition in London showcased ORCHID research and demonstrated technologies that have resulted, such as:

Joulo: a home heating advice system that uses a low-cost temperature logger and online algorithms to provide feedback to households on how they are using their current heating system, along with autonomous intelligent home heating agents that can learn the householders’ comfort preferences in order to provide efficient comfortable heat control [web link]

Japan Nuclear Crowd Map Platform: After the Fukushima disaster, citizen scientists used sensors and uploaded data on their smartphones to help track the spread of radioactive particles through the air. To identify accurate information from some many sources, the platform combines reports from thousands of sensors and uses machine learning algorithms to correct for biases and noise and weed out those sensors that are defective.

Closer to home, this type of technology has also been used to track the endangered New Forest Cicada – the UK’s largest native insect. The team developed an app that enables visitors to the New Forest to capture and classify sounds in the forest to detect the presence of this elusive insect.

The £10m funded project (£5m from EPSRC Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council with the rest from matched support from project partners) has brought together around 60 researchers from the universities of Southampton, Oxford and Nottingham, together with industrial partners at BAE Systems, Secure Meters UK Ltd, Rescue Global and the Australian Centre of Field Robotics. It has proved immensely successful. Now approaching its end, so far it has resulted in 25 new academic collaborations, follow-on grants worth £15m and six patents.

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