The University of Southampton

Artificial intelligence re-imagined to tackle society's challenges with people at its heart

Published: 27 November 2020
The Southampton fellowship will develop AI that could help people switch to greener forms of energy and transport.

AI systems will be re-designed to value people as more than passive providers of data in a prestigious new Turing Artificial Intelligence Acceleration Fellowship at the University of Southampton.

The novel research, led by Electronics and Computer Science's Dr Sebastian Stein, will create AI systems that are aware of citizens' preferences and act to maximise the benefit to society.

In these systems, citizens are supported by trusted personal software agents that learn an individual’s preferences. Importantly, rather than share this data with a centralised system, the AI agents keep it safe on private smart devices and only use it in their owners' interests.

Over the next five years, the £1.4m fellowship will develop and trial citizen-centric AI systems in a range of application areas, such as smart home energy management, on-demand mobility and disaster response, including for the provision of advice and medical support during epidemics like COVID-19.

Dr Stein, of the Agents, Interaction and Complexity (AIC) research group, says: "AI systems are increasingly used to support and often automate decision-making on an unprecedented scale. Such AI systems can draw on a vast range of data sources to make fast, efficient, data-driven decisions to address important societal challenges and potentially benefit millions of people.

"However, building AI systems on such a large and pervasive scale raises a range of important challenges. First, these systems may need access to relevant information from people, such as health-related data, which raises privacy issues and may also encourage people to misrepresent their requirements for personal benefit. Furthermore, the systems must be trusted to act in a manner that aligns with society’s ethical values. This includes the minimisation of discrimination and the need to make equitable decisions.

"Novel approaches are needed to build AI systems that are trusted by citizens, that are inclusive and that achieve their goals effectively. To enable this, citizens must be viewed as first-class agents at the centre of AI systems, rather than as passive data sources."

The new vision for AI systems will be achieved by developing techniques that learn the preferences, needs and constraints of individuals to provide personalised services, incentivise socially-beneficial behaviour changes, make choices that are fair, inclusive and equitable, and provide explanations for these decisions.

The Southampton team will draw upon a unique combination of research in multi-agent systems, mechanism design, human-agent interaction and responsible AI.

Dr Stein will work with a range of high-profile stakeholders over the duration of the fellowship. This will include citizen end-users, to ensure the research aligns with their needs and values, as well as industrial partners, to put the research into practice.

Specifically, collaboration with EA Technology and Energy Systems Catapult will generate incentive-aware smart charging mechanisms for electric vehicles. Meanwhile, work with partners including Siemens Mobility, Thales and Connected Places Catapult will develop new approaches for trusted on-demand mobility. Within the Southampton region, the fellowship will engage with the Fawley Waterside development to work on citizen-centric solutions to smart energy and transportation.

The team will also work with Dstl to create disaster response applications that use crowdsourced intelligence from citizens to provide situational awareness, track the spread of infectious diseases or issue guidance to citizens. Further studies with Dstl and Thales will explore applications in national security and policing, and joint work with UTU Technologies will investigate how citizens can share their preferences and recommendations with trusted peers while retaining control over what data is shared and with whom.

Finally, with IBM Research, Dr Stein will develop new explainability and fairness tools, and integrate these with their existing open source frameworks.

Turing Artificial Intelligence Acceleration Fellowships, named after AI pioneer Alan Turing, are supported by a £20 million government investment in AI being delivered by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), in partnership with the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, Office for AI and the Alan Turing Institute.

Science Minister, Amanda Solloway, says: "The UK is the birthplace of artificial intelligence and we therefore have a duty to equip the next generation of Alan Turings, like Southampton's Dr Sebastian Stein, with the tools that will keep the UK at the forefront of this remarkable technological innovation. "The inspiring AI project we are backing today to will help inform UK citizens in their decision making - from managing their energy needs to advising which mode of transport to take - transforming the way we live and work, while cementing the UK's status as a world leader in AI and data."

Digital Minister, Caroline Dinenage, says: "The UK is a nation of innovators and this government investment will help our talented academics use cutting-edge technology to improve people's daily lives - from delivering better disease diagnosis to managing our energy needs."

The University of Southampton has placed Machine Intelligence at the centre of its research activities for more than 20 years and has generated over £50m of funding for associated technologies in the last 10 years across 30 medium to large projects. Southampton draws together researchers and practitioners through its Centre for Machine Intelligence, trains the next generation of AI researchers via its UKRI Centre for Doctoral Training in Machine Intelligence for Nano- Electronic Devices and Systems (MINDS), and was recently chosen to host the UKRI Trustworthy Autonomous Systems (TAS) Hub.

Southampton is also a leading member of the UK national Alan Turing Institute with activities co-ordinated by the University’s Web Science Institute.

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