Re-inventing our relationship with computers

A collaboration of researchers from the Universities of Oxford, Southampton and Nottingham are at the forefront of a new science that is finding ways in which computers can work intelligently in partnership with people. This could support the management of some of today's most challenging situations, such as the aftermath of major disasters and smart energy systems.

ORCHID logoAt a recent event, at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London, world-leading ORCHID research was showcased from the fields of energy systems, citizen science and disaster response. The event featured keynote talks from project leaders, presentations of case studies and demonstrations of technologies 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.
  • AtomicORCHID - a mobile mixed-reality game in which first responders work together with a response headquarters to rescue as many casualties as possible. This game has allowed researchers to study team coordination and understand how human responders can be supported by computational agents that assist the planning and execution of the rescue mission, including the coordination of multi-UAV deployments.
  • Japan Nuclear Crowd Map platform - Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, citizen scientists deployed sensors and uploaded data to help track the spread of airborne radioactive particles. 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.

The five-year ORCHID project has looked at how 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) that can work symbiotically with people.

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, recommending how you might adapt your usual routine to reduce both the cost of the energy that you consume and its carbon content.

Haiti heatmap showing priority aid requirement obtained using crowd interpreted text reports
Heatmap showing priority aid requirement areas in Haiti obtained using crowd interpreted text reports after a natural disaster. It uses machine learning to remove bias in the reports and also fill in gaps where no reports are available.

The £10m project, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), 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. The University leads are Professor Nick Jennings (Southampton), Professor Tom Rodden (Nottingham) and Professor Steve Roberts (Oxford).

Professor Steve Roberts, from the University of Oxford’s Department of Engineering Science, said:

“Over the coming decades we will work side by side with intelligent machines; they will become even more woven into the fabric of our information platforms and help distill the ever-increasing floods of data into refined knowledge at a human scale. The ORCHID project has laid the foundations of how human and machine intelligence can symbiotically work to solve big problems; from aiding understanding of the universe around us to helping make our energy use more efficient. Increasingly such systems are being considered to address the pressing global problems of the coming century.”

Facts about ORCHID

  • The ORCHID project has employed and trained 50 research fellows and PhD students. It has generated over 200 publications, of which 40 are collaborations between the partners and half involve an international co-author. 
  • The ORCHID legacy includes the development of 25 new academic collaborations and follow-on grants worth £15m.  ORCHID researchers have organised 25 major conferences and workshops and won over 20 prizes, awards and best papers.
  • ORCHID has engaged with a variety of audiences, generating media coverage from the BBC, the Guardian, New Scientist, WIRED, the Economist and the Emergency Times.  Its work has been demonstrated and presented at public events such as the British Science Festival, ‘I’m a scientist’, BBC Summer of Wildlife and Farnborough Air Show.  ORCHID has also provided masterclasses for organisations including Toyota, British Gas Connected Homes, British Council on Disaster Response and South East Regional Cyber Crime Unit.
  • A number of technologies have been pulled through by industry, via engagement with over 40 organisations. ORCHID research has generated six patents in areas such as crowd-sourcing, sensor data processing and machine learning, and has released software for problems as diverse as non-intrusive load monitoring, tracking provenance and mobility analysis.

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