Artificial intelligence: Transforming the world we live in

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The Independent Online

The study of artificial intelligence (AI) - even at undergraduate level - has never been so advanced, particularly in the UK, Japan and USA. "We have a current student on our BSc in AI who is looking at putting emotions on a robot so that if it could show if it was curious or angry," says Will Browne, lecturer in cybernetics at the University of Reading. "The idea of this robot, which is designed to work in areas such as disaster relief or mine clearing, is that it could react to its conditions - so the more curious it becomes, the more it would explore and the more angry it becomes, the more capable it would be of deciding on one of many possible actions."

Most people don't realise the extent to which AI is already used in our everyday lives, believes Brown - making a degree in it an increasingly relevant qualification. "For instance, AI is used in supermarkets to work out what products should be placed with other products, the colour and price the product should be compared to other products, and whether certain products should be stacked vertically or horizontally. Companies invest a huge amount in AI in these kinds of ways to get people to spend a bit more money."

AI is also used to create robot technology to do things such as construct our cars, clean our floors and even perform delicate microsurgery on us. Military and agricultural applications of AI are also on the rise and increasingly, AI is being used to assist disabled and elderly people.

Little wonder that a growing number of universities across the UK are running degrees in AI. The kinds of people best suited to them, says Dr Browne, are people with a basic interest in engineering and computer science, combined with a curiosity of how animals, including humans, function and how intelligent behaviours are created - and, of course, more than a passing interest in robots.

"We are not looking for geeks," insists Judith Masthofs, lecturer in computing science at the University of Aberdeen, which also offers an AI degree. "We need good communicators and problem solvers. But there's no need for students to know where they want to work when they graduate because the opportunities are expanding all the time. We have a lot of students who go onto work in banks, predicting what the money market will do next, while others go on to work for intelligence organisations right through to oil companies."

Even companies like Accenture seek out AI graduates. Martin Illsley, director of research at Accenture, says, "AI is a growing area for us, as unlikely as that might seem, in that we try to link AI technology to business. In other words, we try to find ways of applying AI in the business world. For example, we've recently been working with some software that can be used in camera phones. As you move the camera phone around, it can automatically determine the object it sees and overlay information. So, if you're in a DIY store and are not sure what an object is, you could hold out the camera phone, which would send the picture to a server that does the analysis to tell you what it is. It could be used by shop assistants as well as consumers."

Alternatively, you may decide to start up your own company, says Nils Roder, chief technology officer at Edinburgh Robotics. "After I'd graduated, I decided I'd like to make some of my ideas work in industry, so I set this company up, alongside working as a researcher at Edinburgh University. There are five of us in the company and we have managed to set up a piece of software that can tell a robot - like a vacuum cleaner which cleans when you're out or an automated forklift - what to do."

Rich Walker also decided to be part of a new company after he graduated and he is now technical director at the London-based Shadow Robotics, a firm best known for its invention of a multi-use "dextrous" robotic hand, which can be used in a variety of domestic and industrial settings. "A lot of people in AI start from the proposition that they'll build software that is intelligent, but our feeling was that if it doesn't do something useful in the world, what's the point? If it sits quietly in a corner calculating pi to a billion decimal places, it's very impressive, but it doesn't solve any problem in the world. So we started out with the aim of building something useful and then giving it intelligence. The result is creating this hand, the Shadow Hand, that has the same versatility as a human hand and is the same size and shape."

The Shadow Hand, which has 24 separately powered and controlled movements, has already been sold to the likes of NASA and major universities, and with the help of Government funding, is currently being used to help create an entire multifunctional robot that can be guided, trained and programmed to carry out everyday tasks for people with disabilities. "Working in this area is cutting-edge engineering," says Walker. "It's very, very exciting."

One of the fastest growing employers of AI graduates is the computer games industry. In fact, some universities run specific courses for people who want to work in this field. Gareth Bellaby, course leader for the BSc in Computer Games Development at the University of Central Lancashire, says, "One of the most important aspects of all computer games is AI because, for instance, characters within the games need to be able to move around a map or landscape without bumping into walls - which is more difficult than it might sound - and make decisions against human opponents. Then there are challenges like ensuring that the camera can move around the landscape in a sensible fashion."

Bellaby believes that the computer games industry is the most fun end of AI. "It's also one of those areas within AI where there are usually jobs available," he says.

The existence of such degrees are a good reason for people interested in AI to do some homework into the course best suited to them and not look exclusively for "AI" to appear in the title. As Dr Klaus-Peter Zauner, lecturer in computer science at the University of Southampton, points out, "All students who study computer science here do some work around AI."

Similarly, Sanga Dogramadzi, lecturer in robotics at the University of the West of England, says, "Our degree in robotics includes a lot of AI. People choose it because they're interested in the hands-on experience of building things, as well as the intelligence behind it."

The degree in robotics with AI at the University of Bradford would also suit such people, although senior lecturer John Baruch cautions: "A degree in robotics would not necessarily include AI because you can focus on the manufacturing side of robotics, which rarely involves AI. So my advice to students is to look in some detail about the course content of degrees they're interested in and where possible talk to the people who run the course."

Sethu Vijayakumar, reader at Edinburgh University - which offers separate degrees in computer science, AI and informatics - believes there has never been a more exciting time to study AI. "It's used in everything from automatic speech recognition and speech translation systems right through to rehabilitation systems for stroke patients and disaster recovery systems. What could be more stimulating than the opportunity to contribute to such inventions?"

'AI COULD PREVENT MALARIA'

Pat Parslow is studying a PhD, incorporating AI, at Reading University

"The main thrust of my work involves recording the noises animals make so that their species and health status can be identified through these noises. I'm particularly focusing on mosquitos and determining, through their noises, whether they have malaria. The ultimate aim is to allow public health authorities in countries with a malaria epidemic to better control that malaria. After all, if we have systems where we know when mosquitos are carrying malaria, we can utilise things like spraying more effectively.

"Without AI, my work might conceivably still be possible, but I'd have to be a lot cleverer. What AI does is help me with pattern recognition, which is allowing me to reach my ultimate goal a lot quicker.

"I initially became interested in AI when I was working for Thames Water before doing a degree. I'd found AI increasingly useful in finding patterns and so I decided to do a BSc in the subject. I did a BSc in Intelligent Systems, subsequently renamed Artificial Intelligence and Cybernetics. Following an MSc in Informatics, I started my PhD and I'm also a part-time research assistant for the university."

'WE'RE PUSHING FRONTIERS'

Jeremy Mabbitt is co-founder of Codefarm, a company that applies AI to powerful tools for financial portfolio construction

"We're a company specialising in a field of AI called evolutionary computing, which is about using methods based on evolution and nature to solve difficult engineering and mathematical problems. In the financial markets, there are a number of particularly difficult mathematical optimisation problems that lend themselves to this approach - so that has become our focus and we now have six of the top 10 investment banks using our technology.

"I originally founded the company five years ago, having studied AI - specifically evolutionary computing - at Sussex University. A dozen people off that course work here at Codefarm.

"Backtracking even further, I think I initially became captivated by the idea of AI when I realised that it can do some things more efficiently and quickly than humans. That fascinated me and I wanted to carve out a career maximising its potential.

"My interest paid off because I find it so satisfying to have developed a system which is actually able to outperform what the human brain can do. I feel as though what we're doing is pushing the frontiers of what is possible with computers."

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