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Southampton University heralded for work on computer science and autonomous systems

The University of Southampton is celebrating two key achievements this week, the inaugural lecture of Professor Nick Jennings, who has been awarded a Regius Professorship in Computer Science and the first anniversary of its Web Science Institute (WSI) which is being represented with a celebratory event this week.

The University of Southampton’s achievements in autonomous systems and artificial intelligence will be showcased at the inaugural lecture of Professor Nick Jennings. The University of Southampton was one of just 12 UK institutions awarded a Regius Professorship by HM The Queen to mark her Diamond Jubilee and the only institution to be awarded a Regius Professor in Computer Science.

The event, which is taking place this week at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London, will demonstrate cutting-edge work with examples drawn from state-of-the-art EPSRC and EU-funded projects.

This will include news about the advanced design and methodology tools that help build and fly fixed and rotary wing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), popularly referred to as 'drones', including a toolset that provides testing and analysis of autonomous systems based on realistic scenarios before they are built. UAVS are low-cost autonomous robots, that operate in challenging marine environments and unmanned aircraft that deliver scientific instruments to extreme altitudes to improve the accuracy of weather prediction and climate models.

Professor Bashir Al-Hashimi, Dean of Physical Sciences and Engineering at the University of Southampton, said: ‘Algorithms and software have a tremendous impact on society, from the internet and consumer electronics to healthcare and transportation. Autonomous systems, built on these intelligent algorithms and software, will be one of the most powerful tools in tackling global challenges.’

Nick Jennings, Professor of Computer Science and a Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government, is an internationally-recognised authority in the areas of artificial intelligence, autonomous systems and agent-based computing. Professor Jennings has pioneered the application of multi-agent technology developing real world systems and leads the innovative ORCHID programme investigating how people and software agents can effectively work together to improve disaster response operations and enable smart energy systems.

Professor Jennings said: ‘It is a great honour for Southampton to be awarded a Regius Chair in Computer Science and reflects extremely well on the quality of research and teaching of the whole department over many years. I’m honoured to be the inaugural post holder and will endeavour to use it as a platform to highlight the fundamental importance of computer science to modern society.’

In addition to the developments in autonomous systems, Southampton University is also being celebrated for its work in understanding the web and our social interactions with the WSI. The WSI aims to tackle the most pressing global challenges facing the World Wide Web and wider society today by bringing together world-leading multidisciplinary expertise from across the University from diverse areas such as sociology, computer science, economics, psychology, law and humanities.

WSI Director Professor Dame Wendy Hall said: ‘One year on from the launch of the Web Science Institute, we celebrate with a showcase of research and an afternoon of debate and discussion.  Our theme – ‘Privacy and Trust in the Era of Big Data analytics’ – is one that impacts on everyone in the digital world as personal data becomes a tradable asset, and carries wide-ranging implications for individuals, business and government.’

The first 12 months of the WSI have produced a number of projects and initiatives aimed at driving understanding and insight into the World Wide Web. This includes a number of social media research projects, addressing crucial social science research questions by trialling social media data and methods in collaboration with PhD students and the Web Observatory. Eight new interdisciplinary projects have also been initiated, supported by the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF).

The Web Science Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Southampton was established as part of a £250 million investment in the future of UK science and technology by the RCUK Digital Economy Programme.

The Centre trains a cohort of 80 PhD students in a thorough understanding of how to innovate and create new forms of value through the Web, and prepares them to become agents of change in the digital economy.

The Web Observatory was launched as part of the WSI efforts in partnership with the The Web Science Trust (WST), a charitable body which aims to support the global development of Web Science, hosted by the University of Southampton. The Southampton Web Observatory portal has now deployed; sharing public and private datasets, API access (Javascript, Node) and support for streaming data available to users.

In addition to the Web Observatory the Web Science trust has proposed a new class of scientific instruments (akin to microscopes or stethoscopes) designed to take measurements from the Web. These will be connected and operate globally, offering access to data sets and open analytics and will support a range of stakeholders from academia, government and industry.

In addition to this previous work the WSI is also part of the SOCIAM project. ‘SOCIAM - the theory and practice of Social Machines’ is a partnership between researchers from Southampton, Oxford and Edinburgh Universities who have embarked on a five-year (2012-2017) research programme.

This project derives from concepts introduced by Tim Berners-Lee in his book Weaving the Web, where the Web is described as an engine to "create abstract social machines - new forms of social processes that would be given to the world at large”.

The ultimate ambition of SOCIAM is to enable users to understand how these systems evolve and what factors influence their success and evolution. Its aim is to develop both theory and practice so that we can create the next generation of Social Machines.

The event opens with an exhibition showcasing interdisciplinary Web Science research. This will include the Web Observatory, a new class of scientific instruments designed to take measurements from the Web, and the unique SOCIAM project, which has developed the ‘Macroscope’ a vital tool for studying the World Wide Web in great detail.

With state-of-the-art machine analysis and visualisation techniques, the Macroscope can monitor the daily 500 million posts created on Twitter, 100 million posts on Chinese microblogging site Weibo and 500,000 edits to Wikipedia, amongst others. This enables SOCIAM to see significant effects that may usually be missed - things like trending topics, conversations and collective actions taking place across the Web, and provides analytical insight for Web Scientists and the wider research community.

Institute Directors Professor Dame Wendy Hall, Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt,  Professor Susan Halford and Professor Les Carr,  will then join other leading figures from Web and internet science, including Sir David Omand, ex head of GCHQ and a member of the  Global Commission on Internet Governance, in panel-led discussions on ‘Privacy and Trust in the Era of Big Data Analytics’.

Professor Les Carr said: ‘The Institute leverages its expertise in computational, social science and humanities research to provide masters and interdisciplinary doctoral training that examines the disruptive effect of the Web’s data and social media technologies on our personal and professional lives.’

Carr  concluded: ‘Our students aim to produce new kinds of cultural and economic value as they work closely with business, industry and government to seize the opportunities for innovation in the digital information economy.’


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