York to establish £35m research facility for AI safety

The initiative will allow world-leading experts to address global challenges in assuring the safety of robotics and autonomous systems.

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The University of York is to establish a £35m research facility for the safety of robotics and autonomous systems which use artificial intelligence (AI).

Bringing together world-leading experts in the field of robotics and AI, the York Global Initiative for Safe Autonomy aims to provide a space in which its research staff and industrial partners will work in specialist laboratories and testing facilities to improve and assure the safety of robotics and autonomous systems.

According to Professor John McDermid, director of the University’s Assuring Autonomy programme, “the world is experiencing an unprecedented period of technological advancement. Robotics and AI will change every part of our lives . . . But this rapid advancement comes with challenges: how do we assure their safety?”

The initiative will house specialist laboratories and testing facilities, bringing together York’s expertise across design, assurance, and communications technologies. It will enable industrial partners and world-leading experts in the field to collaboratively address global challenges in assuring the safety of robotics and autonomous systems.

Starting with a £10m donation from the Lloyd’s Register Foundation to the Assuring Autonomy International Programme of the University of York, established in 2018, the York Global Initiative for Safe Autonomy is further funded by the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund (UKRPIF) of Research England which provided £10.5m of the funding, and an additional £14.5m from a rich network of industrial partners, private donors, and alumni.

Professor Deborah Smith, the University of York’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, said that “this project is key to Industrial Strategy. AI and robotics are a key area for development in the modern world and this project is all about developing those safely.” Professor Smith recognised the risk involving the use of AI systems and the need to assure their safety, adding that, “the first risk in adopting these technologies is we do it too fast and we don’t know that they’re safe. The second risk is we adopt them too slowly and we don’t benefit from the real advantages that these technologies can bring mankind at the moment.”

Research at the York Global Initiative for Safe Autonomy will follow four research pillars: Design and verification, which will ensure that robotics and connected autonomous systems (RCAS) can be fully trusted in environments which are challenging; Assurance, which will ensure the safety of RCAS and their ability to learn from their errors and adapt to their environment; Communications, which will ensure that communication between RCAS is efficient, effective, and, most importantly, secure; and Society and Ethics, which will ensure that RCAS are introduced appropriately and safely so that issues of practical ethics are addressed.

The York Global Initiative for Safe Autonomy will be an addition to the University of York’s already rich and impactful research on AI, robotics, and communication technologies. The initiative will work alongside and collaborate with the York Centre for Quantum Technologies, an interdisciplinary initiative which is aimed at encouraging and enhancing new cooperations in the area of quantum theory. Researchers working at the Centre for Quantum Technologies have recently launched the UK’s first quantum network, in partnership with the University of Cambridge and Toshiba Research Europe Ltd. The network is said to provide ultra-secure and unhackable methods of communication.

The new initiative at the University of York is also expected to provide support for YorRobots, a University-wide initiative which brings together researchers working in robotics and autonomous systems, and their application. YorRobots aims to maximise the benefit of UK industry from robotics expertise at York. The York Global Initiative for Safe Autonomy will be based on Campus East and will house up to 100 researchers and support staff in its world-class facilities, including a rooftop laboratory and specialist robotics design and testing equipment. Construction will start in 2020 and the facility is expected to open in 2021.

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