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New research to boost digital revolution and keep us safe online

Six new world-leading, innovative research centres across the UK will allow citizens to grasp the possibilities of the digital revolution, while addressing key challenges to their online safety and privacy.

The centres will be established with over £51 million of funding, with £22 million of support from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) catalysing a further investment of £29.5 million from a wide range of industrial and academic partners.

Societal impact

They will explore how new and emerging digital technologies can be utilised to improve the UK’s economy, health, wellbeing and the environment and deliver real societal impact.

For example, the Horizon Institute led by the University of Nottingham will work with industry partners to develop products blending physical and digital elements, such as memory machines for people with dementia to share and trigger memories, or community casting of virtual musical festivals.

Working with the local community, the Future Places centre led by Lancaster University, will develop ‘internet of things’ sensors to capture the volume of microplastics coming from homes, raising awareness of the impact of plastic pollution and fostering change.

Minister for Digital and Culture Caroline Dinenage said:

The UK’s world-renowned universities and fast-growing safety tech sector are coming up with answers to the important questions of the digital age – around privacy, security and online wellbeing.

With this investment we are supporting organisations to build trust in the technology of tomorrow so people and businesses can use it to improve their lives and boost the economy.

Add to that our forthcoming pro-innovation online harms legislation and we will give tech companies the clarity and responsibility to create safer online spaces for future generations to enjoy.

Minister for Science, Research and Innovation Amanda Solloway said:

We rely on technology for so many things in our lives – from paying our bills and buying our weekly food shop to tackling climate change and finding new treatments for diseases. We must continue investing so we can keep pushing the boundaries of technological developments that improve our daily lives and transform industries.

The six new research centres announced today will support our ambitious scientists and researchers to develop incredible innovations such as strengthening our online safety and delivering virtual education and healthcare, helping to cement the UK as a science superpower.

Five Next Stage Digital Economy Centres are being supported with a £22 million investment, delivered by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC):

  • CAMERA 2.0, led by the University of Bath, will pioneer intelligent visual and interactive technology using 3D cameras and artificial intelligence that will allow us to capture and understand our world in new ways. Using this data we can create ‘new worlds’ not just for the creative sector but also to allow individuals’ to enhance their health and partake in education or training. Examples could include transferring motor skills learnt in virtual environments to tennis and other elite sports, or augmenting our natural senses to increase our performance in complex engineering tasks.
  • The Centre for Digital Citizens (CDC) led by Newcastle and Northumbria Universities will design and evaluate new technologies and services that support ‘smart’, ‘data-rich’ living across urban, rural and coastal communities, exploring how digital technologies can support public health and wellbeing, community engagement, citizen safety and technology-enhanced lifelong learning.
  • The Horizon Institute, led by the University of Nottingham, will explore how challenges such as trust regarding the use of personal data can be addressed in the development of new technologies and products that blend physical and digital elements. For example, community casting of virtual music festivals, personalised digital mental health interventions, and data-driven consumer goods.
  • The Centre for the Decentralised Digital Economy (DECaDE) led by the University of Surrey will explore how the platforms that underpin our digital economy could transformed into a decentralised model by emerging data-centric technologies like artificial intelligence and the bit-coin service Blockchain, to be further democratized so they can be further innovated by individuals across society.
  • The Future Places Centre led by Lancaster University will explore how ubiquitous and pervasive technologies such as the Internet of Things and new data science tools can allow individuals to design and adapt the places they live, work and spend time in, for instance seeing how these technologies can shape healthy, sustainable living through the creation of appropriate places.

The Next Stage Digital Economy Centres will take forward inter and multidisciplinary applied digital economy research to “the next stage”, ultimately easing the pathway to better commercialisation.

Empowering citizens

This week also marks the launch of the National Research Centre on Privacy, Harm Reduction and Adversarial Influence online (REPHRAIN), supported by £7 million of funding from UKRI’s Strategic Priorities Fund.

REPHRAIN brings together researchers from the Universities of Bristol, Edinburgh and Bath, King’s College London and UCL, who will work with partners across industry, policy and the third sector to develop measures to empower individual citizens regarding their privacy and online safety.

The centre will explore the effectiveness of existing privacy and online safety measures and develop new tools through a number of different projects.

One, Project QUERY will explore developing privacy mechanisms for sequential data, like location data and activity logs about a person, and to provide a way to analyse the data without revealing the details of an individual.

Another, Project NEWS, will investigate whether engagement with news articles can be used to automatically predict an individual’s personality, and to provide more evidence around the online harms possible through manipulative targeting.

EPSRC Executive Chair, Dame Professor Lynn Gladden, said:

New and emerging digital technologies will have a profound impact on many aspects of our lives, from our health and wellbeing to our work and leisure time.

The investment announced today will not only support new ways of capitalizing on this opportunity but will also help to ensure that those using these new technologies are safe while doing so.

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