Reimagining the university in an age of rapid innovation

If we had the chance to design a university from the ground up to deliver truly interdisciplinary research, education and innovation, how would we do it? That, is in essence, the experiment being played out with a new initiative, I-X

Universities have had a profound impact in shaping our modern world – particularly in the digital realm. For example, researchers at Imperial have driven important advances in radar technology and holography and neural networks. Elsewhere, the invention of the strained-layer quantum-well laser, found in all manner of devices from DVDs to broadband fibre optics, took place at the University of Surrey. Meanwhile UCLA and Stanford University played crucial roles in what would become the internet.  

Clearly universities will continue to have a leadership role in this area going forward, but how exactly should that play out? 

Dennis Gabor in old photograph

"The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented. It was man's ability to invent which has made human society what it is."

Imperial's Dennis Gabor, inventor of holography and recipient of the 1971 Nobel Prize for Physics

It’s easy to forget the digital revolution is really only in its infancy. The next wave of technologies based on artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), advanced robotics, augmented/virtual reality and health informatics will arguably have an even greater impact on our daily lives.  

We have an opportunity therefore to think more strategically about how to leverage these technologies to build a better future, by bringing together universities, business, government and the next generation of students and young people who will probably be most impacted by these technologies.  

“If we really are going to have businesses built on new technologies, how are we going to do that if the technology people and the business people don’t really understand each other and don’t really have very much interaction, which is kind of how it is at the moment?” asks Imperial’s Professor Eric Yeatman, a leading figure in micro-electro-mechanical systems and co-founder of Microsaic Systems PLC.

With I-X we will create a test-bed for different ways of running a university and the digital sector presents possibly the best opportunity to do this.  
Professor Eric Yeatman

The coming wave of digital technologies will completely transform every single facet of our lives – how we learn and acquire new skills; our work and opportunities; our finances and legal affairs; how we travel and get around; our health and wellbeing; and how we spend our leisure and social time. We can already see this happening in the early stages of fundamental research, in what will eventually become these disruptive technologies – as Imperial Professor Peter Pietzuch, a leader in data-intensive software systems, observes.

“I’m a computer scientist and I find it fascinating how much computer science there is across the spectrum of disciplines – engineering, natural sciences, business, medicine. So much of that work uses computational methods, algorithmic methods, ML or advanced statistics at the very core of its activity.” 

Yet the question remains: are current university structures – which remain largely based around subject-specific departments, faculties and institutes – best placed to deliver this future?

Clearly collaboration already happens between disciplines now, and Imperial is a genuine leader in this area, for example in terms of the number of scientific papers co-written across disciplines, with industry and with international colleagues. But can we do more? 

Professor Yeatman comments: “We could try to gradually evolve our existing units, like departments, and indeed we are actively doing that. But that’s a very slow process and one way to hurry that along is to create a separate entity and create an atmosphere and culture whereby we put aside all of those silos. We don’t want to just inherit the culture that’s been evolving for the past 50 or 100 years; we want to start to develop our own culture from scratch.  

“With I-X we will create a testbed for different ways of running a university and the digital sector presents possibly the best opportunity to do this.”  

Professor Eric Yeatman

"The coming wave of digital technologies will completely transform every single facet of our lives."

Professor Eric Yeatman

Picture of surgery with the surgeons using Virtual reality technology

What is I-X?  

The ultimate vision for I-X is to deliver transformational research, teaching and innovation, co-locating staff, students and industry, to build a new model of co-discovery and co-creation in the digital space.  

There will be a major presence at Imperial’s White City Campus, which itself is part of the wider White City Innovation District, including cutting-edge startups, scaleup companies and multinationals such as Novartis and L’Oreal. But this will not only be a physical space: there will be strong digital presence, and a state-of-the-art environment for virtual collaboration. 

Crucially, I-X is not intended to be a new administrative structure, in the same way as a department or an institute, but a ‘mixed campus’ for a broad range of activities and projects. Staff and students will remain members of ‘home’ departments.  

I-X will be led by a multi-disciplinary team from across the College Faculties, including Professor Eric Yeatman (Electrical and Electronic Engineering) as Chair alongside Co-Directors Professor Peter Pietzuch (Computing), Professor Chris Tucci (Business School) and Professor Guy Nason (Mathematics). The board is completed by Professor Deborah Ashby (School of Public Health), Professor Aldo Faisal (Bioengineering and Computing), Dr Simon Hepworth (Enterprise) and Dr Mark Kennedy (Business School). 

“What we are increasingly hearing from our industrial partners is that they are looking for different ways of collaborating with universities, with greater focus on co-location and secondments,” Professor Pietzuch says, adding: “This can be difficult to do at present, due to all sorts of trivial reasons, such as difficulty getting people external to the university allocated with desk or lab space.”  

Picture of one of Imperial's White City campus buildings

“With I-X we are less constrained and therefore can experiment with different kinds of engagement models: we can talk to an industrial partner and come up with a very bespoke model where we co-design either a research programme or research programme with an education component, which facilitates the training of students or company employees with particular skills or techniques that come out the research that happens. There are a number of avenues that can be explored. There’s certainly the appetite.” 

Since the next generation of technologies will impact each and every one of us in myriad ways, I-X will aim to engage not just industry but the public at large and local communities in London, for example, through the development of an apprenticeship in data science scheme. 

It will build on the success of existing programmes at White City - for example Imperial CodeLab, an after-school club for young people who are the first in their family to attend University, which uses interactive and creative coding projects to give them the opportunity to develop practical skills in problem-solving, creativity and computational thinking. 

Meanwhile, at the other end of the age spectrum, ‘What the Tech!?’ is an informal gadget workshop run by Imperial Business School students and aimed at local residents over 50 – who can drop-in and can bring along any device or online task they need help with. 

Professor Guy Nason, Chair in Statistics at Imperial, leads the Engagement component of I-X. He recently provided advice to the Government on the levelling-up agenda in a tech context and has experience of engaging industry and government in tech initiatives such as the COMPASS Doctoral Training Centre in Statistical Science. 

School pupils learning on laptops in a classroom at Imperial
Number of White City local residents being taught how to use tablets and other technologies

Delivering technology moonshots in the digital space 

I-X's innovative research programme aims to deliver ambitious scientific ‘moonshots’ in the next 5-10 years. This will be achieved by bringing together multi-disciplinary academic teams from across Imperial with companies and non-profit labs to solve problems that they cannot solve alone. The scope of this programme includes ‘core fields’ such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), statistics and data science which will underpin ‘applied fields’ such as robotics and automation; virtual and augmented reality; internet of things; and networking and communications. There will also be ‘foundational aspects’ that inform the manner in which technologies are developed including security, privacy, resilience and ethics.  

Some of the possible moonshot programs at I-X will include:  

Building machine learning systems that understand the real-world 

The power of AI, and specifically machine learning, lies in its ability to recognise patterns over time and solve problems automatically. Machine learning underpins many of the services we use today. That includes everything from recommendations on Netflix, to banks’ credit decisions and increasingly more complex tasks like diagnosis of medical conditions from X-rays. But it is not flawless. For example, researchers have demonstrated how to fool a car’s onboard AI system into misreading a stop sign, by carefully positioning four small stickers on the face of the sign. This is sometimes known in computing circles as ‘brittleness’. Projects at Imperial will build machine learning systems that understand the real-world, by incorporating prior knowledge of underlying scientific laws (e.g. from mathematics, physics or chemistry) into the model, thus motivating a new class of ‘constrained’ AI/ML approaches. Bringing together experts in AI/ML to work with domain experts will allow I-X to tackle specific use cases in various fields of science and engineering, while advancing of field of AI/ML by developing new methods, algorithms and theory.  

Improving healthcare with big data and AI 

Our healthcare systems already generate huge amounts of data. New techniques in AI and ML have the potential to improve patient care – for example by rapidly screening new drugs or even anticipating when certain patients might experience episodes of ill health or relapses before they actually happen. Interestingly, during the coronavirus pandemic, a team of researchers used targeted keyword searches and natural language processing (NPL) algorithms, including those relating to symptoms, to provide a real-time situational report of hospital activity on the ground. It even provided up to four days advance warning of surges in COVID-19 admissions. Meanwhile a startup in London uses machine-reading to surface evidence from 30 million biomedical publications in seconds, enabling researchers to rapidly map epidemiology data, biomarker genes, molecular targets and identify potential treatment options. I-X will apply similar techniques to a whole range of healthcare settings, including new and emergent infectious diseases, patterns of microbial resistance, drug discovery and screening.  

Virtual-real co-presence  

During the pandemic we have become increasingly adept, and comfortable, in meeting, collaborating and teaching using online tools. As a new normality asserts itself, the use of these tools is likely to continue to be important. Where major innovation is needed, however, is in collaborating in mixed groups of physically and virtually present participants. I-X aims to be at the forefront of these new working and teaching approaches, and therefore will also conduct fundamental research in developing the required techniques. This is interdisciplinary work of the type at which the College can excel, involving not just software and computation but also digital communications, video and audio systems, signal processing and AI, human-computer interaction and other human factors.  

Picture of a modern interconnected city

Preparing for a future of human-AI cooperation 

You might be forgiven for thinking that the next wave of AI, ML and automation driven technologies might reduce the need for human expertise in the future. But in fact, the opposite is true. Indeed research has suggested that AI will create as many jobs as it replaces. And it’s not just the research expertise in developing core capabilities and new technologies; professions such as finance, law and healthcare will be transformed by these technologies and so will need some embedded specialist expertise, for example in order to train and supervise AI and ML. Indeed, many of the most useful AI systems currently used in business require a ‘human-in-the-loop’ to be truly effective and stable.  

I-X will address these skills gaps with a cross-disciplinary model of innovative education. Founding partners from industry and the public sector will also be invited to engage actively in curriculum development as well as how teaching will be delivered.  

Professor Chris Tucci, who leads on the educational element of I-X, comments: 

“The demand is already there. If you look at computing, AI and business analytics, these programmes are massively oversubscribed. There’s also an executive education element, with people in business asking us: “How do I achieve digital transformation; where do I even start?” We’re seeing this intense interest from across the entire spectrum and that’s why we are trying to consolidate our offering, share resources and start some of our own programmes that will address some of these needs. There’s a lot of room to grow here.” 

I-X will create synergies between existing MSc courses in the area of AI/ML and data science across traditional departmental boundaries. This will not only provide a new way of working together across departments, but will also support the efficient and rapid development of new MSc courses in priority areas. Examples include new MSc courses in AI/ML, Applied ML, Data Centric Engineering, Data Science and AI for application areas in Health/Life Sciences Engineering/Business.  

I-X will also make rich use of digital technology for the delivery of education (including effective use of mixed-mode teaching models) but also in the design of the educational offering, for example, in the use of AI/ML and data analytics for personalisation and customisation of teaching and immersive learning using Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality. 

There will be considerable demand for AI skills in many different professions, from law to banking, in the very near future.
Professor Chris Tucci

The consolidation of teaching in this area and the digitalisation of teaching will provide opportunities for a substantial increase in student numbers in (and talent outflow from) related degree programmes at postgraduate level. In addition to teaching conventional full-scale Masters’ courses, I-X will provide ‘Mini-Masters’ MSc courses that can be dynamically created and retired, enabling a much quicker response to demand from students, industry and public sector. These ‘Mini-Masters’ MSc courses will be made available to staff from I-X’s founding partners, allowing them access to Masters-level education elements on a fast-tracked and bespoke basis, targeted at those that seek to upskill in domains of technology. Joint programmes developed with international partners will also be investigated.  

A portfolio of offerings, designed both for individual corporate partners and for general attendance, will provide an active response to the need for upskilling at all levels of career progression (including executive education). 

Professor Tucci concludes: “We don’t really know how things are going to evolve, so our idea is to enable the collaboration, put people physically together, have different stakeholders involved, including organisations, companies and government, then try and see what works, what doesn’t work, for the future of higher education. We’re not saying we’ve figured out what the university of future will look like, rather we’re putting together some kind of framework from which the university of future might develop.”  

Picture of a Engineer using Virtual reality technology in the workplace

Box-out – I-X PhD Startupship 

Over the past decade or so, the higher education sector has seen increasing numbers of undergraduates, postgraduates and early career researchers pursue innovative ideas from their research. Imperial is one of the UK's leading institutes in this respect (see entrepreneurs below). Notably, in the 2020 Mayor of London’s entrepreneur competition, three out of four awards were given to Imperial student teams. This activity is encouraged and supported by schemes including WeInnovate and the Imperial-hosted MedTech SuperConnector, and enabled by facilities such as the Enterprise Lab and Advanced Hackspace. But this still happens more by ‘happy accident’ rather than by design and is still viewed as somewhat separate and ‘extra-curricular’.  

I-X will deliver a ‘Startupship’ programme, which envisions industrially-supported PhD projects leading to start-up formation. Professor Eric Yeatman explains: 

“If somebody is in a hot topic, let’s say machine learning for medicine, they could walk into jobs that are very well paid in lots of places.

"Now we could say to them: 'why don’t you do a PhD with us, spend three or four years working on one very particular piece of tech, and at the end, if it’s really cool, maybe we can help you start a company. They might think: ‘hmm, that sounds like quite a long time and there are a lot of ‘ifs’ there’. 

"On the other hand, if we say: 'Actually, we’ve got this programme where we’re going to assume, right from the beginning, you will form a company. We’re going to build in entrepreneurial education elements and your key milestones will be building a business plan as well as building the tech itself. I think we would capture really good people that way who wouldn’t otherwise choose to stay'.” 

Imperial AI startups 

Magic Pony was a startup that employed innovative machine-learning techniques to improve the quality of images and video captured with low-resolution cameras by recognising patterns and textures. It was acquired by Twitter in 2016 for $150 million (£102 million). Founded by Dr Zehan Wang and Rob Bishop shortly after they completed degrees at Imperial (Zehan a PhD in the Department of Computing and Bishop a Masters in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering). 

Deep.Meta is tackling the issue of identifying problems in metals production. Currently defect investigations are manual, so take a long time to identify and are not always precise. Deep.Meta is using machine learning algorithms to predict when defects will occur, such as on the production line of a steelworks, before they do. Founded by Aizar Enciso Dominguez, PhD Quantum Computing and Osas Omoigiade, PhD in Metallurgy (both Imperial). 

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Imperial startup Yokeru set up an AI call centre to help identify households needing extra support during lockdown. Their system has been piloted at Hammersmith & Fulham Council, helping hundreds of households get extra support. The AI system costs around a fifth of traditional call centres to run. Co-founded by Monty Alexander (MEng Mechanical Engineering).   

Deep Render has developed AI-based image compression tech that mimics neural processes of the human eye.  Image and video data comprises more than 80% of internet traffic, driven by video-on-demand and live streaming, causing internet connections to choke, especially during peak periods exacerbated by the current lockdown. Founded by former Imperial students Arsalan Zafar and Chri Besenbruch, (Computer Science). 

Surreal Vision was a startup specialising in real-time 3D scene reconstruction to create accurate representations of the real world and allow users to interact with real-world objects from within VR. The technology allows users to interact in a computerised version of the real world and aims to make this version so real that it is impossible to distinguish between the two. It was bought by Facebook to combine with Oculus in 2015. Founded by Imperial PhD students Richard Newcombe, Renato Salas-Moreno, and Steven Lovegrove (all Department of Computing). 

Picture of steelmaking refinery
An example of Magic Poney's image upscaling technology.

An example of Magic Poney's image upscaling technology.

An example of Magic Poney's image upscaling technology.

Picture of two colleagues using virtual reality technology in a workplace setting

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