Alliance Manchester Business School is to embark on a collaboration with major UK defence company BAE Systems after securing funding for an Industrial CASE (ICASE) PhD studentship.
The four-year project, worth around £130,000, is funded by both the company and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and starts next year. It will look at the use of more automated decision support tools in the defence industry, and especially at the use of Reinforcement Learning (RL) algorithms within military scenarios.
In particular, BAE Systems is currently working up concepts for the next generation of naval vessels and developing semi-automated intelligent decision aids which are being incorporated into its INTeACT combat management system product.
As part of the process the company is specifically keen to tap into the knowledge of data scientists who can help it integrate decision sciences methodologies into its software in the safest way possible.
Machine learning technologies
Dr Richard Allmendinger, Business Engagement Lead at AMBS and Senior Lecturer in Data Science, said the results from the project will help develop further confidence in the deployment of RL algorithms in the military field, and especially in operational scenarios where environmental conditions inevitably differ from simulated environments.
As he explained: "The project is all about understanding how defence systems software can deal with uncertainty better and draw on prior experiences to make informed decisions. It is also about the industry itself learning further about developing the necessary governance processes associated with the increased use of machine learning technologies.
"What BAE Systems is particularly interested in from us is a further understanding of the methodologies involved, because in this area the technologies are so complex that no one person is capable of digesting all the information available and fully understanding it. But this is not about replacing people, it is about making decision support tools work better."
RL algorithms typically characterise performance against 'probabilistic' arenas, rather than being able to cope with an environment that is subject to change over time.
The study will conduct research into the trade-off between the generality of RL training environments and real-world performance. It will also look at how the performance and robustness of RL algorithms can be characterised within a changing environment, and whether the performance drop-off thresholds can be measured and predicted. And it will look at whether meta-learning concepts can be applied into RL and can help optimise retraining.
Dr Allmendinger said the ICASE scheme was an excellent platform because there were clear benefits for both the company and the university partner.
He added: "ICASE studentships not only provide an opportunity for PhD researchers to gain first-hand experience of working outside an academic environment, but the student is also analysing real-time, real-life projects which could potentially lead to wider commercialisation, so there is really strong impact. Such schemes can also typically lead to additional projects between the university concerned and the company."
Simon Mettrick from BAE Systems said: "This is excellent news. The current ICASE PhDs at The University of Manchester have been hugely helpful in deepening understanding of trust in artificial intelligence and potential applications of computer vision. This opportunity promises to do the same for reinforcement learning."
Real world challenge
Louise Bates, Head of Strategic Partnerships at The University of Manchester, said: "This is another great example of the University of Manchester partnering with BAE Systems to address a real world challenge, and it further demonstrates the value of our strategic partnership."
Hujun Yin, Professor of Artificial Intelligence at The University of Manchester, added: "This is fantastic news for Richard and the University. It shows the competitive research we are doing and the project will deliver a cutting-edge AI solution to this fast-changing and evolving sector. It is also a significant addition to our growing relationship with BAE Systems in the data science space."