Project to improve human-computer communication

A new £5.5m project aims to improve human-computer communication for disaster response teams and home energy management.

A team of researchers from Southampton, Oxford and Nottingham universities, and firms including BAE Systems, plans to develop technology demonstrators that show how to make it easier for people to work with software in these complex situations.

The five-year ESPRC-funded Orchid project is a follow-up to the £6m Southampton-led Aladdin programme, which won an Engineer Technology & Innovation Award last year for its work on improving disaster response coordination.

Where the previous work focused on individual systems that use computer software – referred to as ‘agents’ – the new research will look at how agents and people can work together.

‘We’re interested in the persuasive dialogue between humans and agents,’ project leader and professor of computer science Nick Jennings told The Engineer.

‘If you think about an energy management system in your home, what the agents are trying to do is persuade you the heating level is too high or the washing could be deferred. [We want] a more persuasive dialogue rather than just ’do this, do that’.’

Another example might be the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) by emergency services during a disaster. ‘The users might want to let the UAVs be in charge most of the time but be in control for a key task or over a key area,’ said Jennings.

The project will also look at making the best use of crowd sourcing – collecting information and media from the public via mobile and internet technology, for example video clips showing what’s going on during a disaster.

Orchid’s aim here will be to work out the best way to verify the crowd-sourced information in order to use it to help direct the response, for example by sending fire engines to a particular location.

‘At the end of the project we hope there will be a load of different types of output. There will be some technology demonstrators that show companies and the public what these technologies can do,’ said Jennings.

‘We also want to start some debate around the issue of autonomous systems and what it means to interact with them and to control them, so that people can understand and explore this.’

The project is supported by BAE Systems and the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, which will be helping develop the UAV software, and smart meter manufacturer PRI.

Project Orchid was named after the flower’s symbiotic relationship with other the plants that its seeds grow in.