Future in the Making

John Parkin, Industrial Strategy Manager at the University of Leeds, explores some of the innovations underway at the University that are helping shape the future.

Technologies that will transform the world are being developed today in leading universities all across the world – and the University of Leeds is no exception. At a university with our breadth and depth, high quality research is undertaken across a wide spectrum of subjects, as well as at various points in the journey from fundamental discovery science through to devices, products and services that change the way we live.

As with most research intensive universities, it wouldn’t be possible to list all the projects currently underway that could play a part in making the future; so let me tell you about just a few that I think will deliver real impact on our society.

In the driving seat

Self-driving, autonomous vehicles are set to transform both the way we travel and our built environment. Complex algorithms are being developed that will enable moving vehicles to sense their environment and make instant decisions to adjust to events around them, whilst behaving safely and predictably as they cross our cities and countrysides. However, for decades to come automated vehicles will share the road with vehicles driven by humans, and many vehicles will be capable of either autonomous or human control, potentially switching between the two methods of control whilst on the road. So, in order to best fit this mixed environment, should autonomous vehicles drive in a way that is not just mathematically correct, but also intuitively ‘human’?

The HumanDrive project aims to learn from the way humans drive cars to influence the way algorithms will drive vehicles in the future. To do this, researchers Natasha Merat and Richard Romano, collaborating with a large consortium led by Nissan, are using an advanced driving simulator to study how people behave as drivers and passengers. For example, what driving styles do people find most comfortable when an automated system is in control? When driving, what risk management strategies do people use that can be mimicked or adopted by algorithms? This research is feeding into the development of driving algorithms, making self-driving cars more intuitive in their movements and reactions to risk, and more comfortable to ride in.

It may be that in years to come we will be taken from A to B in vehicles containing “humanlike” technology developed, in part, here in Leeds.

Parkinson Tower at University of Leeds


A new thread

As sustainability becomes a major focus of established industries, a project led by the University of Leeds is working with the fashion industry on using digital technologies to make the design and manufacture of high-end products more sustainable. As part of the , Future Fashion Factory’s holistic approach includes looking at more efficient design, increasing responsiveness to customer demand, moving towards circular economies and producing a generation of new fashion designers with digital and engineering skills to produce the clothes of the future.

Ningtao Mao is an expert in fibre technology who is experimenting with an unlikely digital innovation that has the potential to transform the industry. As a researcher with many years’ experience characterising fabric in terms of hard-to-measure qualities such as drape and touch, Ningtao has worked with colleagues and industry partners to develop a system that can enable a user to experience the touch and feel of fabric remotely across the internet. The system measures the fabric’s characteristics at one end, and uses various mechanisms including ultrasound waves to reproduce the fabric touch sensation for the user at the other. If a system like this could be used in the industry it would massively reduce fabric air miles and wastage at the design and early production stages; and imagine how it could transform online shopping for the rest of us!

Patient Capital

Recent decades have seen an explosion in the digital storage and manipulation of data across our working and social lives. Every area of human activity now generates data, and the platforms we use to manage this data often do so at a scale that is almost impossible for the human mind to grasp. In recent years technologies such as advanced analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning have come to the fore as ways of discerning patterns across millions of records that would have not been possible to spot without modern computational power.

Nowhere is this more relevant than in the realm of health data. The Northern Pathology Imaging Co-operative is a project that uses artificial intelligence tools to help clinicians diagnose cancer in biopsy samples. These tools can search across millions of very-high-resolution biopsy images taken from real patients in the UK for patterns that would be impossible for the human mind to discern. The insights they produce could help our understanding of the characterisation of cancer, improve our knowledge of how cancers progress, and enable clinicians to diagnose the disease earlier and more accurately – with the potential to lead to more effective and efficient treatment programmes tailored to each individual.

Alongside this, a new collaborative project, the Health Data Research Hub for Cancer, is utilising a wider range of health data records to improve care for cancer patients. Patient records from across the UK will be brought together for analysis at scale to improve treatments and services for cancer patients. The project will work with patients on issues such as anonymisation and privacy protocols to ensure that patients’ data is used sensitively and appropriately – an issue that will become increasingly important to us as we transition to a world where we each have a personal data identity to complement our physical and social identities.

As our History in the Making series has shown, innovations originating in Leeds have helped shape the world we live in today. This small sample of projects underway at the University of Leeds shows that this process is not confined to history but still very much alive; and that the future could well be shaped, in part, by innovators from our vibrant Yorkshire city.

All of the projects featured in this article have been supported through the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) via UKRI.