The UK has received a major boost to advance its position in the global artificial intelligence (AI) race, thanks to a £100m investment to train the next generation of AI leaders, including the University of Sheffield’s new Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT).

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is supporting 16 new CDTs in artificial intelligence, to address the skills need within UK industry and the public sector.

The UKRI Centre for Doctoral Training in Speech and Language Technologies and their Applications, hosted at the University of Sheffield, aims to become a world-leading centre for training scientists and engineers in speech and language technologies (SLT), two core areas within artificial intelligence.

Professor Thomas Hain, Principal Investigator and Director of the CDT in Speech and Language Technologies and their Applications, said: “We are proud that the University of Sheffield has been chosen to host a centre for doctoral training that will combine our experience in training generations of inspired doctoral students with our track record of world-leading research. No SLT research training worldwide has the same breadth and depth, and exposure to real world problems that this centre will offer.”

A long-term goal of AI has been to create machines that can understand spoken and written human language – a capability that would enable spoken language interaction between humans and computers, and translation between all human languages.

Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Wright MP, said: “The UK is not only the birthplace to the father of artificial intelligence, Alan Turing, but we are leading the way on work to ensure AI innovation has ethics at its core.

“We want to keep up this momentum and cement our reputation as pioneers in AI.  Working with world class academic institutions and industry we will be able to train the next generation of top-tier AI talent and maintain the UK’s reputation as a trailblazer in emerging technologies.”

The University of Sheffield has worked at the forefront of SLT for three decades and generated knowledge and defined best practise in automatic speech recognition, machine translation, text mining and social media analytics, speech perception and hearing research, and many other subject areas. The research groups have a very broad multidisciplinary expertise that is unique amongst UK researchers in this field.

Professor Mike Hounslow, Vice-President and Head of the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Engineering, said: “AI is set to change the global economy significantly, with demand outstripping supply for highly skilled PhD graduates in this area. The University of Sheffield welcomes the government’s investment in AI and we are delighted that our long-standing expertise in this area is being called upon.”

The CDT aims to train at least 60 PhD students in a wide range of SLT subjects, researching and developing robust methods for natural language and speech processing in challenging real world scenarios. This will stimulate novel applications of SLTs in sectors such as health, sport, manufacturing, aerospace, robotics, finance, political science and digital humanities.

For example, research projects may explore new methods to improve healthcare through assistive technologies, automatic analysis of social media for political abuse and the dissemination of fake news, new systems that can improve children’s reading and writing skills, better ways to engage with robots in factories, or help simplification of complicated documents.

Professor Rob Gaizauskas, Director of the CDT in Speech and Language Technologies and their Applications, added: “Speech and language technologies are revolutionising how we interact with computers, giving us exciting new capabilities, summarising and analysing information in textual form from all areas of human activity and in all the world’s languages. This CDT will train the research scientists and engineers to enable the UK to be at the forefront of this revolution.”

The four-year training programme is designed to develop students’ professional skills and technical research experience, teaching them to foster interdisciplinary approaches, forge links with industry, and apply their learning to the real-world, developing their entrepreneurial skills. The CDT will pay particular attention to training students to be aware of ethical issues and concerns that arise in AI research in general and SLT research in particular.

A major part of the CDT involves close collaboration with industry, including multinationals such as Google, Amazon, Voicebase, Nuance, NHS Digital, Solvay and TechNation, as well as substantial UK SME support. They bring both insight and relevance to the students’ training and reduce the gap between academic theory and industrial practice. The industry partners will contribute through research projects, internships, teaching, advisory roles and outreach activities.

Professor Guy Brown, Head of the University of Sheffield’s Department of Computer Science, said: “The Department of Computer Science has been building an international reputation for its research in speech and language technologies for more than 30 years. These technologies have now truly come of age, through the significant progress in personal digital assistants, such as Siri, Alexa and Cortana, and the rapidly increasing commercial uptake of speech and text analytics.”

Putting the UK at the forefront of the AI and data revolution is one of four grand challenges outlined in the government’s Industrial Strategy. It recognises the importance of developing the skills needed to meet demand in this area, attract investment in AI-related technologies, and drive economic growth.