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East Midlands Chamber News

Prof David Mba on guiding DMU towards forefront of global digital revolution

As pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise, Professor David Mba heads up De Montfort University Leicester’s commercial and research activity. With the university taking a regional lead in the fields of artificial intelligence and cyber security, it puts him in a good position to observe the latest technology trends. He discusses these with Dan Robinson and explains how the university is helping businesses move into the digital age.

“If I was a student now, I’d definitely be doing a course in AI.”

Professor David Mba becomes animated as he reels off a list of examples in which artificial intelligence (AI) is helping to improve efficiency and performance in businesses, local authorities and healthcare settings.

De Montfort University (DMU), where he is one of the most senior academics, has worked with supermarket chain Waitrose to apply machine learning – a subset of AI in which algorithms find patterns in huge amounts of data – to price products reaching the end of their shelf life more effectively, while a colleague has used prediction models to help East Midlands Airport in managing passenger flows through its terminal.

There’s even talk of a Minority Report-style council project to anticipate violence and vandalism via CCTV cameras equipped with body language-reading technology, while sensors could also optimise waste collectors’ routes by monitoring when bins will likely be filled.

“AI is fundamentally based on classification and learning from history by using algorithms to find patterns,” says David, who has published more than 250 journal and conference papers during his career.

“If you have data on purchases or machinery, and want to find out information that isn’t necessarily intuitive, you can use AI to spot those behaviours.

“We’re now beginning to look at how it can be used to modify business decisions, and that’s where the research is being applied for really exciting purposes.”

The application he is perhaps most enthusiastic about, though, is in digital health – which is ripe for huge disruption as the proportion of GP appointments conducted remotely jumped from 15% to 85% between February and May 2020, according to NHS England.

Read this article and more in Business Network magazine

Last year, DMU teamed up with Leicester’s largest primary care provider Willows Health, with a caseload of 44,000 patients across nine surgeries, to apply machine learning and AI research in a real-world setting for patient benefit.

By analysing patient data using AI, clinicians could anticipate issues and proactively take steps to avoid illnesses, as well as offering ideas for new research areas.

“This is a huge area we’re working on at the moment, and involves academics and clinicians coming together to improve patient wellbeing,” says David.

“Digital health is absolutely going to expand – I can envisage apps in the future that become very much tailored to individual needs.

“I’ve spoken to people who have developed technology in which they can install sensors in a house of an older or vulnerable relative, so if they fall over it sends an instant alert to a family member or community carer.

“At the end of the day, it’s data. The more you can harvest data, the more you can capture it, and this is where AI and data mining can have huge benefits to people’s lives.”

David, who has a degree in aerospace engineering and PhD in mechanical engineering, is keen to point out the handling of patient data meets ethical standards.

He also believes having clinicians on board should help boost the credibility of digital health projects and demonstrates the benefits to patients.

“Ultimately, I don’t think we’re ever going back to what we had before in primary healthcare,” adds David.

“Technology is playing an increasingly bigger role in the medical space via avenues like online GP consultations, and this disruption is going to push people to accept new ways of working – and indeed teaching.”

Does the East Midlands have sufficient AI and cyber skills?

Vladimir Putin famously predicted that whichever country leads the way in AI “will become the ruler of the world”.

While the key battle takes place between the US and China, a Tech Nation report found the UK ranked third when it comes to AI venture capital investment, with a record $1.48bn (£1.09bn) raised in 2020.

Although the East Midlands lags behind regional clusters such as London, the South East and Northern Ireland, Tech Nation reported it as the fourth fastest-growing area with a 140% increase in employer demand for AI skills between 2017 and 2019 – well above the national 111% growth average during that period.

For cyber security skills, the region is the second fastest-growing with a 306% rise in employer demand.

David believes the East Midlands is well-placed to meet the growing demand for these skills by tapping into the knowledge and talent pool coming out of the six universities in Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire.

“The current generation of students is very much digitally-savvy, and our universities have a lot of knowledge in terms of developing start-ups and supporting graduates with new ideas,” he says.

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for the growing AI skills demand in particular, however, is the productivity gains it could bring.

Regional productivity is about 15.6% below the national average – and third lowest in the country – according to the latest PwC UK Economic Outlook report for 2019/20.

 “We have to improve productivity and that requires looking at things differently,” adds David.

“That’s where digital technologies like AI can play a big role by automating certain tasks, and opening up time and opportunities for humans to do other things.”

DMU ranks highly for its cyber credentials

Allied to AI, the internet of things (IoT) is exploding in popularity. This buzzword describes internet-connected devices that can communicate with each other and servers, ranging from smart meters and smart streetlights to augmented reality glasses and soil moisture sensors.

A third of people in the UK own at least five connected devices, and Cambridge Consultants forecasts the number of IoT applications to grow from 13 million in 2016 to 156 million by 2024.

But, as David points out, “all that connectivity has a cyber consequence”. He adds: “Anyone with a digital presence needs to think about it, especially in this pandemic era where there’s more likelihood of things going wrong.”

To this end, DMU is positioning itself as one of the region’s best authorities on all things cyber – and even globally in some respects, with its computer science research ranked joint top in a list of the most frequently cited studies by the Shanghai Global Ranking of Academic Subjects in July last year.

Its MSc cyber security and cyber technology courses – developed with the input of industry experts from companies including Airbus, Deloitte and Rolls-Royce – are fully certified by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), a part of GCHQ, while its Cyber Technology Institute is the only East Midlands facility to be recognised as an NCSC Academic Centre of Excellence in Cyber Security Research (ACE-CSR).

DMU also works with several large corporations such as IBM and Coventry Building Society to train digital and technology degree apprenticeship students.

Its DMU business support programme offers start-up and small business advice via the university’s Innovation Centre and there are also opportunities for companies to work with academics via knowledge transfer partnerships (KTPs).

An example is the collaboration between DMU and the Chamber – of which the university is an AI and cyber partner – to create a Regional Business Intelligence Unit. The project involves deploying AI and machine learning to analyse a wealth of data about the region, and translating it into improving supply chains, environmental performance and business competitiveness.

There’s hopes it will give the East Midlands a more influential voice to attract public and private investment, but it also illustrates how AI and cyber will “ultimately revolutionise the way we work in Industry 4.0”.

Graduate retention key to boosting East Midlands digital skillset

Every year, up to 2,000 students equipped with relevant digital skills will come out of the region’s six universities combined every year, David estimates.

While there’s a clear talent supply emerging, graduate retention remains an issue – and one DMU is working on in an internship scheme alongside the University of Leicester and Leicester City Council.

“We have the graduates coming through with cyber security skills and I think there’s great output from our university in particular,” he adds.

“However, it’s not much use to the region if we train students with the skills and then they all leave for London or other regions.

“We’re very mindful that students don’t see the opportunities in Leicester so we need to change those perceptions by showcasing the opportunities from local businesses – because the evidence shows there’s plenty opening up, particularly in technologies such as in AI and cyber.”

Preparing for a cyber-attack in real time

Responding to a complex cyber-attack in real time can be a monumental challenge, but such scenarios will be commonplace inside the new Security Operations Centre (SOC) at DMU.

The university has partnered with Deloitte to offer a bespoke incident response training programme, which is structured around the innovative incident response tools and techniques developed as part of its research.

It will enable businesses to develop and maintain their threat identification and incident response skills in realistic environments that can be tailored to specific needs as part of DMU’s digital twinning capability.

The facility is near completion and will be able to accommodate up to 24 people in The Gateway building post-Covid.

Businesses can access the support via three routes – organisations can hire the facilities to conduct their own exercises, have exclusive access to a training package developed and run by DMU for up to a week, or join an open-to-all exercise for firms looking to upskill smaller numbers of their team.

David says: “We are moving away from the idea that cyber is just about computers – we know there is a hugely important human element too so upskilling operators is crucial.

“We’ll take a company’s entire technical team through a mock cyber-attack and show them how to respond to it.

“It will help them to understand cyber threats and the algorithms, as well as training people to respond to the attacks through gamified scenarios.”

Real-world AI applications with DMU support

Supermarket pricing for end-of-shelf-life goods

Waitrose and one of its software and IT service providers PCMS collaborated with DMU to explore ways of improving in-store efficiency.

Over a six-week period, 17 computer science and intelligent systems students applied machine learning knowledge to four issues commonly faced by food retailers – managing stock efficiently; avoiding incorrect product selection at the tills and during self-service; flagging customer errors while using the Quick Check service; and creating better prices for products reaching the end of their shelf life.

Findings were presented to senior managers, and ideas for improvements included applying data mining alongside different modelling techniques to build a dynamic way of assigning new prices on reduced items, while another suggested using a statistical approach for prediction tracking to help with the algorithm used for reducing prices.

School attendance

By using AI models to analyse data of pupils who were frequently absent at Willen Primary School, in Milton Keynes, DMU researchers identified patterns that showed Monday morning was the most common time for absenteeism.

To improve attendance, which is recognised as closely linked with pupil performance and outcomes in later life, they suggested offering better and more frequent rewards for full attendance, and introduced fun activities on Monday mornings to give pupils something to look forward to after the weekend.

As a result, attendance improved by 55% in the first year and the school achieved the required national average attendance of 96% for the first time in four years.

Optimising banana production

The OPTIcut programme, developed by a DMU research group, uses computational intelligence – a subset of AI – to minimise waste when cutting banana “hands” into clusters for packing.

With cutting currently based on human experience, it generates variable amounts of fruit waste depending on the strategies used at banana plantations.

But by using data-driven AI and 3D image processing algorithms, the software optimises the cutting strategies and fruit profiles – the amount of fruit in each field – tailored to each farm.

During studies in Central America, the application of these precision agriculture techniques has reduced waste levels by between 5% and 10% – thereby maximising profits for the farmers.

Free business support from DMU

De Montfort University is offering a free consultancy service to small businesses in need of expertise in AI and cyber security.

Prof David Mba has invited firms to get in touch if they would benefit from two days’ worth of complimentary one-to-one support on how to utilise data or implement cyber protection.

For more information, email businessservices@dmu.ac.uk.  


This article appears in the February 2021 issue of the Chamber's Business Network magazine. To read the online edition, click here.