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Computer agents to aid disaster recovery scenarios

Emergency services at Mountbatten Fire
Emergency services at Mountbatten Fire

An ambitious five-year research programme is aiming to find solutions for some of the most complex and challenging problems that we currently face.

Disaster recovery, particularly the restoration and maintenance of decentralised data and information systems, has been chosen as the real-world application for the ALADDIN project, which comprises a team of experts led by Professor Nick Jennings of the School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) at the University of Southampton.

'Typically the response to complex incidents, such as a natural disaster or terrorist attack, involves highly uncertain and dynamic environments,' said Professor Jennings, 'in which information exhibits ambiguity, imprecision, and bias, and is held by multiple stakeholders with different aims and objectives. Resources are often limited, and resource levels can vary.

'Our aim in this programme is to develop techniques, methods and architectures to build decentralised information systems that can operate effectively in these extremely difficult circumstances.'

The £5.5m ALADDIN programme is one of a number of programmes that bring leading academic groups to key industrial challenges through the BAE Systems/EPSRC Strategic Partnership, with the objective of delivering high-quality research and enhancing industrial capabilities.

The ALADDIN team comprises internationally-leading researchers in complex adaptive systems from the Universities of Southampton, Bristol and Imperial College; in fusion, inference and learning from the University of Oxford and Imperial; and in decentralised architectures from BAE Systems.

Professor John Murphy, Head of University Partnerships, BAE Systems, said: 'To have competitive products and capabilities for future global markets we need to initiate the research now, with the best academics. Its success will depend on how well we excel at transferring the knowledge into the company. ALADDIN, directed for BAE Systems by Dr Robert Johnson from our Integrated System Technologies business, has wide relevance across our company.'

The researchers will focus on autonomous reactive and proactive components of information systems-known as 'agents', which can sense, act, and interact in order to achieve individual and collective aims.

'These agents need to be effective in such challenging environments,' said Professor Jennings. 'They need to be able to make best use of the information available, to be flexible and agile in their decision making, cognizant of the fact that there are other agents in the system, and adaptive to their changing environment.'

Amongst the challenges facing the researchers is to bring together work from a number of hitherto distinct fields, such as information fusion, inference, decision-making, and machine-learning. This work then needs to be combined with work from multi-agent systems, game theory, mechanism design and mathematical modelling of collective behaviour in order to give a collective view on behaviour.

'As ever more information sources become available-through the Web, intranets, and so on-the problem of obtaining and fusing the right information when making decisions and taking actions is becoming increasingly pressing,' said Professor Jennings.

Ironically, Professor Jennings found himself at the centre of a major fire in the School of Electronics and Computer Science in late October. Not only did the fire devastate research facilities in the School, its effects put the School's servers out of action, losing all communication with the outside world through web and email. The restoration of network systems then took five days to achieve. 'The fire has certainly hardened my belief about the importance of the domain and the need to ensure that disparate organisations with their own aims and objectives are well co-ordinated,' he said.

(ALADDIN stands for Autonomous Learning Agents in Decentralized Data and Information Networks)

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Posted by Joyce Lewis on 06 Dec 2005.