Ulster University researchers have developed a pioneering new computational model that could be used by developers to make self-aware machines.

The Intelligent Systems Research Centre (ISRC) at the university’s Magee campus has created the world’s first biologically motivated, computational model which can quantify decision uncertainty and explain its effects on change-of-mind during decision-making processing.

Numerous top technology companies are using some form of artificial intelligence (AI) in fields such as advertising technology, manufacturing, cybersecurity, and healthcare.

AI systems encompass machine learning techniques and powerful computational resources to create predictive models by processing complex and large data. However, they lack a key component essential to human intelligence and effective decision making: self-awareness.

At the ISRC, new research on biologically-inspired algorithms has been advancing beyond standard AI algorithms.

This exciting new work in Computational Neuroscience has shown for the first time that neural network models can be equipped with metacognition or self-awareness of their own actions and choices.

The computer model can not only mimic brain activity observed in humans and some animals, but also replicate change-of-mind and error correction behaviour, which require “on-the-fly” metacognitive processing.

Senior author and researcher of the research work, Dr KongFatt Wong-Lin, said: “Our research has revealed the plausible brain circuit mechanisms underlying how we calculate decision uncertainty, which could in turn influence or bias our actions, such as change-of-mind.”

He added: “We are perhaps closer than ever before to creating self-aware machines than we have previously thought. Real-time monitoring of decision confidence in artificial neural networks could also potentially allow better interpretability of the decisions and actions made by these algorithms, thereby leading to more responsible and trustworthy AI.”

Mr Nadim Atiya, lead author of the paper and a PhD researcher at the ISRC, added: “Our research work could also form the basis towards understanding brain disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and addiction, in which metacognitive abilities are impaired.”

The researchers are now working with cognitive scientists and brain scientists to further develop their computer model, while creating conscious machines that are self-aware of their actions and decisions, making AI and machines more intelligent and interpretable.

The research can be viewed here.

Around 250 local and international academics, clinical researchers and members of the Life and Health Sciences industry have attended a prestigious TMED (Translational Medicine) conference in Derry-Londonderry.

The event which is now in its 10th year, had a theme of ‘Disruptive innovation in healthcare’, and was opened by Professor Rafael Bengoa, an internationally renowned expert who previously developed a Systems not Structures healthcare strategy for Northern Ireland.

This year, the Clinical Translational Research and Innovation Centre (C-TRIC) celebrated a decade of partnership between Derry City and Strabane District Council, Ulster University and the NHS through the Western Health and Social Care Trust. 

Based on the Altnagelvin Hospital site in Derry/Londonderry, C-TRIC have been instrumental in facilitating healthcare research by bringing together clinicians, academic university staff and industry to achieve better outcomes for patients both locally and internationally.

During his keynote speech at the conference in the City Hotel, Professor Bengoa addressed how Northern Ireland has delivered on his report, which is also referred to as The Bengoa Report.

Significant City Deal and Economic Growth Funding Package confirmed for Derry and Strabane.

The announcement today of a £105M economic package by the UK Government in the Derry City and Strabane City Region has been widely welcomed by City and District partners with the Mayor saying it will be “a significant catalyst for change and economic growth” for the Derry City and Strabane District and the wider North West and expressed his delight that it has been secured during his Mayoral year as a key priority.

The investment package announced comprises a £50M ‘City Deal’ and a £55M ‘Inclusive Future Fund’ and is the culmination of a long period of engagement with Government in relation to advancing priority projects and initiatives within the City and District’s Inclusive Strategic Growth Plan and City Deal proposals.

Reflecting the model recently announced by Government for the Belfast Region City Deal, it is anticipated that the UK Government investment package announced today of £105M for Derry~Londonderry and Strabane will be at least matched by a similar commitment from the NI Executive and will lever further investment from project partners and other third party sources which it is hoped will eventually lead to an overall investment injection of in excess of £300M.

The announcement follows a visit to the City last July when the Chancellor, Philip Hammond met with civic and political leaders to hear of the plans and invited a bid for a City Deal to be formally submitted.

The bid, supported and endorsed by all local and regional political parties and representatives and devised around the key strategic economic projects outlined in the City and District’s Inclusive Strategic Growth Plan 2017-2032.

Led by Derry City and Strabane District Council, the bid was developed in partnership, and with the support of a wide range of local education, business and economic partners – including the Ulster University, the North West Regional College, both the Londonderry and Strabane Chambers of Commerce, the Western Health and Social Care Trust, Visit Derry, City Centre Initiative and the Foyle Port, in consultation with all associated NI Government Departments.

At the core of the bid is education, innovation, job creation and skills development with a key focus being the advancement of the much sought after expansion and growth of the Magee campus of Ulster University.

The investment package announced today, will enable planning and business case development to now proceed on proposals for a significant landmark riverfront university medical education and innovation hub, comprising a graduate entry medical college and centres of innovation, research and teaching excellence in data-driven personalised medicine, cognitive analytics and robotics and automation, eventually delivering over 200 new posts/research assistants at the City’s university and upwards of 2,000 additional students.

The stimulus package will additionally advance the delivery of a range of smart city and digital infrastructure projects and initiatives, further positioning the City and District as a highly digitally enabled location for cutting-edge business development and expansion and inward investment.

The catalytic impact of this could therefore result in the single biggest ever combined and integrated funding injection the City and District, that will enable progress and delivery of other key infrastructure, tourism and regeneration projects contained within the Plan and Bid in both Derry City Centre and Riverfront and in Strabane Town Centre.

Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District Council, Councillor John Boyle said: “This hugely significant announcement today for the Derry and Strabane District will go some considerable way in addressing the long-standing obstacles to economic development that this City Region and its people face. It is good news and is the result of an enormous amount of work and sustained effort invested by Council and the City and Regional partners to develop, deliver and negotiate on the bid.”

Council Chief Executive John Kelpie acknowledged the collaborative approach and the unified vision and commitment demonstrated by politicians, and partner organisations in development of the bid and the advice and support received regionally and nationally in securing such a positive outcome.

Enthusiastic about the opportunity presented by today’s announcement he commented: “This City and District has seen much progress in recent years economically, physically and socially. It has however significant remaining challenges in overcoming an infrastructure deficit and a legacy of underinvestment both of which have been such inhibitors to sustainable economic growth.

“This funding package, if directed at the key agreed strategic growth projects and if used to lever significant further public and private sector investment, will deliver a new era of unprecedented growth and development for the City and Region providing tangible benefits for all of our citizens and a promising future for our children and young people.”

Other City Deal Project partners reacted equally positively with the Vice Chancellor of Ulster University, Professor Paddy Nixon said, “This investment will now see the rapid development of plans to grow and enhance facilities and student numbers at the Magee Campus including the Graduate Entry Medical School.”

Brian McGrath, President of Londonderry Chamber of Commerce said: “This funding is hugely welcome and provides a solid platform upon which to grow and enhance the competitiveness of the City and Region and attract further significant exciting new companies, business prospects and investment.”

Council Chief Executive, John Kelpie concluded:  “The next steps will now be for everyone to continue to work together to develop the necessary detailed business plans and advance the projects through planning and design. We will do this by using this unprecedented opportunity to promote the future of this City and District as a location of choice for all in terms of business, lifestyle and ambition.”

Ulster University gets £5m donation to boost data analytics

Ulster University is to boost its prominence in the field of data analytics and artificial intelligence following a £5 million donation.

The money is to be spent on the establishment of the Dr George Moore chair in data analytics. The late Dr Moore was described by the university as “one of the founding fathers” of the data analytics industry.

Professor Paddy Nixon, vice-chancellor, Ulster University, with Angela Moore, who made the donation.

Professor Paddy Nixon, vice-chancellor, Ulster University, with Angela Moore, who made the donation.

The donation was made by Dr Moore’s wife, Angela Moore. Recruitment for the role has begun and the selection process is ongoing.

“The chair will be a stellar, world-class academic, who will lead an innovative research team responding dynamically to the real-world needs of data analytics,” said Ulster University.

“In recognition of Mrs Moore’s gift, Ulster University will recruit an associated research fellow and three PhD students who will contribute to revolutionising global AI and data analytics research.”

Dr George Moore, born in Co Louth, left Ireland in 1972 and established Targus Information, a world leading data analytics service provider, whose technologies are used by many Fortune 500 companies.

Dr Moore predicted the explosion of information that would follow the creation of the internet and he recognised the commercial value of harnessing such information though data analytics.

Ulster University awarded Dr George Moore an honorary doctorate in 2005 in recognition of his “outstanding contribution to society” and his global impact on the field of data analytics.


Whatever the sector, all industries are facing disruption by digital technologies and
business models. This is presenting significant threats and opportunities for the
technology and insurance industry. Allstate Northern Ireland Senior Manager, Kathryn Harkin, shares how Allstate is embracing these opportunities to leverage the latest cognitive approaches in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) here in the North West.

“To maximise the opportunities big data provides, Allstate has created the new Allstate NI Cognitive Automation Incubator team to use ML technologies, transforming this data to provide meaningful insights. “ACAI, pronounced Ak-I, is Allstate Northern Ireland’s Cognitive Automation Incubator. It’s an immersive learning environment across a number of related disciplines, including Robotic Process Automation, Chatbots and Machine Learning. The initial focus will be on building up these much sought-after skills.

“ACAI will enable research in cognitive analytics and emerging technologies, running of proof of concepts, as well as incubating and developing prototypes to create innovative solutions for Allstate.

“Resources will stay in the ACAI environment for approximately 12-18 months working on real business problems before graduating. These teams will then lead the way in building a
community of citizen data scientists, expanding the influence of data science and analytics across the Allstate organisation.

“At a time of the 4th industrial revolution, the cognitive era isn’t about machines replacing humans. Automation will allow Allstate to introduce efficiencies and reduce repetitive, manual tasks currently done by our people.“An example of this is improving call centre efficiencies with the use of a Chabot interface using natural language processing. This will free up call centre staff for higher-value, more complex interaction.

“Using Machine Learning techniques to gain better insights from Allstate’s vast data reservoirs will ensure we make better data based decisions, focus on customer needs, offer personalised products, reduce claim time and improve the overall insurance experience,” concludes Kathryn.

Innovation at the heart of North West Brewery

Walled City Brewery, located in Derry’s exciting new cultural quarter Ebrington Square, has been assisted by Invest Northern Ireland to develop a new craft beer.

Master Brewer, James Huey used an Invest NI £5,000 Innovation Voucher to develop the recipe for its ‘1689’ Mumm ale, which comes from a recipe dating back to the Siege of Derry.

Dr Vicky Kell, Invest NI’s Director of Innovation, Research & Development said: “Walled City Brewery is an example of a small company with big ambition. The Innovation Voucher enabled Walled City Brewery to work with the Foodovation Centre at North West Regional College, perfecting the first alcohol product to be developed at the state-of-the-art new food technology facility. Using the Voucher to access relevant expertise at an early stage has greatly increased the focus and potential success of the product.

“Our Innovation Voucher programme is a valuable assistance mechanism for ambitious companies who wish to explore an idea that could help them compete more effectively in global markets.”

The company also benefited from Invest NI’s technical advice to assist with intellectual property, legislation and design issues.

Master Brewer, James Huey explained,“With the help of Invest NI and an Innovation Voucher, I am delighted Walled City Brewery has produced a product that the city can be proud of, that is immersed in history and reflects the fantastic array of local ingredients that we have in the North West.”

The Innovation Voucher facilitated recipe formulation, ingredient selection, testing and shelf life. From research it was established that the original recipe had more than 77 different herbs and spices and more than 30 per cent of the ingredients were extinct with a further 20 banned by World Health Organisation. And with the help from the innovation voucher, alternative ingredients were found.

A major boost for Northern Ireland’s future economy, life sciences industry and global patient healthcare through a collaboration between Randox and Ulster University.

Carla Harkin, PhD student, Professor Alastair Adair, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Dr Peter FitzGerald, Founder, Randox and Tara Moore, Professor of Personalised Medicine. (Photo: Nigel McDowell/Ulster University)

Carla Harkin, PhD student, Professor Alastair Adair, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Dr Peter FitzGerald, Founder, Randox and Tara Moore, Professor of Personalised Medicine. (Photo: Nigel McDowell/Ulster University)

Ulster University and Randox Laboratories Ltd have launched a £5 million skills development initiative to support up to ten individuals annually through PhD level study in the Life Sciences sector.

The Randox-Ulster University-Industrial PhD Academy, which aims to encourage the development of advanced, higher level skills in key industry sectors, will further reinforce Ulster University’s position as one of the top universities for biomedical related research impact and, enhance Randox’s competitiveness in the growing global healthcare sector.

Up to ten PhD researchers will be supported annually, including Randox employees and individuals from the wider sector, who are working on a range of scientific projects, with the ultimate goal of new product development. They will have the opportunity to work on new research projects, driven by industry and jointly supervised by Ulster University and Randox, to enhance their own individual skill sets whilst delivering groundbreaking advances in the life sciences sector. Ulster University and Randox will each fully fund up to five PhD researchers annually.

To date PhD researchers enrolled in this new programme of Industrial Research have started exciting projects in areas of medicine including mental health, diabetes and cancer, with more projects being developed. All projects share the common goal of delivering new diagnostic approaches for early detection of disease and earlier intervention where possible.

Professor Alastair Adair Deputy Vice-Chancellor Ulster University said:

Ulster University is renowned globally for research in personalised medicine, cancer, diabetes and mental health and this makes us the perfect fit for a global industry leader like Randox. Ulster University and Randox have a longstanding partnership built around research, knowledge sharing and collaboration which has placed both organisations at the forefront of diagnostics and health research globally.”

Ulster University Professor of Personalised Medicine Tara Moore, said:

“The life sciences sector is of critical importance to our economy and health. To truly maximise our contribution to the economy and to fully exploit new advances in science and technology we must focus on advancing the skills of our workforce, ensuring the most talented people reach their full potential by working with partners to tackle new challenges and drive new discoveries. A strong and growing life sciences sector ensures patients will continue to benefit from new technologies which will help to improve diagnosis getting them the treatment they need quickly.”

“This new Industrial PhD Academy is a further step forward in our commitment to respond to national priorities such as the Industrial Strategy, aligning the research community with industry to drive innovation, building on the world-leading reputation of Randox and supporting a new generation of researchers in this strategically important sector.”

Dr Peter FitzGerald, Managing Director of Randox Laboratories, said:

“At this time of rapid and significant change in the UK, it is critical that the next-generation can meet industry’s ever-changing demands. The current STEM skills shortage costs the economy £1.5bn/year and will only be resolved if all companies in the sector recognise they have a role to play now too.

“In the last 4 months, we have made significant investments within Northern Ireland, in both R&D infrastructure and now in helping aspirational scientists at Ulster University to develop the critical skills to make a positive difference to patient healthcare around the world. We are unapologetically ambitious in our determination to cement Northern Ireland’s reputation as a global hub for life sciences and our own position as a worldwide leader.”

NWRC launches Northern Ireland’s first ‘Science Exchange’ project
North West Regional College (NWRC) has officially launched a new partnership with Ulster University that will allow students of Science to gain valuable experience in industry, researching and working on problem based projects.

‘The Science Exchange’ which is funded by Connected NI, and was officially launched by the Mayor of Derry and Strabane District Council Maoliosa McHugh at NWRC’s Strand Road Campus, is the first of its kind in Northern Ireland and provides a unique opportunity for students and local business to participate in mutually beneficial projects.

The scheme will also provide advice and support to Life and Health Science companies, and companies with Life and Health Science problems or issues that require knowledge based creative solutions.

Based in Derry~Londonderry’s city centre, The Science Exchange will meet the requirements of local employers, provide work based learning and scholarships for students, and implement staff development for all parties.

Francine Moran, Lecturer in Science at NWRC and Project Manager of The Science Exchange explained that the scheme will initially target students enrolled on the college’s Foundation Degree in Medical and Applied Sciences and offer an additional research component.

She added: “These projects will have a strong innovation slant which will be of benefit to local business and provide an enriched experience for the students who undertake them.

“Industry involvement and the problem based nature of the projects is the cornerstone of the programme strengthening existing links with industry while creating partnerships.

“The programme will provide both short and long term benefits to the local and broader community. In addition to undertaking problem based projects of immediate benefit to local industry, students completing this programme will ultimately graduate having a greater understanding of the needs of the workplace.”

Dr Le Roy Dowey, Ulster University, and Project Manager of The Science Exchange said: ”The partnership approach towards the delivery of the Science Exchange project will help drive innovative solutions for companies and aid the development of the local knowledge based economy. Supporting confident career paths remains at the heart of what we do at Ulster University and this hands on opportunity for students will help create the relevant knowledge, skills and confidence to excel in professional life.“

Mayor of Derry and Strabane Maoliosa McHugh said: “I am to delighted launch The Science Exchange which will see students from the North West get the opportunity to develop further skill sets that will be at the forefront of advancements in industry. I wish the project managers Francine Moran at NWRC, and Le Roy Dowey at Ulster University and their teams all the success with The Science Exchange and I look forward to attending future events for industry and students alike in the new premises.”

The scheme is being supported by NWRC’s Business Support Centre, Connected NI, Invest NI, Derry City and Strabane District Council, and Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council.

Magic thermal ink tells us when food is fresh

Every time we buy food, we’re given an indication of its freshness through a measure of time – a best-before date.

“Temperature is a more important indicator than time – whether that food has been transported and stored at the required freezing, or chilled, temperatures,” says the man who has led Nuprint for more than 20 years, Gavin Killeen. Nuprint, a labelling producer, has a new R&D project to create temperature-sensitive inks for food labels. The project is part of the ‘North West Centre for Advanced Manufacturing,’ EU funded under the INTERREG programme.*

Owing to food warming up to ambient temperatures when it shouldn’t, the World Health Organisation found that 25% of food products in the US are beyond their best – before they hit the supermarket.

Gavin said, “Temperate-sensitive labels have been possible for some time, but it’s been cost-prohibitive. Food products are fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG). We could use copper-etched circuit boards and RFID tags, but the cost is too high for FMCG. We need an inexpensive ink capable of carrying a charge or a circuit.”


He explained, “In the case of a frozen chicken, its label would be stamped with a thermochromic ink stating ‘Not Suitable for Human Consumption.’ That warning would only become visible if the chicken is exposed to ambient temperature for long enough, say it was left out of the freezer, or the refrigerator was shut off during transit.”

Presumably it isn’t good enough to have this label on bulk packaging, with several chickens inside, because a consumer won’t see that?

Gavin said, “It needs to be on individual food items. Therefore it may only be for expensive cuts of meat, maybe not a container of coleslaw. The question is, what are consumers prepared to pay for?”

Nuprint’s academic partner is the University of Glasgow. What is the scope of the research?

Gavin said, “We’ll have a fulltime PhD student researcher, with a few senior academics involved.

What’s your proposed timeline for a commercial outcome?

“I’m hopeful that in two or three years we’ll have something that can be marketed,” said Gavin.

He described some of the challenges they face. “It’s a classic chicken-and-egg; how do we get the price low if we don’t have high volume, but we can’t achieve the volume until we get the price down.”

Gavin continued, “The question is how to bring the technology onto flexible labels and packaging.”

The next phase for a longstanding Derry~Londonderry firm

Nuprint has been in business since 1984, and Gavin has led it into the future. “We’ve invested £2.5m over the past 18 months, bringing in new digital printing technology with variable data, new sleeve labelling technology, and other technology. We’ve also invested heavily in our staff. We work with global brands like Coca-Cola and local brands such as Linden, Willowbrook and Dunbia.”

I read Nuprint has a goal to expand to 50 staff this year; how are you doing against that target?

“We’re currently at 43 staff members and we’ve very committed to our people,” he said.

How does Northern Ireland rank when it comes to food, and food safety?

Gavin said, “Northern Ireland is second-to-none when it comes to food. Maybe we don’t sell ourselves as well as we could, when it comes to premium Northern Irish beef for instance. Other regions have perhaps sold themselves better, without having our high standard of quality. This means there’s a global opportunity for Northern Ireland’s food producers.”

*More about Interreg EU

Catalyst Inc is the lead partner in an €8.5m INTERREG EU funded project ‘North West Centre for Advanced Manufacturing’ (NW CAM) that links Northern Ireland, Ireland and Scotland to deliver 15 research projects that are meeting industrial need within the Life and Health Science sector. The project has six industrial partners of which Nuprint is one.

Education alliance to benefit cross border education provision and opportunities

The North West Strategic Growth Partnership, in partnership with the Higher and Further Education and Training Institutions of the North West City Region, has announced a new agreement in education, training and innovation for the North West City region with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between education sector providers on both sides of the border.

The MoU is the result of years of successful collaborative working amongst the education sector providers – the Ulster University, Letterkenny Institute for Technology (LYIT), North West Regional College (NWRC) and Donegal Education and Training Board (ETB) – with the aim of improving access to higher and further level education and training to students living and studying in the North West City region.

The North West Strategic Growth Partnership is led by Derry City and Strabane District Council and Donegal County Council and supported by the International Centre for Local and Regional Development (ICLRD) in conjunction with and supported by The Executive Office and The Irish Government.

The Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton T.D. was in attendance at today’s signing and endorsed this historic Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) saying, “Today’s announcement is a fantastic development for the North West region. This new partnership will greatly enhance collaboration between the education and training providers in key areas such as research, innovation and education and training.

“Brexit will pose a significant challenge to our higher and further education institutions. Through our Action Plan for Education, which aims to make Ireland’s education system the best in Europe within a decade, we are preparing our education and training providers to respond to this challenge. Talent drives the success of any region and strong hubs will be the engine of regional development. Today’s partnership is a very welcome development, which will have a really significant impact on the North West region.”

An Cathaoirleach of Donegal County Council Cllr Gerry McMonagle said the signing of the MoU was hugely significant for the region. He said: “The MoU builds on the excellent collaborative work previously undertaken between the partners to support regional growth through delivering on the higher and further education needs of the North West. It will allow the partners to work together as anchors of the economy of the region and contribute to the advancement of the North West City Region growth agenda that investments in higher and further education can achieve with added value for everyone.”

Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District Council Cllr Maolíosa McHugh said: “This is a significant event for education growth in our region and is in keeping with the objective set out by the North West Strategic Growth Partnership to promote cross cutting regional growth in the education sector. I am confident that the MoU will give the two governments the mechanism with which to engage with the education institutions to deliver on our shared further and higher educational ambitions and further enhance cross border co-operation.”

Professor Paddy Nixon, Vice Chancellor of Ulster University said: “This landmark agreement demonstrates our shared vision to create a regional strategic alliance for the North West, that drives innovation and investment and delivers co-ordinated cross border third level education to the people of this region and beyond. In practical terms, this consolidates the excellent collaboration that is already operating informally and embeds this partnership working model across our regional network. Today’s agreement will allow for a more co-ordinated approach to student pathway and progression and marks a step change in our approach to delivery of quality education in the North West.”

Paul Hannigan, President of Letterkenny Institute of Technology said the alignment of a cross border further and higher education cluster in the North West City region is essential if the region is to grow and develop its education offering and maximise the emerging potential for those who wish to live, work and invest in this region.

He said: “The signing of the MoU between the education providers in the region is very significant and is testament to the huge amount of positive work that has been done behind the scenes to really look at how we can develop education, research and innovation foundations for the North West region. This alliance will allow us to design and deliver new courses and programmes that will support economic and social development and improve efficiency through shared staffing and facilities on a range of programmes, teaching and research. Key to this alliance is the positive impact it will have on our students and the way it will open up new opportunities for them as well as encourage and facilitate wider participation in education programmes.”

Leo Murphy, Principal and Chief Executive of North West Regional College said the MoU will contribute greatly to the outcomes of the Further and Higher Education Strategy in the City and Region. “Anything that facilitates student mobility and participation in education is to be welcomed and this MoU will go a long way towards assisting us in facilitating further cross border co-operation in teaching, learning and innovation.”

Anne McHugh, Chief Executive of Donegal Education Training Board said she is confident this alliance will provide effective progression pathways for students and graduates to higher education. “This is great news for the education sector in the North West and a really positive collaboration between education providers on both sides of the border. The MoU will assist us in achieving many of the strategic goals set out in our Further Education and Training Strategy 2014-19 to ensure active inclusion, integrated planning and funding and quality provision.”