Some thoughts on Artificial Intelligence – Part 1

In a recent issue (10/2018 Vol.61 No.10) of Communications of the ACM there is a very interesting article by Adnan Darwiche titled “Human-Level Intelligence or Animal-Like Abilities?“.

Adnan took a balanced view of the current development in AI and its related field, and in many respect challenged many of the AI hypes. A lot of the discussions, especially the ones that compare function-based and model-based approaches echo my experience with data-driven research in the past ten years. 

One of the main research challenges I faced many years ago was modelling the perceptual quality of video content so any quality assessment (e.g., Netflix wants to know what level of QoS it has at the user side) can be done by a “golden-eye objective model” without human intervention. The workflow is simple: build lots of test videos “corrupted” by network impairments -> do subjective experiment to collect user opinions on the videos -> build an objective model by correlating user opinions and impairments -> optimise the model. Function-based machine learning such as Neural Networks was an option for data modelling but they were not considered as a good choice back then. Why? people didn’t feel comfortable champion something that is very difficult to reason. While function-based learning is aggressively powerful in achieving good performance, you end up with tens of parameters going in different directions and there is usually no logical connection between the parameters and the theory that underpins your research. Therefore, you don’t really need a ton of area knowledge to get a decent model as long as there are sufficient data available. So, using this type of learning felt like cheating and was not considered as “proper research”. What makes things worse is that you won’t be able to generalise your findings beyond the scope of the experimental dataset. I ended up following the “convention”: build a theoretical framework (based on psychology, anatomy and physiology of the human visual system, and video compression standard), then use logistic regression (and some other model-based learning tools) to complete a model. The model performance is more than acceptable and the design is backed by discussions of the logic, necessity and data range of every parameter.

Soon after that, the world of AI drastically changed. With the increasing availability of data, computing resources and very smart tweaks such as stochastic gradient descent in fitting functions, AI researchers have proved that if the tasks are sufficiently specific (or localised), we can use (networks of) complex functions to fit the data and complete low-level cognitive tasks with little necessity of modelling the human’s reasoning process. The seemingly primitive learning approach (that we looked down on) is winning by brutal force. At the end of the day, it’s the result that matters, especially in the eyes of the general public. If the training dataset is large and broad enough, it is very likely that a prediction can be made with the support of ground truth closeby.

On top of that, applications, especially interactive ones, can be programmed to continuously learn and improve from user inputs. So the more we use them, the more data they get from us and the better they’ll get. We just need to accept that the logic employed by these applications to conduct a task may not be the same logic used by humans. This is particularly obvious when human perception and emotion is involved. My 5 years old boy wants a red bike because he thinks the red ones go faster. His decision might have been influenced by the data he used for model training: Lightning McQueen is red and fast, Blaze the monster truck is red and fast, Ferraris are red and fast, etc. A function-based model would make the same “mistake” and some more data on fast blue vehicles or slow red vehicles will “fix” it. But it won’t fix for my boy. He is well aware that the colour is not 100% correlated with the speed (all sorts of new-gens are faster than Lightning in Disney Cars 3). For him (from the human’s perspective) red is a positive expression/statement associated with a vehicle. In this particular context, the absolute speed/acceleration doesn’t matter, it’s the sensation that counts. The ability to reason abstractly (also known as fluid intelligence) is often what separates high-level intelligence from a static knowledge base.

This leads to the question: Is it appropriate to call function-based learning Artificial Intelligence while there is little intelligence in it? As is pointed out in the article, “The vision systems of the eagle and the snake outperform everything that we can make in the laboratory, but snakes and eagles cannot build an eyeglass or a telescope or a microscope”. Just because a machine can deliver the same or better results in a task compared to human, shall we call it intelligence? Compared with other types of AI, function-based learning is principally less intelligent but it is certainly dominating the discussions in the AI-related work due to its reasonable performance in classification tasks (which underpin many useful applications). Does the level of intelligence really matter when the job is done right? Or should the definition of intelligence be dictated by how animals learn? One way for AI and human to coexist is intelligence amplification (IA) where each side complements the other in decision making. However, the idea is based on the hypothesis that machines are smart enough to do things very well but at the same time stupid enough to not understand what they are doing. If the machines are capable of both model and function based learning. Why would they still need us?

(to be continued)

Interview on VR cognitive load in Education

Recently Yoana Slavova and myself were interviewed by a research and consultancy company 3Rs IMMERSIVE on the use of VR in education. We shared our experiences from previous experiments and an outlook for future research. 

The interview can be found at:

Some of our discussions are:

1) What were you trying to achieve through your research?

Over the years we have worked with numerous primary and secondary schools on VR trials that aimed at improving student engagement. The novelty factor of VR can undoubtedly contribute to better student attention in classrooms. As educators in University, we wanted to know whether VR-assisted learning can reach beyond the initial “WOW effect” and improve knowledge acquisition in comparison with the conventional learning using lecture notes.

2) Your paper showed that ‘ students are less likely to recall or recognise specific details due to the additional cognitive load in VR’  – why do you think this is, can you elaborate a little bit on this?

We think the cognitive load can be attributed to the use of new technology and also how media content is developed. Several students who claimed in our research interview that they “learned a lot” from VR content struggled to recall details such as the year and location of key historical events in comparison with students who studied using just lecture notes. This indicates that students might have been overwhelmed by the VR environment and the dynamics of the content. Cognitive load is not necessarily a negative factor in education. The more attention we paid to something, the more likely it is to be remembered. The challenge is to allow learners to focus on the details that are essential to learning.

3) Did you put in place any measures to lower cognitive load beforehand? ie allowing students time to become familiar with the device or making adjustments to the design of the content within VR?

Participants were given general guidance of controls and how to navigate through the content. We expected university students to pick up the technologies quickly. We plan to carry out more studies on how to better measure the cognitive load in VR and its impact on learning.

4) Do you have any advice for VR designers as a result of your research?

There are useful design principles we can borrow from computer games design to build better VR content for education. We really need to think about different aspects including storyline, cameras, level setup, visual overlay, user controls, and multiplayer while trying to avoid overwhelming your audiences within their learning tasks. VR in education also deserves a new set of designs rules. For instance, our research shows that text content still has its unique role in learning so we can work on how to augment rich VR content with simple and legible texts as a pathway to improve learning outcome.

5) What sort of content is VR best used to teach in your opinion?

The teaching of subjects like medical sciences, geography and arts can certainly benefit from the use of VR. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see creative use of VR in any subject areas once VR developing tools and resources become more accessible to educators.

6) Are you doing any further work in this field?

Yes. We have a few VR-related projects in our team. We have been working with a secondary school on coaching sixth form students (between 16 and 18 years of age) to develop VR courseware for their younger counterparts. Understanding user’s attention is also a key area in VR research. One of our postgraduate students is experimenting with VR eye-tracking solutions in an attempt to develop content that can react to viewers attention and emotion. In education, this could mean tailored experience for each student’s needs and capabilities.

Moving in Portfolio Innovation Centre

SDCN: Software Defined Cognitive Networking

While most University staff members are setteling in our new and modern Waterside campus, we have also welcomed a new workshop space at the Portfolio Innovation Centre on University’s Avenue Campus. The workshop has just had the furnitures moved in but it will soon see lots of research, development, testing, and experimentation. The workshop will support SDCN project as well as any of my reseach students who require short-term R&D space (for final-year projects, MSc projects ,etc.). So I’ll be an interesting place of oscilloscopes, VR goggles, Raspberry PIs, drones, network switches, media streamers and most importantly talented young people. I’ll encourage them to post stories of their research here.

(and yes, a coffee machine is ready and whiteboards are coming soon.)

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Westminster Higher Education Forum and IEEE TALE 2018

I have been invited as a speaker at a Westminster Higher Education Forum: Technology in higher education: the future of learning environments, the use of Artificial Intelligence and the impact of online courses. An short intro of this event (scheduled on Thursday, 28th March 2019 in London) is copied below. The forum will discuss the impact of technonogies and data sciences in learning and teaching by looking at different theories and practices. I’ll contribute with our experiences with Active Blended Learning at Northampton but more importantly the on-site experiments our staff and students have done with primary and secondary schools in recent years.

And on that same note, I also became part of the programme committee for IEEE International Conference on Teaching, Assessment and Learning for Engineering (TALE 2018). IEEE TALE is “the IEEE Education Society’s flagship Asia-Pacific conference series, catering to researchers and practitioners with an interest in engineering and computing education as well as those interested in the innovative use of digital technologies for learning, teaching, and assessment in any discipline”. The conference theme this year is “Engineering Next-Generation Learning”. Any thing with engineering in it immediately sounds execiting isn’t it? My understanding is that it is engineering in very broad terms including human factors.

Westminster Higher Education Forum: Technology in higher education: the future of learning environments, the use of Artificial Intelligence and the impact of online courses.

This seminar focuses on the use of technology in the higher education sector, assessing its effectiveness and discussing ways forward for maximising its potential in both learning and teaching.

Delegates will consider the impact of technology on the learning experience and what more might need to be done to meet students’ expectations by further developing personalised teaching. They will assess the benefits and challenges of flipped and blended learning practices in delivering instructional content and improving students’ engagement.

Further sessions will discuss how technology can impact the quality of marking by supporting better standardisation processes, while alleviating pressure on lecturers by reducing academic workloads. Delegates will look at improvements already delivered in the quality of feedback provided to students and at practical issues still to be addressed.

Those attending will also discuss the latest findings on the use of virtual reality teaching, including concerns about its potentially negative effect on students’ ability to memorise quantitative data and its successful application in subjects such as science and geography.

The seminar will also look at the development of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), including key lessons that can be learnt from examples of best practice in marketing and student recruitment. Delegates will examine how MOOCs have fostered co-operation between hi-tech industry and the higher education sector, while also assessing their impact on lifelong learning and social mobility.

Orchastrated media demo on BBC Taster

The Audio Team at BBC R&D North Lab has recently published an orchestrated media demo (the Vostok-K incident) and is now available on BBC Taster ( It shows how we can orchestrate media playback across multiple user devices to deliver a more immersive experience. The demo uses a cloud-based media synchronisation service that Dr. Rajiv Ramdhany (thank you for sharing the news, Rajiv!) built for the 2Immerse project. The demo is very similar to the one we shared a couple of years ago in a IEEE J-STSP journal article (open access). I believe a version of the underlying system (not sure if its the one used in the Taster demo) has borrowed our idea of a perceptual model to adjust playback for different “catch-up” scenarios (all complex equations can be found in the paper, if you are interested).  Technically, it is quite difficult to achieve this level of synchronicity without using special chips and network protocols (read this paper to see how many things can go wrong). What’s also fantastic about this demo is that it uses content specifically created for the technology. Instead of using any off-the-shelf 5.1/7.1 movie sound tracks, the demo splits sound sources and merge them on-the-fly based on what user device(s) are available.

I think the biggest challenge is the level of human intervention still required for the demo to work and work well in the wild over mobile devices. Device discovery is an obvious topic and we can throw some crazy idea on it easily (e.g., ultrasonic piggy-back). I am also interested in how devices’ capabilities plays a key role in the experience (also observed from my previous experiments). While listening to the Vostok demo, I was subconsciously trying to work out my own location in the scene and that is often dictated by which device has a higher volume. So my personal experience might not be the same as how the directors wanted. Is this a bad thing? Not necessary. Like the user controlled 360 video, allowing the audience to choose where they want to be (e.g., decides which character you want to stand next to in a scene) can be a good pathway for content customisation and interactive media. Perhaps I should get my 3rd year undergrads to try out the demo in classroom. Wouldn’t it be cool to have 40 mobile phones going crazy at the same time? Maybe they’ll also come up with some nice projects to work on.

Post-doctoral Research Assistant position open for applications

The vacancy can be accessed directly via and will remain active until 11.59pm on 12 September 2018.

We wish to appoint a Research Associate to work on the EPSRC-funded project “Software Defined Cognitive Networking (SDCN)”. The SDCN project aims at enhancing online video distribution, which takes the vast majority of internet traffic. We seek to develop new context-aware network models to improve the user experience and network efficiency using software-defined networks.

We invite applications from enthusiastic individuals with experience in relevant aspects of communication networks. The ideal candidate will be a proficient programmer in languages appropriate for scientific computing (e.g. Python, Java), have knowledge of statistical modelling. The role will require you to engage with external partners and stakeholders, and therefore you should possess excellent communication skills with evidence of working effectively as an individual and within a team. You will have strong project management skills and have an ability to write up research for peer-reviewed conferences and journals.

You will work at the University of Northampton’s new Waterside Campus. A dedicated lab at the university’s Avenue Campus will also accommodate research and experimentation activities. The University promotes continuing professional development (CPD) and provides access to development for staff at all levels.

The candidate should possess a PhD in computer science or closely related field. This is a fixed term appointment of 12 months.

For informal enquiries, please contact Dr Mu Mu, email:


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Does WOW! translate to an A? A comparative study of VR-based learning in higher education

Congratulations to Yoana (previously a BSc Business Computing student and now on our MSc programme), for having a paper accepted by IEEE VR 2018, a leading conference on 3D and virtual reality research!

Yoana’s research is centred around a simple but fundamental question: Does the “WOW!” effect of VR contribute much if anything to students’ learning outcomes in a higher education setup? While VR is increasingly adopted by primary/secondary schools in the UK to improve the pupils” engagement with learning materials as part of the STE(A)M initiatives, it is unclear how the technology would and could impact the learning of hard sciences in university. Yoana conducted a comparative study on students’ performance in a standardised assessment when course content is delivered using VR and conventional lecture slides. Interestingly, students see VR as a great platform to isolate them from real-world distractions but the extra cognitive load brought by VR content has a detrimental impact on how the learners recognising/memorising important quantitative data. We also concluded that social interaction and tailored productivity tools are two main factors that underpin the exploitation of VR in HE.

Slavova, Y. and Mu, M., A Comparative Study of the Learning Outcomes and Experience of VR in Education, to appear in Proceedings of the 25th IEEE Conference on Virtual Reality and 3D User Interfaces (IEEE VR 2018), Germany, 05/2018

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