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Are we ready to face the challenges and opportunities of transport AI?

LTT is staging a major new event in Manchester later this month to explore the potential of artificial intelligence to transform the way we travel, manage traffic flows and create better places, writes Juliana O’Rourke

Juliana O'Rourke
10 January 2024
Sara El Hanfy: One aspect of our programme is raising awareness of the interesting challenges that exist in sectors such as transport
Sara El Hanfy: One aspect of our programme is raising awareness of the interesting challenges that exist in sectors such as transport
Professor Sarvapali Ramchurn: Right now innovators are moving fast, but there needs to be more forward thinking around the de- ployment of AI technologies
Professor Sarvapali Ramchurn: Right now innovators are moving fast, but there needs to be more forward thinking around the de- ployment of AI technologies
Liz Scott: We are on a mission to evolve a more inclusive and diverse pipeline of AI practitioners
Liz Scott: We are on a mission to evolve a more inclusive and diverse pipeline of AI practitioners

 

Is 2024 the year that transport planning embraces AI? There can be hardly any transport planner who hasn’t heard of, or had a go at, using ChatGPT, the free OpenAI chatbot. AI will, it is claimed, deliver many improvements to society, having the potential to revolutionise the way we transport people and goods, to manage traffic flows and to plan and design successful places.  

AI is no longer the future – it’s here now in our offices, living rooms, cars and pockets. In some areas, such as automating data entry, data collection and data analysis, AI is well established in professional toolkits. Other scenarios, such as AI-managed Connected and Autonomous vehicles commonly travelling driverless on public roads, remain years away. 

But as the technology has continued to expand its role in our lives, key questions remain. Can we trust AI? Is it safe? How can we use it for community benefit? How will it fit easily into our workloads and workflows? 

Rapid advances mean that everyday programmers now have access to tools and datasets once only available to the Googles and Metas of the world – and they are delivering products and services that transport professionals can use today.  

“Right now innovators are moving fast, but there needs to be more forward thinking around the deployment of AI technologies. Innovation is great, but innovation at the cost of society is not,” says Professor Sarvapali Ramchurn, CEO, Responsible AI UK, Professor of Artificial Intelligence & Director, UKRI Trustworthy Autonomous Systems Hub and a Turing Fellow – and a keynote speaker at the inaugural Transport AI 2024 event, the first LTT-supported venture into the world of AI in transport. 

But, adds the Professor, speaking about his experience as a partner in a Connected Places Catapult project: “The question is whether we’re ready as individuals.” 

When we’re deploying any technology that takes away control or decision making from humans – as with autonomous vehicles – security issues emerge, as do people’s safety concerns, he says. “Autonomous vehicles have been around a long time, such as on the Docklands Light Railway, and people generally feel very safe in those trains. But they didn’t at first.” 

Creating an AI ecosystem – building a marketplace  

Working with key event collaborators such as Innovate UK BridgeAI, Microsoft and the Turing Innovation Catalyst, Transport AI 2024 is creating an ecosystem and building a marketplace for AI innovation. More than 200 local authorities, businesses and AI experts will gather in Manchester on 23 January 2024, to get the ball rolling, and we at LTT will continue to map, develop and support this growing community as AI becomes increasingly mainstream. 

The UK has set high expectations to become the home for net zero interventions and innovation, as well as the place for responsible AI innovation and adoption. Several AI initiatives have recently been launched in the UK to drive this trend, and transport is already in the spotlight.  

Sara El Hanfy, Head of AI & Machine Learning, Innovate UK BridgeAI, will also be speaking at Transport AI 2024. “Many AI companies gravitate towards the likes of healthcare or fintech because they better understand these use cases,” she says. “And so one aspect of our programme is raising awareness of the interesting challenges that exist in sectors such as transport.” 

BridgeAI has already reported on the four first AI use cases that could transform the transport industry, and identifies which ones could be next. To this end, a BridgeAI transport accelerator programme will open in 2024, via the Digital Catapult, so make sure you're signed up to find out more. Bridge AI partner organisation ADViCE was launched last month to accelerate the development of innovative AI technologies for decarbonisation applications, including transport and commercial infrastructure, through the facilitation of collaboration and knowledge sharing between key stakeholders. 

Supporting diversity in future transport AI 

Manchester is a great place to run an inaugural AI conference. The city region has a strong academic AI community and pipeline of talent. Three of its five universities have established research groups working in AI and data science, and the Turing Innovation Catalyst (TIC) was recently launched in Manchester to help commercialise and accelerate AI.  

One of its key roles, says Liz Scott MBE, TIC’s programme director, is to improve access to AI careers for women and other under-represented groups. AI will affect everyone, so we’re committed to diversifying the face of the industry as we move forward, says Scott. “We are on a mission to evolve a more inclusive and diverse pipeline of AI practitioners.” 

Women and other under-represented people across Greater Manchester will be able to embark on a funded eight-week boot camp to help them take the first steps from a technical perspective into amassing some of the coding and development skills needed for a career in AI or data science, and an organised training programme follows on. 

“The diversity angle is really important,” says Scott, “because we know that diversity drives innovation, and diversity drives growth. We have a real skills shortage in Greater Manchester; with Greater Manchester and the north-west persistently having the highest number of tech vacancies on an annual basis.” 

TIC is one of 10 projects that were funded as part of the Greater Manchester innovation accelerator, funding part that has come through GMCA, from Innovate UK and DSIT.  

Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, said: “Greater Manchester’s selection as one of three Innovation Accelerator regions demonstrates the Government’s confidence in our innovation ecosystem. The projects being backed are undertaking world-leading research to address some of the biggest challenges we face. 

“They also align with the sectors where Greater Manchester has emerging or established strengths, like artificial intelligence (AI) and diagnostics. We look forward to working with partners to ensure this funding supports the growth of our future industries and delivers greater prosperity for our people.” 

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