Professor Xin Yao, who received his PhD from USTC, currently leads the USTC-Birmingham Joint Research Institute in Intelligent Computation and its Applications: ‘an energetic young team’ (in his own words) of five full-time faculty members forming a critical mass of expertise in intelligent computation.
“The Research Institute focuses on two main areas: adaptive optimisation and advanced data analysis and mining.”
By working closely with engineers and technicians, the Institute develops applied operations research. This cross-disciplinary approach provides solutions to everyday concerns such as vehicle routing challenges. Looking specifically at winter salt spreading, for example, Xin’s team consider key elements including travel distance and product volume and develop algorithms to make predictions on the impact of traffic implications and fleet availability and make recommendations on optimum routing schedules.
The Institute’s other focus, data analysis and mining, is a new challenge of the digital age. While controversial, this research area is of significant commercial value with internet companies competing to understand consumer behaviours: what do browsers buy online? what type of pages do they visit? how long do they spend on sites? and when visiting one webpage, what is likely to be the next page visit? Xin’s team are able to analyse data collected from users to map trends. The group are engaged with Baidu (China’s Google) to take this information one step further and consider predictions connected to browser pathways.
“Data mining is about extracting knowledge from data. Vast amounts of data are collected online, whether intentionally or unintentionally, for example we don’t think twice about providing personal information to insurance programmes or social media. Researchers have no interest in individual data sets but they can use the information to recognise trends and patterns, which to companies such as Google and Baidu is extremely valuable.”
The Research Institute has strong commercial impact. In addition to the aforementioned projects the joint institute is also working with IBM China to look at solutions to protecting underground water pipes in the country. By analysing (limited) sensor information from pipes laid decades ago, the researchers are making predictions on which sections of pipes would be most susceptible to bursting and thus ensure appropriate preventative measures.
“This partnership with IBM China is a strong one. One of our students was originally placed ‘on-site’ as part of the project – they are now a permanent employee there! It highlights the importance and value of close academic-commercial collaboration.”