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Research 4.0 - how technology and imagination will push human knowledge further, faster

Paul Feldman

The new generation of technologies, combined with the power of the human brain, is going to transform how we push the boundaries of our research worlds. Paul Feldman, Jisc CEO, sets out his vision for the future of research.

Albert Einstein once said imagination is more important than knowledge. As technology continues to transform the world around us, this view is increasingly true for research.

Throughout history, each new generation of technology has opened up more opportunities to make, create and do more, faster and more efficiently. And as technology evolves, so too does the way it helps us to think differently about problems and solutions. With the coming together of Industry 4.0, technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things, robotics and 5G networking, the opportunities to enhance our natural abilities looks set to be greater than ever before.

A Research 4.0 future

Over the last year we’ve been exploring with you what this could mean for education – from assessment reimagined to personalised adaptive learning. But what does the application of these technologies mean for research?

Looking at the current state of play it’s not too difficult to imagine a Research 4.0 future – one where technology is left to get on with the repetitive, the mundane and the low-level aspects of the research lifecycle. Automated systems come together to run experiments, crunch data, test hypotheses at huge scale, point to patterns and perhaps even indicate potential hypotheses.

If this sounds like science fiction, just look at disciplines such as medicine which are already being transformed. Technology is increasingly able to conduct more reliable diagnostics than doctors in certain areas. And we’re already seeing technology conduct automated hypothesis-led research that could lead to potentially lifesaving breakthroughs. Take the work going on at the University of Cambridge, where an artificially intelligent ‘robot scientist’ discovered that a common toothpaste ingredient could help fight drug-resistant malaria.

Rich new insights

Of course, while not all research disciplines will be affected the same way, there’s no reason to believe this is just about the hard sciences. The arts and humanities look set to be equally transformed.

For example, the ‘Living with Machines’ project, led by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is pioneering new AI and data science methods alongside the Alan Turing Institute and the British Library to analyse digitised historical resources and collections at huge scale. It aims to track societal and cultural change in new ways and, in the process, foster interdisciplinary collaboration between software engineers, data scientists, historians, curators and others.

Elsewhere, at the University of Lancaster, researchers are using an AI platform and natural tools to make sense of and explain information from thousands of pages of historical text. Written in several rare languages (including Nahuatl, Mixtec and variants of Mayan), the texts all relate to Spain’s early colonial rule of Mexico. This new research is providing rich new insights into this fascinating historical period.

Beyond the actual practice of research, Research 4.0 could also transform research management, planning and evaluation. For example, data analytics could inform a much wider range of decisions on investment, staffing, collaborations and strategy. At Jisc, we’re already exploring the potential of research analytics and working to co-design bespoke solutions that meet your priorities in this space.

Be creative

So where does the increasing automation of research leave the traditional role of the researcher? From my experience, researchers are extremely creative people.

I’m confident the application of 4.0 technologies across the lifecycle will ultimately free them up to do what humans do best – be creative. It will still be people making the connections, spotting the real advancements, leading the technology to innovate. Our innate human talents will be augmented by technology.

Industry, particularly the big tech titans, are is many respects way ahead of academia in deploying 4.0 technologies for research, delving into areas that are traditionally the domain of universities. Sony is even pursuing the Nobel Prize, developing an AI system designed to make breakthroughs in biomedical science.

This ups the game for our academic researchers to look beyond what algorithms can reliably be left to churn through and, instead, develop whole new forms of research: deeper, broader, more diverse but so much more exciting.

New challenges

While there are new opportunities for faster, more efficient knowledge generation, Research 4.0 also brings new challenges. Increased connectivity can make research more susceptible to sophisticated forms of cyber attack.

There are very real ethical challenges, including ensuring algorithms avoid cultural biases. As research scale and complexity increases, new approaches are needed to ensure findings can be trusted. And the sheer volume, velocity and variety of data produced by 4.0 technologies could present challenges to an orderly transition to more open research.

We’re presented, then, with what I see as an exciting challenge – one that demands we think today about what that future holds so we can start preparing our organisations and our researchers.

Researchers and those who support the research system at policy, organisational and technical levels need to understand the opportunities 4.0 technologies offer and be able to make sound judgements about how research can evolve in the context of the fourth industrial revolution.

Key to this is understanding where we are today in terms of skills, infrastructure and, perhaps most importantly of all, research culture. Indeed, examining the incentives system is vital to making the most of 4.0 technologies and there is Research England-supported work underway by Vitae and others, looking at incentives and issues of integrity across the research system.

Working together

At Jisc, we want to work with you and other key research sector stakeholders to develop a positive, long-term vision for Research 4.0. As part of this work, we’re supporting the leading independent thinktank Demos to explore the opportunities and challenges presented to UK research from increasing automation.

The project, led by Rob Proctor, professor of social informatics at the University of Warwick, aims to understand how 4.0 technologies are being used across research today, including highlighting the academics and researchers leading the way.

Demos recently published the project’s interim report, Research 4.0: Research in the age of automation (pdf), and I urge you to take a look.  The project will conclude with a final report this spring. This will put forward a series of Research 4.0 policy-focused recommendations to help secure the UK’s position as a global research leader in the years to come.

When Einstein stressed the primacy of imagination over knowledge, he was referring to its importance to the evolution of human thinking, inquiry and research. While there are risks and uncertainties associated with a Research 4.0 future, I believe the advances we’re living through are fundamentally a force for good; one that will enable researchers to make the very most of their innate human abilities – not least of all, the ability to stretch their imaginations for the benefit of us all.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the interim report, your personal experiences of applying 4.0 technologies across different research disciplines and any examples you have of best practice that might feed into the project’s findings. Please get in touch at inform@jisc.ac.uk.