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Solving society's greatest challenges


Newcastle University is helping to launch a £10 million prize to solve one of the greatest scientific problems facing the world today.

The competition is based on the 1714 Longitude Prize, which was won by John Harrison, a clockmaker whose instruments enabled sailors to pinpoint their position at sea for the first time. 

In an updated version, the public will be asked to choose a new challenge from six potential categories, ranging from healthcare to the environment.

Being launched during the 50th Anniversary edition of BBC science series Horizon on Thursday, Newcastle University has been chosen to highlight the challenges facing people with dementia.

Led by the Digital Interaction Group, as part of the EPSRC SiDE (Social Inclusion through the Digital Economy) project, the programme will feature the University’s Ambient Kitchen which supports people to live independently for longer in their own homes.  It will also highlight other technologies being trialled by the team, such as the use of Google Glass.

Professor Patrick Olivier, Professor of Human-Computer Interaction at Newcastle University, said: “As the population ages it is becoming increasingly important to find new ways to support people to live independently.

“Technology has the potential to play a major role in this and at Newcastle University we are investigating how existing technologies can be used in new ways as well as developing novel systems for the future.

“Our goal is to empower people through technology and this means designing and developing it in collaboration with the very people who are going to be using it.  Only by funding this sort of research will we develop systems that make a real difference to people’s lives.”

The categories from which "the problem" will be chosen was announced yesterday. These themes have been selected by a Longitude Committee, chaired by the English Astronomer Royal, Professor Sir Martin Rees, after widespread consultation with experts across various fields.

They are: 

The original £20,000 prize was set by the British government to solve the most vexing issue of the 18th Century: how to determine a ship's longitude at sea.

For sailors to pinpoint their position on the waves, they required two clocks: one that was set each day, using the height of the sun in the sky, and another that kept the time back at port.

But Mr Harrison, a clockmaker from Yorkshire, created a chronometer that overcame these problems.  It took several prototypes and decades of battling with the scientific elite before he was finally deemed the winner. His work revolutionised navigation and saved countless lives.

Now, 300 years later, a new challenge is being launched, funded by Nesta and the Technology Strategy Board.

Professor Sir Martin Rees said: “There's no manifest number one problem as there was in the 18th Century. Rather there are many broad societal problems demanding fresh thinking. 

"There's a pressing need also for the UK to channel more brain power into innovation, jump-start new technologies and enthuse young people.”

The Ambient Kitchen has been developed by Human-Computer Interaction experts and Social Gerontologists at Newcastle University.  Everything – from the fridge and oven to the pans and carving knives and even the floor – are fitted with sensors that can monitor your every move.

So as you are cooking a meal or making a cup of tea, the sensors detect that you have forgotten to carry out an important step, and you are prompted on what to do next by a wall mounted monitor screen. Every move you make, from opening the fridge door to collect ingredients, to turning on the oven to start cooking, is tracked.

Dr Thomas Ploetz, a senior lecturer in context aware computing, explains: “For many of the volunteers we work with the biggest barrier to them living independently is confidence.

“Many of the assistive technologies we are developing, such as the Ambient Kitchen, are designed to support people in everyday activities we all take for granted.”

Each category will be examined in the Horizon programme to be broadcast on BBC Two at 2100 on Thursday, May 22. After that, a public vote will be opened, with a favoured theme to be announced on 25 June.

published on: 20 May 2014