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24 September, 2019 - 15:09 By Kate Sweeney

From wearables to earables as Cambridge researchers sound out a sensory tech revolution

A Cambridge research partnership between the university and Nokia Bell Labs is defining the next wave of sensory technology transformations.

Fifteen months after Business Weekly reported the intended collaboration, the researchers are using bleeding edge techniques to redefine sensory intelligence.

The centre, celebrating its first anniversary, has already become the nucleus of mobile, wearable and ubiquitous systems research in the UK ecosystem, according to Dr Fahim Kawsar of Nokia Bell Labs.

Dr Kawsar believes the centre could soon stand on the threshold of something spectacular to drive a new wave of digital transformation.

A classic example of progress at the centre involves sensory earables (smart devices worn in the ear) which are increasingly becoming a mainstream computing platform for human sensing applications, especially for health and well-being applications. 

Centre researchers are actively building signal processing and machine learning algorithms to enable sensory earables to become, for the first time, a cognitive augmentation platform. Such technology could help people with hearing, and memory impairments to live independently, Dr Kawsar says.

He writes in a blog on the Nokia Bell Labs website: “We are living in an exciting time – a time that is defined by the rise of AI-supported sensory systems that promise to profoundly impact the way we live, act, learn, and behave as social human beings. 

“Naturally, this paradigm shift has attracted tremendous attention from our industry and planetary-scale efforts are underway to develop transformative AI solutions; however, we will do so both responsibly and ethically. 

“We at Nokia Bell Labs are at the forefront of shaping this fantastic future ahead of us, purposefully contributing to this new digital revolution where networks, data and devices work seamlessly and intelligently together to create an ecosystem that will impact every facet of our lives each day.”

The prime objective of the new research centre launched with the university in 2018 is to advance state-of-the-art mobile systems, security, new materials, and artificial intelligence (AI) with particular emphasis on precise, predictive and personalised medicine, digital, physical, mental, and social well-being, and sensory human communication experiences beyond vision and audio.

Dr Kawsar writes: “Deep learning is causing a seismic shift in our industry, literally transforming every business. However, two of the fundamental problems in this branch of artificial intelligence is the lack of quality data and explainability. 

“The centre is investigating Bayesian deep learning techniques as a promising way forward to address these critical challenges. The early results of this algorithmic exploration with acoustic signals has already demonstrated the plausibility of this approach in redefining deep learning.  

“The implication of this research will help users to ultra-personalise AI services and systems (e.g., conversational agents, health appliances, etc.) to meet their lifestyles.”

In its first year, the fledgling centre organised two highly successful symposia MobiUK, with the first edition at the University of Cambridge and the second at the University of Oxford, bringing together researchers in this space from across the UK and internationally.

The centre also organised a series of seminars bringing world-leading speakers to discuss the future of this area. 

And the centre organised the very first international workshop on Earable Computing – taking the leadership role in defining and shaping a brand new research community globally (

Dr Kawsar reports that since the launch of the centre the University of Cambridge has invited four Bell Labs researchers into the Department of Computer Science and Technology as industrial visitors – a capacity that enabled them to engage freely and exchange thoughts on mutual research beyond the scope of topics addressed at the centre.

Nokia Bell Labs Cambridge also welcomes the centre researchers freely in its offices and frequently organises informal gatherings with research talks to create opportunities for spontaneous interaction and the flow of ideas. 

Dr Kawsar writes: “The long history of Nokia Bell Labs has taught us the power of collective intelligence in redefining the future of human society. This partnership may be in its infancy but this beginning indeed holds the promise of something spectacular. Time will tell how soon this partnership will usher in the next wave of digital transformation.”

• Photo by JD Mason on Unsplash

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