A major new research project led by Professor Nick Jennings of the University of Southampton will aim to develop true partnerships between people and computers.

At a time when humans are becoming increasingly dependent on computers, the Orchid Project brings together over 60 researchers from a range of disciplines at the Universities of Southampton, Oxford and Nottingham, together with industrial partners at BAE Systems, PRI Ltd and the Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR).

The five-year programme, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) with significant investment from the industrial partners, will tackle the challenge of understanding, designing, building, and deploying systems that are composed of human-agent collectives (HACs).

HACs will become an increasing feature of our daily lives as mobile phones, sat-navs, sensing systems, and other electronic devices become more powerful and more ubiquitous.

Embryonic and relatively unsophisticated examples of current human interactions with autonomous software entities include the crowd-sourcing that provides a growing element of our traffic information, user-generated content for weather reports, and our interactions with software that can find us hotels according to our preferences.

Professor Jennings says: “We are fast approaching an ‘era of ubiquity’ where each of us will become increasingly dependent on multiple smart and proactive computers that we carry with us, access at home and at work, and that are embedded into the world around us.

“This will profoundly change the ways in which we work with computers. Rather than issuing instructions to passive machines, we will increasingly work in partnership with highly inter‐connected computational components (agents) that are able to act autonomously and intelligently.”

Professor Jennings, of the School of Electronics and Computer Science at Southampton, believes that human-agent collectives – people and computational agents operating at a global scale – offer tremendous potential and, if realised correctly, will help meet key societal challenges.

However, these benefits are mirrored by the threat of equally concerning pitfalls as we shift to become increasingly reliant on systems that interweave human and computational endeavour.

The Orchid Project therefore has ambitious aims: the researchers will tackle the entire lifecycle of systems composed of human‐agent collectives, from the underpinning theory to the application of the systems in the real-world critical domains of energy systems and disaster response. In doing so, they will define the new science of systems composed of human‐agent collectives, demonstrate the commercial, industrial and societal impact of such systems, and enhance the UK’s competitiveness in this key area of the knowledge economy.

Professor Jennings says: “We are bringing together three world‐class academic groups with multidisciplinary expertise in the areas of artificial intelligence, agent‐based computing, machine learning, decentralised information systems, participatory systems, and ubiquitous computing. These multiple insights will be essential in developing a principled science that will define the future development of human-agent collectives.

“We know that humans and software agents will continually and flexibly establish a range of collaborative relationships with one another, but their global scale and decentralised nature means control and information will be widely dispersed among a large number of potentially self-interested actors with different aims and objectives -some of whom may be humans, others may be software agents.

“For these systems to meet their goals, issues such as trust, fairness, efficiency, and stability will all have to be optimized against a background of potential uncertainty, bias, and ambiguity. Our real-world application domains of energy systems and disaster response will provide the opportunity to develop and demonstrate intelligent agents and explore how humans can work with them, how they respond to varying degrees of autonomy, and what incentives need to be put in place to encourage socially desirable behaviour.”

Orchid continues Professor Jennings’ research in the ALADDIN programme, a five-year strategic research programme funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and BAE Systems, which developed a multi-agent toolbox across a range of data and information applications. Orchid takes this work into new areas of even greater significance and complexity.

“The breadth of our multidisciplinary approach, coupled with our focus on industrial applications, means that this research can be expected to be truly transformational,” adds Professor Jennings. “This enables us to build critical systems in the future that will be powerful but also reliable.”


This research takes place in the Intelligence, Agents, Multimedia research group in the School of Electronics and Computer Science. If you are interested in undertaking PhD research in this group, see our Research pages for further information.