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Oxford announces new AI Environment centre amidst wider UK investment

The University has announced plans to open a new “Intelligent Earth Centre” focusing on theintersection between Artificial Intelligence and environmental sciences. The centre will be funded by a £12 million grant from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), with nearly £3 million more from the university itself and partners including Google DeepMind, IBM, the European Space Agency and the Met Office.

The “Intelligent Earth Centre” is intended to train almost 100 PhD students to use AI technologies to tackle environmental crises over the first eight years. The announcement follows the recent AI Safety summit which signalled the UK’s determination to regain its dominance in the AI field.

The centre is one of 12 new UKRI centres for doctoral training with over £117 million awarded, building on their previous 2018 investment of £100 million. Other centres include Biomedical Innovation at the University of Edinburgh, Sustainability at the University of Southampton, and Decision Making for Complex Systems at the University of Manchester.

This is part of an investment in British technological developments and comes amidst a wider industrial strategy shift as nations compete for dominance in the AI sector. The UKRI website states that: “The investment will continue to ensure that the UK has the skills needed to seize the potential of the AI era, and to nurture the British tech talent that will push the AI revolution forwards.”

Similarly, Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, Michelle Donelan, said: “The UK is at the very front of the global race to turn AI’s awesome potential into a giant leap forward for people’s quality of life and productivity at work [and these plans] will future-proof our nation’s skill base, meaning we can reap the benefits of AI as it continues to develop.”

Oxford claims the centre aims to address a “crucial skills gap” between environmental scientists and data scientists. It will do this through a multidisciplinary training programme and specific interdisciplinary measures. Each project is advised by both an environmental science supervisor, an AI supervisor, and an advisor from one of their non-academic partners as a secondment host.

Training will be in both environmental science and data science and there will be entry streams for both “numerate candidates from environmental science backgrounds” and “for environmentally-driven candidates from computer science, data science, mathematics, statistics, or physics backgrounds.”

The programme is also intended to be student-led with students being matched with supervisors and partners throughout the first year of training and developing their project proposal with their personal supervisory team rather than applying to a singular predefined project. The first PhD positions will start in September 2024 and applications will open later this month.

According to the Director of the new Intelligent Earth Centre, Professor Stier, students are not just expected to graduate into a wide range of industries but “to drive innovation and found their own start-ups.”

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