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Prof Peter McOwan

Professor of Computer Science & VP for Public Engagement and Student Enterprise

Research Interests

Overall Research Aim: How can an understanding of biological systems help us build better technology?

One of the accepted Grand Challenges of science is to understand the workings of the human brain. This is a problem that has many aspects and many levels, but one of the most promising is to study the brain as a computational system, and in particular to study the lower level processing components, such as early vision and sensory-motor integration which are both experimentally accessible and lend themselves to algorithmic description. The development of such biologically validated algorithms also allows their transfer to build functional computer artefacts mimicking natural behaviours. Research in my lab is focused on three main areas.

1 Understanding early visual processing
How does our brain start to process the visual signal, and can we build accurate and experimentally validated mathematical models for this process?
Working with Alan Johnston at Psychology at UCL we have developed and promoted a gradient based framework for understanding neural structure and human performance in a range of low-level visual tasks such as motion and spatial orientation. Our mathematical models have allowed us to predict and validate a number of novel optical illusions. There are opportunities to extend this work to look at other low level processes such as stereovision. We have recently started to develop a mathematical framework to examine human visual attention, and to test this model against human performance.

2 Sensory motor integration
Can we develop and test mathematical models that explain how perceptions lead to actions?
Our work on integration examined initially a novel insect behaviour, active motion camouflage, and developed the first explicit neural model for this stealth strategy. Using the model developed it was possible to incorporate it into a virtual environment and show for the first time that humans are also susceptible to this camouflaging behaviour. Examination of human sensory motor performance also allowed the development of an award winning Internet based security system using computer mouse based signatures, which we showed for the first time to be both reproducible and biometric.

3 Closing the perception action loop
How can we create computers able to recognise human facial expressions or gestures and so interact more naturally with the users?
Closing the perception action loop in human computer interaction is an extension and integration of our previous work, using biologically inspired methods and computer vision techniques to develop adaptive systems capable of tracking faces, recognising facial expressions and generating photo realistic avatars, so supporting affective computing applications. This work is extending currently to include the automated recovery of body language in an effort to improve interaction, and will form the basis of software to be incorporated and field tested in companion robotics developed as part of the Framework 7 project LIREC. Work with Psychology UCL, funded under the Cognitive Systems programme will develop techniques to create photo realistic graphical avatars, which will be used to examine properties such as imitation. Through such systems we can attempt in the near future to understand many of the higher-level cognitive processes in the human brain concerned with affective communications, social intelligence and empathy.

Public dialogue on Computer Science and AI
Research on understanding the brain and the development of artificial intelligence has been identified by the UK Government as an issue that the public have concerns about. Integral to my research agenda is a successful and ongoing engagement with the public and media to demystify the subject and inspire the next generation of researchers. Projects include the online Humans Vs AI Olympics Sodarace, based on the BAFTA winning sodaconstructor website, and also the cs4fn project which aims to develop a magazine and website to inspire and inform school children (and others) about the broad field of Computer Science. This outreach work has been selected for the Royal Society Summer Exhibition in 2005 (Sodarace) and 2007 (The perception deception, maths made optical illusions)

Professional Highlights

Scientific program committee Scientific program committee IEEE Congress on Evolutionary Computation Special Sessions on Complex Adaptive Systems (2005/6/7)
Scientific program committee IEEE Congress on Evolutionary Computation Special Sessions on Artificial Life (2005/6)

Review panel MSc Interactive Multimedia for University of Westminster 2002

Wellcome Trust External Consultant for Wellcome Trust Mathematical Biology Fellowships scheme (1999)
Organisation committee for Wellcome Trust mathematical Biology conference (1999)
Chair of Judging panel for Wellcome Trust final year students meeting (1999 & 2000)

Media Scientific consultant for BBC Tommorrow’s World Livelab and Labrats (2001)
Scientific consultant for Mentorn Television (2002- 2004)
Research features in New Scientist, BBC On Digital, BBC website, The Guardian , The Register, Yahoo, Terminator 3 Movie website

Reviewing Reviewed papers for Proceedings of the Royal Society, IEEE transaction on Human Cybernetics, Journal of Experimental Psychology, Journal of Adaptive Systems, Spatial Vision, IEE Image Analysis. Physical Review E, Cambridge University Press
Reviewed grants for EPSRC, Leverhume Trust, DTI, OST, Singapore Government
Text book reviewer for Pearson Education (2004)

Invited Talks Invited to attended 1995 Workshop on Neuromorphic Engineering, Telluride USA and wrote Optical Computing section for Workshop Report to the American Academy of Science.
Invited talk at the Rank Prize fund meeting on Visual Motion Perception, November 1996
Invited talk at adaptive systems group University of Hertfordshire 2001, 2004
Invited submission for BBSRC/EPSRC joint workshop on Mathematical Biology, Hinxton Cambridge 2001
Invited talk EPSRC PPA Conference Warwick, 2003
Invited talk COGS, University of Surrey 2004
Invited Talk LTN New Wave Conference 2004
Invited Talk Foreign Office on LTN activity 2004
Maxwell Lecture Kings College London 2004

Awards Wellcome Mathematical Biology Fellowship (1993)
Honary Research Fellow Department of Psychology, UCL (1995-Date)
Winner BBC Tomorrow’s World Megalab national competition 1998
London Technology Network Business Fellow of the Month (2003)
Drapers Award for Innovation and Teaching (2004)

Team Mentor for Microsoft Imagineering Cup national software competition (2004)

Patent Applications UK Patent application No. 93203776 Real time optical image encryption using spatial light modulators for secure picture transmission. (1993)
UK Patent application No. 0201232.6 A Java based biometric signature security system. (2002)
International Patent application A Java based biometric signature security system. (2003)

Memberships Member of Institute of Physics (M. InstP). and Chartered Physicist (C. Phys).
Chartered Scientist (C. Sci)
Member IET (MIET).
Member Optical Society of America
Member Applied Vision Association
Member Medical Research Society
Member London Mathematical Society
Member Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience UCL.
Member Institute for Learning and Teaching

EPSRC peer review College EPSRC peer review College 2006-2009

External Examiner University of Reading External examiner for undergraduate programmer in Cybernetics, Department of Cybernetics, University of Reading

Royal Society Summer Exhibition 2007 Selected for Summer Exhibition 2007, The Perception Deception; maths made optical illusions, joint with Psychology UCL

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