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News Archive : January - March 2013

York Computer Science academic leads international meeting on swarm robotics

Date Added: 11th March 2013
Professor Jon Timmis will play a key role at the prestigious Royal Society Frontiers of Science meeting in Russia this week.

Professor Timmis, a joint appointment with the Departments of Computer Science and Electronics, will lead a joint session exploring the scientific and engineering challenges of creating robotic systems that can operate for extended periods of time without human intervention.

Frontiers of Science is a series of international meetings for outstanding early career scientists organised by the Royal Society in partnership with national academies and scientific organisations around the world.

Participants are encouraged to present and discuss the most pressing or stimulating research questions at the frontiers of their field, and to identify new and emerging scientific challenges on the horizon of current knowledge.

The Royal Society Frontiers of Science 2013 meeting, in partnership with the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tartarstan, will take place in Kazan, Republic of Tartarstan, Russia from 12 to 14 March.

Professor Timmis, a Senior Research Fellow of the Royal Society, will lead the Information Technology session “Long term autonomous systems: from individuals to swarms” with Dr Airat Khasianov from Kazan Federal University in Russia.

Professor Timmis said: “We will examine issues as diverse as local communication inspired by ants, robotic planning, power management, and how to control thousands of robots and ensure they perform tasks that humans want them to do."

“Swarm robotics is a field of significant importance at the moment, for example in areas such as environmental monitoring, and search and rescue, where we wish to deploy large numbers of robots for long periods of time. We want them to work well and effectively, without constant human interaction.

“The Information Technology session will involve leading scientists from numerous scientific disciplines from around the world discussing this issue. I am very honoured to be leading this Royal Society session, which aligns well with my own research and the challenges we are facing at York.”

Read more about the Frontiers of Science

Professor Timmis leads on our MSc in Autonomous Robotics Engineering, a new course for 2013, and his research feeds the teaching on this course. Find out more about the course.

Curtains down for the black hole firewall paradox: making gravity safe for Einstein again

Date Added: 7th March 2013
Research by scientists at the University of York has revealed new insights into the life and death of black holes.

Their findings dispel the so-called firewall paradox which shocked the physics community when it was announced in 2012 since its predictions about large black holes contradicted Einstein’s crowning achievement – the theory of general relativity. Those results suggested that anyone falling into a black hole would be burned up as they crossed its edge – the so-called event horizon.

Now Professor Sam Braunstein and Dr Stefano Pirandola have extinguished the fire. In a paper published in Physical Review Letters, they invoke quantum information theory, a modern branch of quantum mechanics that treats light and atoms as carriers of information. The key insight from quantum mechanics is the existence of `spooky’ quantum entanglement across a black hole’s event horizon.

Professor Braunstein says: “Quantum mechanics shows that entanglement can exist across the event horizon, between particles inside and outside the black hole. But should this entanglement ever vanish, a barrier of energetic particles would be created: an energetic curtain (or firewall) would descend around the horizon of the black hole.

“We are the first to show the necessity of entanglement across all black hole event horizons and to consider what happens as black holes age. The greater the entanglement, the later the curtain descends. But if the entanglement is maximal, the firewall never occurs. Indeed, entanglement has long been believed to exist for some types of black holes, taking on exactly this maximum value. Our work confirms and generalises this claim.”

Stephen Hawking was the first to consider information flow in black holes, arguing that aging black holes must hoard information about everything they swallow. Professor Braunstein adds: “When quantum mechanics, and in particular entanglement, are included in the story, Hawking’s prediction holds for the longest time possible. Our results not only back up Einstein’s theory of gravity, but also point to quantum information theory as a powerful tool for disentangling the deep mysteries of the Universe.”

Professor Braunstein and Dr Pirandola, of the Department of Computer Science at York, collaborated with Professor Życzkowski, of the Institute of Physics, Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland.

The paper Better late than never: Information retrieval from black holes by Samuel L. Braunstein, Stefano Pirandola, and Karol Życzkowski is published in Physical Review Letters at and is also available at

Can you demonstrate a commitment to strengthening the UK aerospace industry?

Date Added: 27th February 2013
New Aerospace Bursary available on our MSc in Safety Critical Systems Engineering.

The scheme, administered by the Royal Academy of Engineering, provides up to £9,500 to cover tuition fees for those holding offers on eligible MSc courses.

The MSc in Safety Critical Systems Engineering here at York is one such course, which covers system safety engineering. We have academic staff with experience working within the aerospace industry and research key topics there, and we have delivered teaching for industry professionals for many years. What we teach is up to date and relevant, and well respected by employers such as Rolls Royce and Aero Engine Controls.

The bursary scheme is supported by a number of organisations, including: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; Department for Employment and Learning, Northern Ireland; Aerospace Growth Partnership; BAE Systems; Bombardier Aerospace Belfast; EADS/Airbus; Finmeccanica UK; GKN; MBDA Missile Systems; Messier-Bugatti-Dowty (a Safran group company); Rolls Royce; and Spirit Aerosystems (Europe).

Find out more about the MSc and the Aerospace bursary scheme.

Working to help visually impaired smartphone users navigate the "last ten yards"

Date Added: 25th February 2013
Spiral Scratch win the Digital Inclusion Innovation Contest to work with us in creating a new prototype for visually impaired navigation.

The Department of Computer Science recently partnered the Technology Strategy Board Digital Inclusion Innovation Contest. The contest was designed to get UK businesses thinking about using technology for assisted living applications.

We sponsored the Sensory Assistance category, where the challenge was to create a new digital application, product or service to assist older people and people with sensory disabilities.

The winner of the challenge was Spiral Scratch, who designed a very innovative solution to the “last ten yards” problem. This is when visually impaired people can be very close to their destination, but if they are not familiar with the environment, they may not be able to find exactly where to go.

Here is one example of this problem: a blind person may take a bus into an unfamiliar city centre, aided by modern bus systems that announce the stops. They need to visit a particular business, for example the post office. They might know from their speaking GPS application that the post office is located at 75 High Street, and that they are outside that location, but if they do not know exactly where the entrance is, they cannot look around to find it. They may have to ask a sighted person for assistance, but this relies upon there being someone around and having the willingness to help.

Spiral Scratch's solution to this problem is to use the camera in a smartphone to take an image of a building. This image is analysed in conjunction with images from Google Maps to work out exactly where the entrance to any particular building is located.

The prize is funding of £48,000, and working with our internationally regarded Human-Computer Interaction research group to produce the prototype. Our research group has expertise of working with visually impaired people, and will help Spiral Scratch understand how the system would be used and evaluating a prototype implementation.

Helen Petrie, Professor of Human-Computer Interaction, said, “Often a visually impaired person asking for help in the street is just not practical, and visually impaired people do not want to be dependent on sighted help. We are very excited to work with Spiral Scratch on this project – we think it has a lot of potential to help visually impaired people get exactly where they need to go.”

You can find out more about the winning entry at where a video is available showing how the application may work. We’ll keep you up to date on progress as the three month trial process gets underway!

Student success in IBM Mainframe Challenge

Date Added: 21st February 2013
Congratulations to Nathan Lasseter, one of three winners of the IBM Mainframe Challenge.

Nathan, a final year student on the MEng Computer Science with Embedded Systems Engineering with a year in industry, entered the contest to find out how mainframes, and developing applications for them, differ from other machines.

He successfully completed three stages to be declared one of the winners. The first stage was a quick introduction to mainframes, whilst the second built on this. The final task was much harder, and required participants to develop a web application using IBM’s online transaction processing service, which included writing sections of C code from scratch.

Nathan’s prize is a Samsung Galaxy tab and a visit to IBM’s Software Development Lab in Hursley, where he will get to see some of IBM’s mainframes in action and meet some of the people who work on them every day.

Nathan said, “I found the learning curve quite steep, particularly for the last stage, but this was not really a problem. I was really excited when I received the email that I had been successful, and I am looking forward to the visit to Hursley.”

Congratulations Nathan! If you're thinking about studying Computer Science at York, you can take a look at all our courses at

Tackling the skills shortage in cyber security

Date Added: 12th February 2013
A National Audit Office report on cyber security shows a skills gap that could take 20 years to fill. Find out how we can help you tackle it.

The report, looking at progress of the Government's £650m Cyber Security Strategy, estimates that cyber crime costs the UK between £18bn - £27bn annually. With 44m cyber attacks in 2011 in the UK, the threat the our cyber security is persistent and constantly evolving.

The report highlights the need for skilled professionals to tackle cybercrime, as the shortage in skills hampers the UK's ability to protect itself and promote the use of the internet.

Our new MSc in Cyber Security is one step forward in helping UK businesses to tackle cyber crime and keep their systems secure. We teach the core principles of cyber security so that those who take our course can go into government or industry and make key cyber security decisions.

Interested in becoming part of the solution to the UK's cyber threat? Find out more about the MSc in Cyber Security.

Computer Science professor responds to the UK Government Digital Strategy

Date Added: 25th January 2013
A major report published today examines the challenges faced by the Government in delivering its new digital strategy.

The report, which is co-authored by Professor John McDermid OBE, from the University of York’s Department of Computer Science, raises a number of issues which need further scrutiny if the strategy is to succeed.

One of the most critical activities influencing the future of UK society is the rapid evolution of government services from a fixed set of closed, slow-moving paper-based transactions toward online digital services focused on encouraging a new kind of interaction between UK citizens and government.

The publication of the Government Digital Strategy (GDS) at the end of 2012, lays out the route toward the UK Government’s “digital by default” strategy.

The Government is aiming for swift response to user need, lower costs for the taxpayer, faster delivery of major IT projects and the ability to stay ahead of the curve and make use of the newest technology.

However, a team of key academic thinkers, including Professor McDermid, has highlighted a number of issues requiring further scrutiny if these aims are to be met.

Professor McDermid, who is also Vice President for Engineering and Science at the BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, said: "I welcome the GDS, which addresses how government can provide improved citizen services through IT. It is a real opportunity to provide high quality services cost effectively. The process for renewing car tax and submitting tax returns are two examples of systems which already work well.

“However, this sort of broad-based initiative is very complex, and needs a good understanding of the impact of the technology on society, for example, digital exclusion.

“I hope that this report will prompt a review and revision of the GDS, to address some difficult technical and socio-technical issues which are critical to the success of the initiative. The GDS is at risk if these issues are not grasped.”

The new report on the Government Digital Strategy is designed to be part of an on-going dialogue between government, academics and industry. It is part of a larger initiative aimed at a deep investigation into the promise and pitfalls of greater digitisation of government services, and the broader move toward “Government as a Platform (GaaP)”.

Professor McDermid’s co-authors on the report are Alan Brown, Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, University of Surrey, Ian Sommerville, Professor of Software Engineering, University of St Andrews and Rob Witty, Professor of Software Engineering, Cranfield University. Their response to the GDS can be found at

Professor John McDermid OBE FREng is part of the High Integrity Systems Engineering research group in the Department of Computer Science. He has experience of working with large-scale complex IT systems, and has advised various government departments of software and safety engineering issues. You can find out more about the research of his research group at

The Government Digital Strategy can be found at

Student competition success opens up 3D crossword puzzles for the blind

Date Added: 23rd January 2013
A University of York student has successfully completed a challenge that will allow blind and visually impaired people to complete 3D crosswords.

Sam Twidale, an undergraduate student in the Department of Computer Science, tackled the challenge laid down by Eric Westbrook, of 3D Crosswords Limited, to develop a computer program to allow a totally blind crossword solver to tackle a 3D crossword independently.

Sam’s program allows users to select crossword clues, which the Speech Application Programming Interface (SAPI) on their computer then reads out. The computer will also spell out any words that are not clear, are ambiguous or are homophones. The solver types their answers using the keyboard and these are recorded visually in the grid and the table of clues.

The program allows the solver to move to clues affected by solutions to hear any letters that already appear in the grid. In this way, the program gives the blind solver the same information that the sighted solver could gain from looking at the crossword grid.

Sam used the feedback from one of his friends, Mahomed Khatri, a University of York student and a blind cricketer, and from Eric Westbrook, who is himself registered blind, to improve the program during development.

Sam, a final year student on the MEng in Computer Systems and Software Engineering programme, said: “The challenge captured my interest because it was a one-of-a-kind proposal and I’d been thinking of developing a game for blind and visually impaired gamers.

“It was crucial to understand the needs of the users of the program and to build the software around them – making assumptions can mean you trip up. Developing the solution was a lot of fun and the feedback from Mahomed and Eric was invaluable. I plan to keep adding to the program indefinitely and any feedback, technical advice or contributions are welcome, as I’m still learning!”

Eric Westbrook said: “When people suffer eyesight loss this can be devastating and almost inevitably there are activities previously enjoyed or just plain necessary which become a serious problem or well nigh impossible. The blind person does less and less and becomes more and more isolated. If there was a Sam Twidale for every such situation more blind people would feel included and could rejoin communities from which they have been excluded.”

Sam’s code is open source, and is available at There is also an issue tracker here to enable users to record any bugs or questions. Sam is happy for any programmers who wish to contribute to help out.

Sam’s prize for completing the challenge is £1000, which he will receive at a special presentation event on Tuesday, 29 January in the Department of Computer Science.

You can find out more about the course Sam studied on at

3D Crosswords Limited is a non-profit organisation, which develops 3D crosswords each year. These crosswords are part of a world championship with BBC Children in Need Appeal, generating funds for the appeal and The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB). For more information visit

Pioneering concert combines live and synthetic voices

Date Added: 18th January 2013
An innovative concert combining human and synthetic voices with music will provide exciting new insights into how computer-generated voices can be made more expressive.

Organisers of the concert at the Woodend Gallery in Scarborough on Saturday, 26 January, believe this may be the first concert globally to present a series of compositions combining both live and synthetic voices.

One of the highlights of the event will be an extract from the work of American composer Joseph Olive, an early pioneer of speech synthesis. Taken from Mar-ri-ia-a, it involves an aria from Verdi’s La Traviata being performed as a duet by a singing synthesis system and an opera singer live on stage accompanied by a piano.

Other compositions include a live performer’s interaction with an ever more personal and intrusive telephone menu options system, If/Then and Really (As if) by Kevin Jones.

The concert is part of a research and public engagement project by the Creative Speech Technology (CreST) Network. A unique interdisciplinary network of contributors to the field of computer speech, CreST is leading the way internationally on research into how improvements can be made to the quality and experience of speech-synthesis technology by encouraging artists and scientists to work together.

Supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and Arts Council England, the CreST Network is led by Dr Alistair Edwards from the Department of Computer Science, University of York and Dr Christopher Newell, from the School of Arts and New Media, at the University of Hull’s Scarborough Campus.

The concert will provide an exciting finale to a four-day inter-active multi-media exhibition at Woodend Gallery from 23 to 26 January, called Articulate: The Art and Science of Synthetic Speech.

Dr Newell said: “We believe the concert is the first of its kind in the world and that it will produce a unique insight into the creative potential of computer-generated speech in combination with music and human voices. Creating expression for computer-generated voices has been a problematic area, but we believe there are useful lessons to be learned from music and the methods it uses to communicate emotion.”

Dr Edwards said: “As a Computer Scientist, I really appreciate this opportunity to work with people from an arts background. Their needs and expectations of the technology push it into new and challenging areas. I hope and expect that this will then feed back into the development of better technology, which might be used by people who have to use synthetic voices because they cannot speak themselves.”

Professor David Howard, from the University of York’s Department of Electronics, is an expert on the analysis and synthesis of singing, music and speech, and is investigating the acoustic properties of the ‘ring/tingle/hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck’ effect of the singing voice.

At the Scarborough concert he will present his composition Vocal vision 1 for a computer four-part choir and two sopranos, which explores differences between computer and human singing.

Professor Howard said: “The voice is a wonderful area to research because everyone can appreciate its importance. As an engineer, choral singer and choral conductor I am interested not only in synthesising natural vocal sounds for communication but also how humans work together as a choir in terms of tuning, blend and that elusive ‘tingle’ for both singers and listeners.”

The exhibition and concert also include a melodrama written by Dr Newell. My Voice and Me is the story of an opera singer losing his voice and allowing his grand piano and synthetic voice to do the speaking for him, as he tells his story through a radio piece.

The concert and exhibition follow a successful road-show in December designed to raise public awareness of speech technology. Launched in York on the United Nations-sponsored International Day of Persons with Disabilities, it featured the premiere of a new micro comedy sketch film, Voice by Choice, written by and starring Lee Ridley, a stand-up comedian known as ‘The Lost Voice Guy’. Lee Ridley is the only comedian in the UK to use a computer generated voice.

Voice by Choice will be available to view at the Scarborough exhibition. Other highlights of the exhibition will include an interactive choral performance game where visitors can perform as a choral singer and a cartoon game presented by Toshiba which allows people to manipulate the emotions in cartoon characters’ voices.

The free Articulate: The Art and Science of Synthetic Speech exhibition is on show from 23 to 26 January from 11am to 5pm at the Woodend Gallery, The Crescent, Scarborough. The concert will be staged on Saturday, 26 January at 7.30pm. For free tickets email or ring 01723 384500.

Dr Edwards is part of the Human-Computer Interaction research group in the Department of Computer Science, and is the course leader for the MSc in Human-Centred Interactive Technologies.

The Creative Speech Technology Network (CreST), is an international network of contributors to the field of computer speech. Members come from a diverse range of backgrounds, all with the aim of pushing forward research. For more information on the CreST Network visit

Funding available for postgraduate study in 2013

Date Added: 8th January 2013
We are accepting applications for all our postgraduate courses, but we're delighted that we now have funding available for both taught and research degrees, for September 2013 entry.

If you're applying for one of our taught Masters courses, you can also apply for our Taught Masters scholarship, which is a one-off payment of £5,000. You can find more details on how to apply at

If you're applying to study for a PhD with us, then there are a number of funding opportunities available. Our EPSRC Doctoral Training Grants are for UK/EU students, and cover fees and a stipend for the duration of your PhD. However, the closing date for applications is 31 January 2013 - find out more at

We also have studentships for overseas and EU students. Find more details on all of these at