X Close

UKRI Centre for Doctoral Training in Foundational AI



Archive for the 'Event' Category

End of term social

By sharon.betts, on 14 December 2023

It is hard to believe that we are already reaching the end of another term at UCL. Since October we have welcomed 13 new students had PhD submissions, congratulated new Drs and seen a significant number of students have their work accepted for some of the most prestigious conferences in the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning!

Before the CDT breaks up for the year, we felt it was only fitting to have our last student catch up session be one that taxed their minds and put their cohort collaboration skills to the test via an Escape Room journey!

We had 18 students divided into 4 teams to try and solve puzzles galore to escape in good time to eat mince pies and share their recent work and future plans.

We wish all students, staff and families happy holidays and the best for a successful 2024.

Demis Hassabis talk at UCL

By sharon.betts, on 8 December 2023

On Wednesday 29th November, UCL Events hosted Demis Hassabis to give the UCL Prize Lecture 2023 on his work at Google DeepMind, a company that he founded after completing his PhD at UCL.

Demis’ talk covered his journey through academia and interest in machine learning and artificial intelligence, which all started with a childhood love of games. Having started playing chess as young as 3, it is little wonder that this incredibly insightful and intelligent individual went on to work with algorithms and formats that were fun, functional and ground breaking. Demis’ interest in neuroscience and computational analysis was the perfect groundwork from which to create machine learning tools that now lead the world in their outcomes and developments. From AlphaGo to protein folding and beyond, Demis is a pioneer and revolutionary wrapped up in an extremely humble and engaging human being.

Our CDT is privileged to have a number of students funded by Google DeepMind, and these scholars were invited to attend a VIP meet and greet with Demis and his colleagues before the lecture began.

Our students were able to share their accomplishments and research with a number of academics, Google DeepMind executives and other invitees and were delighted to have been included in such a prestigious event.


There were over 900 people in personal attendance for the talk, with over 400 additional attendees online. With special thanks to the UCL OVPA team and UCL Events for making this happen and sharing the opportunity with our scholars.

Understanding and Navigating the Risks of AI – By Reuben Adams

By sharon.betts, on 19 October 2023

It is undeniable at this point that AI is going to radically shape our future. After decades of effort, the field has finally developed techniques that can be used to create systems robust enough to survive the rough and tumble of the real world. As academics we are often driven by curiosity, yet rather quickly the curiosities we are studying and creating have the potential for tremendous real-world impact.

It is becoming ever more important to keep an eye on the consequences of our research, and to try to anticipate potential risks.

This has been the purpose of our AI discussion series that I have organised for the members of the AI Centre, especially for those on our Foundational AI CDT.

I kicked off the discussion series with a talk outlining the ongoing debate over whether there is an existential risk from AI “going rogue,” as Yoshua Bengio has put it. By this I mean a risk of humanity as a whole losing control over powerful AI systems. While this sounds like science fiction at first blush, it is fair to say that this debate is far from settled in the AI research community. There are very strong feelings on both sides, and if we are to cooperate as a community in mitigating risks from AI, it is urgent that we form a consensus on what these risks are. By presenting the arguments from both sides in a neutral way, I hope I have done a small amount to help those on both ends of the spectrum understand each other. You can watch my talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PI9OXHPyN8M

Ivan Vegner, PhD student in NLP at the University of Edinburgh, was kind enough to travel down for our second talk, on properties of agents in general, both biological and artificial. He argued that sufficiently agentic AI systems, if created, would pose serious risks to humanity, because they may pursue sub-goals such as seeking power and influence or increasing their resistance to being switched off—after all, almost any goal is easier to pursue if you have power and cannot be switched off! Stuart Russell pithily puts this as “You can’t fetch the coffee if you’re dead.” Ivan is an incredibly lucid speaker. You can see his talk Human-like in Every way? here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGeOMA25Xvc

For some, a crux in this existential risk question might be whether AI systems will think like us, or in some alien way. Perhaps we can more easily keep AI systems under control if we can create them in our own image? Or could this backfire—could we end up with systems that have the understanding to deceive or manipulate? Professors Chris Watkins and Nello Christianini dug into this question for us by debating the motion “We can expect machines to eventually think in a human-like way.” (Chris for, Nello against). There were many, many questions afterwards, and Chris and Nello very kindly stayed around to continue the conversation. Watch the debate here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zWCUHmIdWhE

Separate from all of this is the question of misuse. Many technologies are dual-use, but their downsides can be successfully limited through regulation. With AI it is different: the scale can be enormous and rapidly increased (often the bottleneck is simply buying/renting more GPUs), there is a culture of immediately open-sourcing software so that anyone can use it, and AI models often require very little expertise to run or adapt to new use-cases. Professor Mirco Musolesi outlined a number of risks he perceives from using AI systems to autonomously make decisions in economics, geo-politics, and warfare. His talk was incredibly thought-provoking: You can see his talk here: https://youtu.be/QH9eYPglgt8

This series has helped foster an ongoing conversation in the AI Centre on the risks of AI and how we can potentially steer around them. Suffice to say it is a minefield.

We should certainly not forget the incredible potential of AI to have a positive impact on society, from automated and personalised medicine, to the acceleration of scientific and technological advancements aimed at mitigating climate change. But there is no shortage of perceived risks, and currently a disconcerting lack of technical and political strategies to deal with them. Many of us at the AI Centre are deeply worried about where we are going. Many of us are optimists. We need to keep talking and increase our common ground.

We’re racing into the future. Let’s hope we get what AI has been promising society for decades. Let’s try and steer ourselves along the way.


Reuben Adams is a final year PhD student in the UKRI CDT in Foundational AI.

Student presentation – Alex Hawkins Hooker at ISMB

By sharon.betts, on 4 October 2023

In July of 2023, our Cohort 2 student Alex Hawkins-Hooker presented his work at the Machine Learning in Computational and Systems Biology Track at ISMB, which is one of the leading computational biology conferences.
The full paper describing this work ‘Getting personal with epigenetics: towards individual-specific epigenomic imputation with machine learning’, has since been published in Nature Communications here https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-023-40211-2.
The work was started before Alex came to UCL, but completed during his PhD, so it was done jointly with collaborators at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Tübingen and the University of Dundee.
If you are interested in reading more publications by our outstanding students, do check out our publications page on our website.

“Safe Trajectory Sampling in Model-based Reinforcement Learning for Robotic Systems” By Sicelukwanda Zwane

By sharon.betts, on 29 September 2023

In the exciting realm of Model-based Reinforcement Learning (MBRL), researchers are constantly pushing the boundaries of what robots can learn to achieve when given access to an internal model of the environment. One key challenge in this field is ensuring that robots can perform tasks safely and reliably, especially in situations where they lack prior data or knowledge about the environment. That’s where the work of Sicelukwanda Zwane comes into play.


In MBRL, robots use small sets of data to learn a dynamics model. This model is like a crystal ball that predicts how the system will respond to a given sequence of different actions. With MBRL, we can train policies from simulated trajectories sampled from the dynamics model instead of first generating them by executing each action on the actual system, a process that can take extremely long periods of time on a physical robot and possibly cause wear and tear.

One of the tools often used in MBRL is the Gaussian process (GP) dynamics model. GPs are fully-Bayesian models that not only model the system but also account for the uncertainty in state observations. Additionally, they are flexible and are able to learn without making strong assumptions about the underlying system dynamics [1].

The Challenge of Learning Safely

When we train robots to perform tasks, it’s not enough to just predict what will happen; we need to do it safely. As with most model classes in MBRL, GPs don’t naturally incorporate safety constraints. This means that they may produce unsafe or unfeasible trajectories. This is particularly true during early stages of learning, when the model hasn’t seen much data, it can produce unsafe and seemingly random trajectories.

For a 7 degree of freedom (DOF) manipulator robot, bad trajectories may contain self-collisions.


Distributional Trajectory Sampling

In standard GP dynamics models, the posterior is represented in distributional form – using its parameters, the mean vector and covariance matrix. In this form, it is difficult to reason about

about the safety of entire trajectories. This is because trajectories are generated through iterative random sampling. Furthermore, this kind of trajectory sampling is limited to cases where the intermediate state marginal distributions are Gaussian distributed.

Pathwise Trajectory Sampling

Zwane uses an innovative alternative called “pathwise sampling” [3]. This approach draws samples from GP posteriors using an efficient method called Matheron’s rule. The result is a set of smooth, deterministic trajectories that aren’t confined to Gaussian distributions and are temporally correlated.

Adding Safety

The beauty of pathwise sampling [3] is that it has a particle representation of the GP posterior, where individual trajectories are smooth, differentiable, and deterministic functions. This allows for the isolation of constraint-violating trajectories from safe ones. For safety, rejection sampling is performed on trajectories that violate safety constraints, leaving behind only the safe ones to train the policy. Additionally, soft constraint penalty terms are added to the reward function.

Sim-Real Robot Experiments

To put this approach to the test, Zwane conducted experiments involving a 7-DoF robot arm in a simulated constrained reaching task, where the robot has to avoid colliding with a low ceiling. The method successfully learned a reaching policy that adhered to safety constraints, even when starting from random initial states.

In this constrained manipulation task, the robot is able to reach the goal (shown by the red sphere – bottom row) without colliding with the ceiling (blue – bottom row) using less than 100 seconds of data in simulation.


Sicelukwanda Zwane’s research makes incremental advances on the safety of simulated trajectories by incorporating safety constraints while keeping the benefits of using fully-Bayesian dynamics models such as GPs. This method promises to take MBRL out of simulated environments and make it more applicable to real-world settings. If you’re interested in this work, we invite you to dive into the full paper, published at the recent IEEE CASE 2023 conference.



  1. M. P. Deisenroth and C. E. Rasmussen. PILCO: A Model-based and Data-efficient Approach to Policy Search. ICML, 2011.
  2. S. Kamthe and M. P. Deisenroth. Data-Efficient Reinforcement Learning with Probabilistic Model Predictive Control. AISTATS, 2018.
  3. J. T. Wilson, V. Borovitskiy, A. Terenin, P. Mostowsky, and M. P. Deisenroth. Pathwise Conditioning of Gaussian Processes. JMLR, 2021.


Student-Led Workshop – Distance-based Methods in Machine Learning – Review by Masha Naslidnyk

By sharon.betts, on 3 July 2023

We are delighted to announce the successful conclusion of our recent workshop on Distance-based Methods in Machine Learning. Held at the historical Bentham House on 27-28th of June, the event brought together approximately 60 delegates, including leading experts and researchers from statistics and machine learning.The workshop showcased a diverse range of speakers who shared their knowledge and insights on the theory and methodology behind machine learning approaches utilising kernel-based and Wasserstein distances. Topics covered included parameter estimation, generalised Bayes, hypothesis testing, optimal transport, optimization, and more.The interactive sessions and engaging discussions created a vibrant learning environment, fostering networking opportunities and collaborations among participants. We extend our gratitude to the organising committee, speakers, and attendees for their valuable contributions to this successful event. Stay tuned for future updates on similar initiatives as we continue to explore the exciting possibilities offered by distance-based methods in machine learning.

A large group of attendees for the workshop stand in front of a screen, smiling at the camera.

Happy attendees at the Distance-based learning workshop

AI Hackathon at Cumberland Lodge – Recap of Student Led Event

By sharon.betts, on 2 June 2023

We recently organised an AI hackathon, attended by both the members of our CDT and students from AI-focused CDTs at other universities. The hackathon was the main component of a two-night retreat hosted at Cumberland Lodge, a country house and conference venue in the beautiful Windsor Great Park. The event was student-led, and an exciting opportunity to explore new research directions, brainstorm start-up ideas, and build connections with other PhD students in the field.

During the hackathon we split into small groups, each working on their own projects which had been proposed in advance by the attendees. Lots of ambitious projects were suggested, and it was impressive to see them carried out successfully. These included a web app for language learners that uses speech recognition to judge and correct Mandarin tone pronunciation; an investigation into the capabilities of large language models for solving cryptic crosswords, culminating in a thrilling live demo; and mapping out gaps in the market for waste manipulation robotics start-up. 


Most excitingly, a couple of the teams have decided to continue developing their projects after the event, with new apps and conference papers in the works! 

In addition to the hackathon, the students attending from outside of the CDT in Foundational AI presented their PhD research during a poster session. G-Research also attended the retreat, kindly providing welcome drinks on the first night, and hosting a prize giving for their research competition. There were also ample opportunities for socialising over meals and in the bar, and exploring the sunny surroundings of the park. 

Thank you to the CDT management for helping with organising the event, and all the attendees for making it a success. We hope to arrange something similar next year! 


 Oscar Key and Robert Kirk


CDT Collaboration – Inter CDT Conference at Bristol Hotel with ART-AI and Interactive AI CDTS 7-8 Nov 2022

By sharon.betts, on 29 November 2022

On 7th and 8th November 2022 three of the UKRI CDTs in Artificial Intelligence hosted an Inter-CDT conference for our students and industry partners at The Bristol Hotel. The UKRI CDT in Foundational AI worked alongside our sister CDTs at the University of Bath (ART-AI) and University of Bristol (Interactive AI), to produce a two day event that covered AI from deep tech entrepreneurship to AI Ethics and Defence.

Turnout from all three CDTs was excellent and it was a wonderful opportunity for students across the three institutions to meet and collaborate with one another, sharing their knowledge and research of AI both in theory and applied.

UCL were delighted to host two panel sessions; the first being on Deep Tech entrepreneurship with Dr. Riam Kanso from Conception X, Dr. Stacy-Ann Sinclair from CodeREG and Dr. Thomas Stone from Kintsugi (ad)Ventures. Hosted by our CDT Director, Prof David Barber, this interactive panel session saw our specialists discuss the pathways into start ups and entrepreneurships, the perils, pitfalls and positives that follow! It was wonderful to be able to hear from industry experts their personal journeys to successful business ventures and great to have such an engaged and enquiring audience, who were keen to ask numerous questions and gain further insight to future possibilities.

Our second panel closed the event and was a student-led initiative discussing large scale datasets and massive computational modelling in AI.

For a more detailed review of the event we highly recommend you read the review by ART-AI on their website.

We were delighted to celebrate our student Dennis Hadjivelichkov’s second place in the poster session that took place at the MShed in Bristol as well as enjoy the fine food and fabulous company of our CDT peers.

With thanks to ART-AI and Interactive AI CDTs for their co-hosting and co-organising skills. It was a delight to be able to share time and work with our sister CDTs and we hope to collaborate again in the not too distant future.

Conferences and Workshops – GOFCP, MLF & EDS 2022 – Recap of events by Antonin Schrab

By sharon.betts, on 16 November 2022

In September 2022 I had the amazing opportunity to participate in workshops in Rennes and in Sophia Antipolis, and in a doctoral symposium in Alicante!

In poster sessions and talks, I have presented my work on Aggregated Kernel Tests which covers three of my papers. The first one is MMD Aggregated Two-Sample Test where the two-sample problem is considered, in which one has access to samples from two distributions and is interested in detecting whether those come from the same or from different distributions. The second is KSD Aggregated Goodness-of-fit Test in which we consider the goodness-of-fit problem where one is given some samples and is asked whether these come from a given model (with access to its density or score function). In the third one, Efficient Aggregated Kernel Tests using Incomplete U-statistics, we propose computationally efficient tests for the two-sample, goodness-of-fit, and independence problems; this last one consists in detecting dependence between the two components of paired samples. We tackle these three testing problems using kernel-based statistics, in such a setting the performance of these tests is known to heavily depend on the choice of kernels or kernel parameters (i.e. bandwidth parameter). We propose tests which aggregate over a collection of kernels and retain test power, we theoretically prove optimality of our tests under some regularity assumptions, and empirically show that our aggregated tests outperform other state-of-the-art kernel-based tests.

I started the month of September by participating in GOFCP 2022, the 5th Workshop on Goodness-of-Fit, Change-Point and related problems, from 2nd to 4th September in ENSAI in Rennes (France). It was extremely interesting to hear about the latest research in this very specific research field which covers exactly the topics I had been working on since the start of my PhD.

I then went to EURECOM in Sophia Antipolis (France) for MLF 2022, the ELISE Theory Workshop on Machine Learning Fundamentals, from 5th to 7th September. Talks and poster sessions covered the theory of kernel methods, hypothesis testing, partial differential equations, optimisation, Gaussian processes, explainability and AI safety.

Finally, I participated in EDS 2022, the ELLIS Doctoral Symposium 2022, hosted by the ELLIS Alicante at the University of Alicante in Spain from 19th to 23rd September. It was an amazing experience to meet so many other PhD students working on diverse topics in Machine Learning. I especially enjoyed the numerous poster sessions which allowed to engage with other students and discuss their current research!

I am extremely grateful to Valentin PatileaMotonobu Kanagawa and Aditya Gulati for the respective invitations, and to my CDT (UCL CDT in Foundational AI with funding from UKRI) which allowed me to participate in those workshops/symposium!

CDT Students shine at poster showcase event

By sharon.betts, on 4 November 2022

Tuesday 1st November was a busy day at the CDT and UCL Centre for Artificial Intelligence with our joint UKRI CDT poster showcase and AI demo event. Together with the UKRI CDT in AI-Enabled Healthcare we put on an event featuring posters, demos, AI art and robots.

David Barber is at podium presenting his thoughts on the CDT to an audience in the Function Space at 90 High Holborn

Prof David Barber presenting the latest news on the CDT

The afternoon began with presentations by the CDT centre directors Prof David Barber and Prof Paul Taylor, as well as our industry sponsor Ulrich Paquet from Deepmind. In attendance were students, academics and industry partners, keen to understand what we have been doing and where our research will take us in the future.

a student demonstrates his work on a laptop and screen

PhD Candidate Jakob Zeitler provides a demo on screen

We had approximately 40 posters on display, with a further 19 demonstrations of AI by a variety of groups from Vision to Natural Language Processing. Engagement with the poster presenters was high across the board and a wonderful opportunity for our students to engage with others about the work that they have undertaken the last few years.

A student presents his poster to a crowd of interested listeners

PhD candidate Reuben Adams presents his poster to a crowd of attendees

We were honoured to have the Provost in attendance to witness just how vibrant and stimulating our centres are as part of a dynamic and successful Computer Science department.

Provost Dr Michael Spence stands in front of AI generated artwork with David Barber and crowd in attendance

Provost Dr Michael Spence unveils the Amedeo Modigliani painting

The UCL Centre of Artificial Intelligence have been donated a rare 3D generated AI generated painting of a Amedeo Modigliani, which started as a Masters and then PhD project for Dr. Anthony Bouchard and Dr. George Cann and will be displayed at the AI Centre for all to see.

The day ended with a robot display in the Function Space, showcasing the quadrapod robots that our students are working with both at the AI Centre and the soon to be opened UCL East.

Two quadrapod robots on display

Two quadrapod robots being demonstrated to the crowd

It was wonderful to witness all the different ways in which AI is being applied and developed to help solve some of societies greatest needs and to have the opportunity to share the work of our students with a wider audience.

With thanks to those who attended, our students, director David Barber, AI Centre manager Sarah Bentley and the TSG team for their time, patience and support in helping to make this a hugely successful event.