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“We will only be able to create truly intelligent systems when we can understand the human brain and translate that knowledge into computational machines.”

That’s how the new Head of School of Computing and Intelligent Systems, Professor Liam Maguire, encapsulates the idea behind the groundbreaking Intelligent Systems Research Centre (ISRC) at the University of Ulster’s Magee Campus in Derry.

Making Computers Smarter – Just Like Us

In layman’s language the focus here is on using a biological understanding of the brain, the perfect computer, to create far more sophisticated and smarter computers and robotics than exist today. This, inevitably, will lead to the creation of all kinds of innovative side products with huge commercial potential.

School Of Computing

ISRC is intertwined with Magee’s School of Computing and Intelligent Systems. Overall, there are 75 staff in the world class research building, including leading academics, research associates and PHD students. They work in a variety of interrelated fields, such as neuroscience, computing, cognitive robotics and ambient intelligence.

The Centre also collaborates with other leading centres of excellence, such as C-TRIC, the Centre for Stratified Medicine, also based in the city.



Two Ways Of Working

ISRC has two main areas of commercial activity. One is to offer businesses the opportunity to utilise its world-class research team for their own projects. The other is to exploit intellectual property on some of the pioneering research being done there, translating that knowledge into the real world in partnership with companies.

Finding a route to market for the technology created by the research team is one of the roles taken on by Peter Devine, Head Of Business Development at the Centre.

“Not all our research transfers to industry straight away,” Peter says, “but it will eventually. We have to be ahead of the curve. It might be ten years before our work on understanding the brain can be used in a commercial sense, but that is what we have to do to get there.”

Much of their work is done with a range of companies of all sizes, linking the Centre’s research with their own. Companies contribute funding and in turn get high quality research they would not be able to conduct themselves.

ISRC also uses knowledge transfer partnerships, an area in which the University of Ulster is ranked in the top ten of UK performers.

Robots Of The Future

One of the most exciting areas of research at ISRC is their work on creating robots that think like us and understand our needs.

As Liam Maguire says, “One vital area of our work here is to create robots that can help people live independently longer. It’s about observing patterns of behaviour so that, for instance, a robot can predict the next thing a human might need in an unexpected situation. We’ve set up a kitchen and living room in which to observe the robots and are developing software to make them as autonomous as possible.”

Exploring The Human Brain

Brain mapping is at the heart of what ISRC does. In the summer of 2014 they installed a new functional brain mapping facility, MEG, which picks up magnetic signals. Costing nearly two million pounds, it takes brain scans of a completely different magnitude to the previous EEG system and opens up dramatically enhanced possibilities for research. Not least among these is the opportunity for ISRC, alongside CTRIC and the University of Ulster, to create a groundbreaking system where companies can conduct the vital early stage research into developing new neurological drugs with a much higher success rate than currently achievable.


One of the best examples of developing intellectual property from the Centre’s own research, HidInImage is the creation of a spin off company formed by ISRC. It evolved from students’ PHD theses and is a way of embedding images in data, an area that can revolutionise security needs in the future. It was developed with a significant financial contribution from Invest NI.

Capital Markets Engineering

A good example of collaborative research, this initiative arose from a vision to establish Northern Ireland as a global competence centre for Research and Development in Capital Markets Engineering. The project sees ISRC working with the University of Ulster and Queen’s University, as well as five of the world’s top capital markets firms – Citibank, Fidessa, First Derivatives, NYSE Technologies and Singularity – to develop world leading infrastructure for capital markets.

The aim of the initiative, which began with the companies funding students to investigate the area for their PHDs, is to create platforms for superfast machine to machine trading.

See All Case Studies

Data Analysis And Storage

Manufacturing companies now have vast stocks of data which they need to interpret and store. It’s a very important area with huge commercial potential and one ISRC is ideally positioned to address.  It’s also vital the field of stratified medicine where the decoding of the genome is leading to a vast amount of personalised health data that has to be analysed. With its close links to Derry’s Centre for Stratified Medicine, ISRC is ideally placed to explore this area.

Island Of Ireland collaboration

ISRC have also been involved in many other groundbreaking projects, both with companies around the world and alongside educational and research institutions across Ireland. These projects include Tempo, where they have worked in collaborative research with the Limerick Institute of Technology to optimise energy use in high tech manufacturing environments, helping companies reduce their carbon footprint.

Data Glove

Another highly innovative ISRC project has been the data glove, which allows clinicians to digitally measure movement in the hands of those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.

Why Derry?

For Peter Devine there are many reasons for companies to come to Derry to work with ISRC. “People are impressed by the strong working relationships between us, the universities and local companies”, he says. “We collaborate with the Institute of Letterkenny and work very closely with CTRIC. They bring us clinical knowledge and describe the unmet clinical need, we bring technologists to see what can be done.”

Inward Investment

Peter holds regular inward investment meetings at ISRC where overseas companies can see the facilities available. “We show them what we do in educating young people, the quality of our graduates and post-graduates and the possibilities for collaborative research”, he says.