Deeph Chana, Co-Director of Imperial College’s Institute for Security, Science and Technology, talks to Johanna Hamilton AMBCS about machine learning and how it’s changing our lives.

Professor Chana has messed about with machine learning as an undergraduate, worked with the security services directing applied machine learning projects in their infancy, following the 7/7 London tube bombings and is now making what was once a futuristic dream into applied/commercial reality at Imperial College Business School in London.

Tell me about your career

I've spent my academic life playing around with machine learning methods, AI and neural networks. Even when I was doing my PhD and my undergrad in physics, that was a hot topic of research in numerate science and technology. Though, in those days, it was seen as a bit of a toy. We didn’t have such a massive explosion of data, we didn't have the kind of computing power that cloud computing now gives us. Back then, there was a lot of theoretical work being done, but it was difficult to see how it could be applied effectively to anything practical.

Post-PhD, I spent five years in a university physics research environment. I became very interested in how science and evidence were being used to shape government thinking and government policy on major topics, such as the Al Qaeda terror threat. I joined the government shortly after the London tube bombings and one of my first roles was to run a programme for the department for transport, looking at ways we could analyse and mitigate the threats to the transport system.

When I joined the government, we were starting to see the possibilities of machine learning and AI for national security applications. However, the problem with trying to use AI and machine learning to prevent terrorist attacks is the fact that you need big data in order to feed machine learning algorithms - and terrorism is, thankfully, very rare.

I currently work at Imperial College London, where I Co-Direct the Institute for Security Science and Technology and the Centre for Financial Technology. This involves numerous activities including directing research and education, setting up thought leadership and innovation initiatives and delivering some of the College’s executive education programmes.