Steel City university forges new partnerships with China 

The University of Sheffield's collaboration with Chinese Future Lab will focus on 'groundbreaking digital technologies' 

The University of Sheffield has signed a collaboration agreement with China’s Tsinghua University to work with its Future Lab. 

A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by the Sheffield institution’s President and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Keith Burnett, and Director of the Tsinghua Future Lab, Professor Yingqing Xu. 

The signing followed a visit to Beijing by Sir Keith, who attended the launch of the Chinese Future Lab’s research initiative into the human and societal impacts of AI and other digital technologies. Tsinghua University is ranked first in the world for computer science, based on its total research output and performance.

According to Professor Xu, whose own research background is in high-level applications of computer graphics, Future Lab research will receive long-term funding for areas including “future living, future healthcare, computer vision, computer emotions and multichannel cognition”.

The MOU signing was part of a week-long visit by senior Chinese partners from academia and business to Sheffield, focused on developing collaboration in the application of digital technologies between the UK and China. 

Members of China’s leading business and industry think tank, China 100, included investors and business leaders keen to understand opportunities for in-depth commercial partnerships with Sheffield. The visit was led by scientist and investor Professor Ma, whose business interests include intelligent manufacturing and smart data. 

A highlight of the week was the first visit to Sheffield by the Chief Scientist for Google AI and Machine Learning, Professor Fei-Fei Li. Professor Li is also the director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL) and the Stanford Vision Lab. In 2017 she co-founded AI4ALL, a non-profit organisation working to increase diversity and inclusion in AI. 

Professor Li works in the areas of computer vision and cognitive neuroscience, and first met Sir Keith in Beijing for a private discussion in 2017. She was joined on the visit to Sheffield by colleagues from Google in the US, including a University of Sheffield Computer Science graduate. They were taken on tours of the University’s flagship Factory 2050 and The Diamond. Professor Li was reportedly impressed by the applications of AI and machine learning in advanced manufacturing, as well as the groups working collaboratively on cutting-edge computer science, robotics and automatic control and systems engineering. 

Professor Li said: “I was blown away by my visit to the University of Sheffield. The AMRC combines the creation of local jobs beautifully with robotics and AI innovation for industry. It is a pioneering and visionary model for the future of academic-industry collaborations. 

“Another major surprise was The Diamond, which houses 19 engineering labs, a student-run makers’ shop and ingeniously-designed work spaces for 5,000 students. Every university engineering dean worldwide should visit here.”

Commenting on the visits, Sir Keith said: “I am delighted to welcome such a high-level international delegation to Sheffield, to investigate the ways in which pioneering digital technologies can be used to address common challenges, improve lives and create prosperity for people in the UK and in China. 

“Over recent years we have been working hard to develop the research and partnerships which open up the opportunities for in-depth collaboration in the most exciting areas, and the fact that our University is now working with top Chinese universities such as Tsinghua – and hosting the scientific leadership of companies like Google – reflects our increasing international reputation as a global leader in the applications of digital technologies. 

“I could not be more proud of this achievement and all I know it will mean for the future.”

The University of Sheffield undertakes internationally leading research in Computer Science, Control Systems and Advanced Manufacturing, and was recently named among the Top 50 most international universities in the world in the Times Higher Education Global Rankings.