Three early-career engineers who are making a big difference in three very different areas of technology are to receive the Royal Academy of Engineering’s prestigious Silver Medal at the Academy Awards Dinner at the Tower of London on Thursday 23 June 2016.

They are:

  • Dr Damian Gardiner, Research Scientist/Business Development Manager, Johnson Matthey
  • Dr Demis Hassabis, Vice President Engineering, Google
  • Professor Tong Sun, Professor of Sensor Engineering, City University London

The Silver Medal celebrates outstanding personal contributions to UK engineering, which has resulted in successful market exploitation.

Professor Dame Ann Dowling OM DBE FREng FRS, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, says: “Damian Gardiner, Demis Hassabis and Tong Sun have all demonstrated the power of use-inspired research in taking ideas they have developed in academia and applying them to solve real-world problems. They are working with colleagues all over the world and making an enormous impact early in their careers that is both enriching academic knowledge and generating real economic benefit for the UK.”

Dr Damian Gardiner is taking the world of product authentication by storm, with his Cambridge University start-up company ilumink Limited acquired by Johnson Matthey’s Process Technologies Division in 2015. They were keen to adopt his unique method of printing ‘liquid crystal’ material onto any surface using an ink-jet printer. This method is secure, economical and ideal for security-tagging products, from cosmetics and perfumes to drugs and banknotes. It supports multiple layers of authentication, taking the form of aesthetically striking digital images that change colour with direction. However, ilumink also allows the inclusion of unique, hidden optical elements and also highly secure, forensic-level elements – all are practically impossible to fake.

Now a Research Scientist and Business Development Manager at Johnson Matthey, Dr Gardiner led the integration of ilumink into the company, and is now responsible, alongside specialists at Johnson Matthey, of bringing his invention to a global market with the extra resources and credibility of the larger company. The global counterfeit goods industry is thought to cost genuine brands up to £1 trillion every year. It also claims lives: the World Health Organisation estimates that around 1 million people a year die from taking counterfeit medicines.

Dr Gardiner’s commercial exploitation of the technology he developed as a researcher at the University of Cambridge Department of Engineering was kick-started by an Enterprise Fellowship in 2013 through the Academy’s Enterprise Hub, which included mentoring support from successful entrepreneurs among the Academy’s Fellows.

His mentor Dr Dick Whittington FREng, Founder of MooD International, says: “Over the last 10 years, Damian has taken ilumink from concept and basic research through technology development, market identification, qualification and access. Through acquisition by Johnson Matthey, he has successfully positioned ilumink as a high-value, exportable UK technology that effectively targets a significant global market, with the backing of a leading UK engineering company.”

Dr Demis Hassabis, co-founder and CEO of Google’s DeepMind subsidiary, is recognised for his pioneering work in artificial intelligence following a number of breakthroughs for DeepMind, which was founded in 2010 and acquired by Google in 2014. Notably, the organisation’s AlphaGo project this year successfully beat the world’s number one Go player, in a contest in Seoul, watched online by 280 million viewers, and long seen as a grand challenge of AI research.

Dr Hassabis’ achievements commenced at a young age when he developed the breakthrough simulation game Theme Park at the age of 17. Following a degree in Computer Science at Cambridge, he went on to be the lead AI programmer on a number of successful computer games in the 1990s and early 2000s, before completing a PhD in cognitive neuroscience in 2009 at UCL. His interests and experience led him into a role as a research fellow working on computational models of memory and imagination, forming the basis for some of the cutting edge neuroscience-inspired AI research later undertaken at DeepMind.

DeepMind differs from many other AI efforts in that it is developing general AI – machine intelligence capable of learning for itself how to do a task directly from raw data, rather than being pre-programmed for a single specific task. Taking only the pixels of a computer screen as inputs, DeepMind’s deep reinforcement learning system learnt to master dozens of Atari games from Space Invaders through to Breakout, a breakthrough that was featured on the front cover of the scientific journal Nature.

The ancient game of Go is said to be the most profound game ever devised. In order to crack Go, the pinnacle of ‘perfect information’ games, DeepMind had to develop AlphaGo, a complex program that could run on distributed computer networks with 100s of graphics processor units. The system was engineered so that different versions of the program could play against each other and improve by learning from their mistakes.

Although games are a good test bed for developing general AI algorithms, the ultimate aim is to apply these technologies to important real-world problems in areas such as healthcare and science. AI is set to become one of the most important technologies of the next decade and DeepMind led by Dr Hassabis is in the vanguard of this field.

Dr Andy Harter FREng, Chairman of the Cambridge Network and CEO of RealVNC, says: “Demis’ personal contribution to UK engineering has been truly exceptional. As the founder and driving force behind DeepMind he has put the UK at the forefront of the field of machine learning and AI, a research area that is arguably the most important software development of the next decade.”

Professor Tong Sun is an international leader in the use of optical fibre sensors to monitor sensitive equipment, particularly in extreme conditions. Currently Director of the Photonics and Instrumentation Research Centre at City University London, she was the first female Professor to be appointed at the university’s School of Engineering (as it then was) in its 100-year history. Originally from China, she came to London as a postdoctoral researcher in 1996 and, having spent a year at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, has carved her reputation ever since.

One of Professor Sun’s major new projects is a fibre optic sensor system to measure strain and temperature changes in pantographs – the connectors used by electric trains to link to overhead power cables. Pantographs are crucial systems, so they are inspected regularly as a key part of the train maintenance schedule. However, visual checks can easily miss vital clues and integrated fibre optic sensors  offer continuous monitoring of these high voltage systems while they are in operation and in all weathers. UK manufacturer Brecknell Willis and Morganite is now starting to build new instrumented pantograph systems.

Professor Sun’s work has also enabled the design of special humidity sensors that are being used in widely different and challenging environments.  Sydney Water is using them in highly acidic sewers while China’s Shandong Academy of Science is configuring the sensors to monitor rice stores to try and stop rot setting in – food spoilage is a big problem in humid climates. She has also worked with the Home Office and Smiths Detection as part of the Cargo Screening Ferret project, in which her sensors enable a ‘robotic nose’ to specifically detect illicit substances such as cocaine, particularly when it is loaded in freight with other loads which may mask its presence.

Professor Kenneth Grattan FREng, Royal Academy of Engineering/George Daniels Professor of Scientific Instrumentation at City University, says: “Tong and her research group have driven forward some really novel ideas in creating and applying sensing technologies using optical fibres, which have been recognised by industry and government as being strategically important as they address important challenges, giving the UK the technical lead.”

Notes for editors

  1. Silver Medal. The Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal was established in 1994 to recognise an outstanding and demonstrated personal contribution to British engineering, which is resulting in successful market exploitation, by an engineer with less than 22 years in full time employment or equivalent on 1 January in the year of award and who will normally be Chartered. Up to four medals may be awarded in any one year. Previous recipients have included Dr Eben Upton, Founder of the Raspberry Pi Foundation; Chris Young, Chief Engineer of the Rolls-Royce Trent XWB – the fastest selling aircraft engine in the world; and Professor Máire O’Neill, one of Europe’s leading digital security experts, whose high-speed security chips are found in over 100 million television set-top boxes.
    Silver Medal
  2. Royal Academy of Engineering. As the UK’s national academy for engineering, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers for a shared purpose: to advance and promote excellence in engineering. We provide analysis and policy support to promote the UK’s role as a great place to do business. We take a lead on engineering education and we invest in the UK’s world-class research base to underpin innovation. We work to improve public awareness and understanding of engineering. We are a national academy with a global outlook.

    We have four strategic challenges:
    - Make the UK the leading nation for engineering innovation
    - Address the engineering skills crisis
    - Position engineering at the heart of society
    - Lead the profession

For more information please contact:

Jane Sutton at the Royal Academy of Engineering
T: 020 7766 0636
Jane Sutton