Physical sciences and ICT

Overview of ongoing and future projects on topics relating to physical sciences and ICT that have been approved by the POST Board.

Algorithms and accountability

In production: to contribute please email Dr Lorna Christie

Algorithms, which identify patterns in data to inform decision-making, are increasingly being used for a variety of applications, from verifying a person’s identity based on their voice to diagnosing disease. They have the potential to bring many social and economic benefits; one estimate predicts that the automation of complex tasks could increase UK labour productivity by 25% by 2035. However, concerns have been raised about how to ensure fairness and accountability for decisions that are made or informed by algorithms. This is particularly an issue for systems involving artificial intelligence (AI), where in some cases (such as deep neural networks) it is not yet possible to explain thoroughly how decisions are reached. Furthermore, AI systems can be susceptible to introducing or perpetuating bias. One study of facial recognition algorithms found that those developed in East Asian countries were less accurate when identifying Caucasian faces, and that those developed in the West were less accurate for East Asian faces. Experts have warned that a lack of clarity on accountability may be a barrier to the adoption of these technologies. 


This POSTnote will discuss what it means for algorithms to be accountable and transparent, and the technical barriers to this. It will look at ways of improving accountability and transparency, including an overview of ongoing research into the design and auditing of algorithms and data. It will also examine how biases can be introduced into algorithms, and steps that might be taken to mitigate this.  


Civilian drones

In production: to contribute please email Dr Lydia Harriss

The use of drones (unmanned aircraft) is increasing for both recreational and commercial applications. The British Airline Pilots Association recorded 117 near misses between aircraft and drones in the UK between January and November 2018.

Between 19–21 December 2018, 115 witnesses reported drone sightings at Gatwick Airport, which resulted in flights being suspended for 36 hours. This incident has renewed debate about the potential risks that drones may present for safety, security and the economy, as well as the adequacy of existing controls to tackle illegal or harmful drone use.

This POSTnote will update PN 479 on Civilian Drones (2014). It will consider current and future uses of civilian unmanned aircraft, including their role in criminal activities. It will provide an overview of the legislation and regulation governing drone operation in the UK and consider the role that technology could play in enforcement. It will also include an overview of anti-drone technologies and their associated technical challenges.

Infrastructure and climate change

Provisional start date November 2019: to contribute please email Dr Lorna Christie

Due to climate change, the UK is experiencing higher average temperatures, annual rainfall, and sea levels. The decade from 2008–2017 was, on average, 11% wetter and 0.8oC warmer than 1961–1990. Projections indicate warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers in future. For example, the probability of seeing a summer as hot as 2018 during 1981–2000 was less than 10%, but this could become 50% by the middle of the 21st century. UK coastal flood risk is also expected to increase during this century, including a rise in the frequency and magnitude of extreme water levels around the UK coastline, contributing to an increased rate of coastal erosion.

Extreme weather events create risks for critical UK infrastructure, including energy, transportation and communications systems, and can negatively affect essential services, public health, well-being, and the economy. 

This POSTnote will look at how resilient the UK’s physical infrastructure is to the extreme weather conditions predicted as a result of climate change. It will focus on built infrastructure, such as buildings, telecommunications, transport and energy networks. It will assess: the risks posed by extreme weather to UK infrastructure, how well existing infrastructure is likely to withstand such risks, and progress towards improving resilience.

Key EU space programmes

No start date available: to contribute please email Dr Lydia Harriss

The UK Government recently allocated £92m to develop technical proposals for an alternative system to Galileo (global satellite navigation), if the UK is unable to continue its participation.

This POSTbrief will provide a technical overview of three EU space programmes: Galileo, Copernicus (Earth observation) and Space Surveillance and Tracking (of spacecraft and debris, for the protection of space-based assets such as satellites). It will explain what these programmes are, how they operate, the services they provide (or will provide once completed), and outline UK involvement to date.

Contact POST

Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology
Houses of Parliament

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