Go forth and explore the frontiers of science and technology! This is the unspoken motto of the Future and Emerging Technologies programme (FET), which has for more than 20 years been funding and inspiring researchers across Europe to lay new foundations for information and communication technology (ICT).
The vanguard researchers of frontier ICT research don't always come from IT backgrounds or follow the traditional academic career path. The European Commission's FET programme encourages unconventional match-ups like chemistry and IT, physics and optics, biology and data engineering. Researchers funded by FET are driven by ideas and a sense of purpose which push the boundaries of science and technology.
By its nature, the FET programme tends to fund projects that are 'high risk' in scientific terms, but as in any new endeavour, the higher the risk the higher the returns, including first-mover benefits as new technological developments progress to market.
Long-term research investment like this may seem harder to justify in these tough economic times. But policy planners should resist the temptation to cut funding for such trailblazing programmes, suggested Neelie Kroes, European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, at the recent 'Building FET Flagships' mid-term conference in Poland.
'Today's economic challenges should not distract Europe from looking forward at the long-term [strategy] of sustainable growth from investment in human capital, scientific knowledge and state-of-the-art technology,' stressed Mrs Kroes.
To address these challenges, the FET scheme supports long-term ICT programmes under three banners:
- FET-Open, which has simple and fast mechanisms in place to receive new ideas for projects without pre-conceived boundaries or deadlines;
- FET-Proactive, which spearheads 'transformative' research and supports community-building around a number of fundamental long-term ICT challenges; and
- FET Flagships, which cut across national and European programmes to unite top research teams pursuing ambitious, large-scale, science-driven research with a visionary goal.
Combined, FET acts as an ICT incubator and pathfinder for new ideas. It taps the power of synergy between researchers and teams in different fields, organisations (large and small) or locations. FET's nimble and innovative approach to funding ICT research projects also appeals to SMEs and young researchers who have bright ideas but often no backing to take them further. This is also why the European Commission launched its FET House platform to help young people choose ICT careers, and developed dedicated schemes to help SMEs and young researchers benefit more fully from the FET programme.
All about the projects
But in the end FET is all about the projects, and the challenging ideas that drive them. Take the 'Micro- and nano-optomechanical systems for ICT and QIPC' ( MINOS) project which is exploring the properties of light, especially its unexpected 'cool side', to better understand the limits of quantum theory.
'Quantum mechanics describes the behaviour of electrons and atoms, but not everyday "macroscopic" objects,' according to a recent story in the New Scientist. 'One way to probe where and why quantum laws break down is to induce quantum behaviour in ever-larger objects.' MINOS is bringing back mechanics to the digital age using optomechanical effects which open up a completely new field of controllable light-matter interaction on the micro- and nanoscale. Europe is among the key players in this young and emerging field of micro- and nano-optomechanical systems (MOMS/NOMS).
'These experiments, in addition to providing a glimpse into the underlying quantum behaviour of mesoscopic systems consisting of billions of atoms, represent the initial steps towards the use of mechanical devices as tools for quantum metrology or as a means of coupling hybrid quantum systems,' notes the journal Nature on this leading-edge work.
Not to be outdone is the 'Biomimetic technology for vibrissal active touch' project ( Biotact) which marries biology and ICT to come up with new sensing technologies and computations. Biomimetics are human-made processes, substances, devices, or systems that imitate nature. Biotact takes its lead from the Norwegian rat and the Etruscan shrew which are 'tactile specialists', sweeping their facial whiskers around to explore their environments.
The FET project has studied this whisking action in detail and built an autonomous whiskered robot (see demonstration video available via The Guardian) which literally 'feels its way', according to the team, 'dancing round an object with purpose and accuracy to extract a rich tactile percept of its contours'. Applications include object detection, classification and sorting tasks, improved consumer or domestic robots, guidance systems for off-road vehicles and space exploration, search and rescue on land or in water, as well as health and medicine.
Similarly, the Octopus project is working on 'Novel design principles and technologies for a new generation of high dexterity soft-bodied robots inspired by the morphology and behaviour of the octopus'. Octopi are in nature's engineering master class. They have highly developed sensing capabilities with infinite degrees of freedom, fine manipulation skills and highly distributed control mechanisms. This FET project has analysed and replicated the complex movements and sensing functions of a real octopus arm, which can reach out and retrieve submerged objects, as shown in several video demonstrations.
In the presence of genius
'Light switches, TV remote controls and even house keys could become a thing of the past thanks to brain-computer interface (BCI) technology being developed in Europe that lets users perform everyday tasks with thoughts alone.' So begins a story on ICT Results about a pioneering EU-funded FET project called Presenccia*.
Primary applications of BCI are in gaming/virtual reality (VR), home entertainment and domestic care, but the project partners also see their work helping the medical profession. 'A virtual environment could be used to train a disabled person to control an electric wheelchair through a BCI,' explained Mel Slater, the project coordinator. 'It is much safer for them to learn in VR than in the real world, where mistakes could have physical consequences.'
FET projects are also deeply interested in the interface between biochemistry and ICT, laying the foundations for radically new kinds of information processing technology inspired by chemical processes in living systems. Chemical computation of this kind opens the door to new levels of parallel processing. Biological systems also have the ability to adapt, evolve and reconfigure themselves in response to changing conditions, such as a network crash. For instance, the project Bactocom - 'Bacterial computing with engineered populations' - aims to build a simple 'wet' computer out of bacteria. Meanwhile, imitating the internal functions of a biological cell, the Matchit - 'Matrix for chemical IT' - project is etching tiny chemical containers or 'chemtainers' into silicon chips in a groundbreaking example of convergence between chemistry and ICT.
In another example of nature-inspired science, the 'Curved artificial compound eyes' project ( Curvace) studied how insects detect the rapid movements of their prey using 'compound eyes' made up of hundreds or even thousands of individual lenses. Three eye shapes were explored by the team: cylindrical, spherical and tape (flexible). For example, you could stick a tape-like Curvace 'eye' on the backpack of a child or a hat. It could then detect the approach of a fast car from any direction.
Full sail ahead
Described by Commissioner Kroes as a 'daring venture', the FET Flagships are a new opportunity and approach to help shape the future European Research Area (ERA). Aligned by a shared vision, concerted research like this provides a basis for waves of future technological innovation and economic exploitation across several areas, as well as novel benefits for society. Of the current six Pilot Flagships, two are expected to be selected in 2013 as full FET Flagships which would then run for at least 10 years, with a budget of up to EUR 100 million per year, per initiative.
Pilot Projects cover a range of topics, from advanced understanding of our digitally connected world, to the development of caring robotic companions, to new graphene-based electronics, to fresh insights into the human brain and personalised medicine.
For example, the Graphene-CA Flagship Pilot is looking to exploit how developments in this carbon-based material can revolutionise ICT and industry. Graphene electronics are now widely recognised as one of the most likely and attractive solutions to sustaining the evolution of ICT devices and technologies beyond the power-heat limits achievable with silicon.
'By exploiting the unique electrical and optical properties of graphene, the flagship would create novel electronic components with ultra-fast operational speeds and electronic devices with transparent and flexible form factors,' writes the Commission in the special FET focus edition of research*eu. 'The flagship would also investigate fabrication methods and advance cheaper graphene materials which combine structural functions with embedded electronics, in an environmentally sustainable manner.'
Flagship projects target truly grand challenges like health, ageing societies and the costs and quality of medicine. The 'IT future of medicine' (ITFoM) pilot project, for instance, harnesses the power of ICT and developments in data-rich biomedicine and '-omics' (high-throughput studies) to tackle this vast domain and deliver patient-specific treatments against major diseases like cancer.
Modern medicine has mastered many diseases, but according to ITFoM's Hans Westerhof of Manchester University, despite huge research investment, 'we're not on top of others like cancer.' This is not an 'unsolvable problem', he recently told the European Parliament. Science just needs to get beyond the 'nuts and bolts [and] start seeing the network effects' of cells and organs, and how tumours behave in individuals. No single scientist or lab can do this, which is where ITFoM comes in.
Huge advances in technology and data-driven medicine could see the vision of a "virtual patient" - a computer-driven anatomical replica - become a reality in the coming decade. This could speed up new drug development, cut unwanted side-effects, prevent the onset of diseases, and boost people's overall health and well-being. But for all this to happen, a pioneering research spirit backed by long-term investment is needed today.