Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Launch of the FET Flagship Pilots: From a robot future to giant artificial brains

This morning, Vice President of the European Commission, Neelie Kroes welcomed us all to FET11 and announced the launch of the FET Flagship Pilots. She sees them as the start of a new era of ICT research in Europe, building on the holistic approach of the Digital Agenda – the unique thing about them is the scale of their ambition. The six best proposals came from areas where Europe is particularly strong – green IT, neuroscience, nanotechnology and materials science, among others.

The six pilot teams will spend the next 2 years putting together detailed proposals. These should not only have a strong scientific component and solid governance structure, but they must also stress the societal benefits. What is in it for the tax payer?

The Six Contenders

The coordinators of the pilots then gave us a quick run-down of their projects, often aided by impressively slick YouTube-ready video presentations. Hans Lehrach of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics told us about ITFoM, IT Future of Medicine. ITFoM aims to create a ‘virtual patient’ infrastructure that will help tailor medical treatment to an individual’s genetic makeup. Right now, we have statistical rather than personalised medicine, said Lehrach – which is the equivalent in motor racing terms of taking the battery out of every red car and the spark plugs out of every green one. In practice, this means that trillions of dollars are spent on developing new drugs, say for cancer, which actually make 70-80% of patients sicker than they were before.

Second to impress us was Jari Kinaret of the Chalmers University of Technology, who presented the GRAPHENE project. Graphene was discovered in 2004, winning the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics. Graphene is literally the new wonder material – the thinnest, most flexible, best conductor of heat and electricity and 300 times stronger than steel. The project aims to coordinate the work already happening around Europe in engineering, IT and health to create a world-beating team, capable of ushering in a new era of carbon for the 21st century.

FuturICT was presented by Steven Bishop of University College London, and will bring together complexity science, social sciences and ICT to facilitate a symbiotic co-evolution of ICT and society, driven by science. At the moment, the interconnectedness of our systems can lead to multiple failures rather than creating the opportunities that connectivity should bring. FuturICT should lead to global ICT systems that are socially interactive, giving better early warning systems for disasters both physical and economic, greater social inclusion and a faster journey for ideas to the marketplace.

Henry Markam of EPFL introduced the Human Brain Project. This will bring together a huge body of knowledge Europe-wide, not only to build biologically detailed models of the brain itself, but also to apply brain-like technologies to IT and artificial intelligence. As a result, the millions of people around the world affected by brain and mental disorders will receive better care and neuromorphic computer chips will benefit IT and robotics research.

Boasting probably the most impressive video so far was the Guardian Angels project, presented by Adrian Ionescu, also of EPFL. These wearable, zero power, autonomous devices will take care of us from cradle to grave. Powered by vibrations, solar power, wind or changes in temperature, these Guardian Angel nanosensors will be able to monitor our health, environment and eventually emotional state. Temperature, blood sugar levels, heart rates can all be monitored imperceptably, remotely and constantly. Environmental sensors could alert us to dangers around us and even warn those in stressful or risky jobs when their emotional state is leading them to harm.

Finally, and probably most closely fitting the ‘science beyond fiction’ description, Paulo Dario of the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna invited us to consider a robot-assisted (and slightly Blade Runner-esque?) future in RoboCom. Already ubiquitous in many areas of life, new generations of robots will help us out at home, at work and in hospitals with soft bodies and new levels of perceptual, cognitive and emotional capabilities. One of the exhibitors here has brought along a robot octopus that is certainly attracting huge amounts of attention (maybe people are testing out its world cup predicting abilities now Paul the Octopus is no more?)

A dazzling array of future ideas –which two will win? For me, I’m not sure where to place my bets. Possibly on the Guardian Angels and graphene pilots as they seem to have the most ubiquitous reach across so many fields, with the potential to change pretty much everyone’s lives in some capacity. Come back in 2 years to find out!

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