Page last updated at 10:44 GMT, Tuesday, 21 April 2009 11:44 UK

EU funding push in blue-sky tech

By Jason Palmer
Science and technology reporter, BBC News, Prague


Watch the wheelchair prototype system in use: video courtesy MAIA

The European Commission has announced a large initiative to fund high-risk information and communication technology (ICT) research.

The commission believes such blue-sky research has in the past proven to be a significant economic boon.

It will increase funding of these future and emerging technologies (FET) by 70% by 2013 to 170m euros annually.

The announcement comes at the launch of the first European Future Technologies Conference in Prague.

The conference, dubbed Science Beyond Fiction, focuses on emerging technologies such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and robots.

The FET initiative within the commission's ICT funding is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

"FET promotes exploration of radically new ideas and trends in research and innovation," explained Ondrej Liska, the Czech Republic's minister of education, youth, and sports, who opened the conference.

"It aims to go beyond the conventional boundaries of ICT and ventures into uncharted areas," he added.

"The present and future challenges do not focus purely on technological problems but also on the social and human aspects of technologies and their interaction with the environment."

Tech economics

The commission notes that a number projects that have come from the FET programme have translated into tangible economic benefits.

Neural network
Work on neural networks at Facets has benefited from FET funding in the past

Its early-stage push of quantum information technologies, for example, has led to a European dominance in the field as the first quantum networks are being commercialised and installed.

There is also a history of academic kudos that come from considered, high-risk study; recipients of FET funding in the past include Nobel Prize winners Theodor Hansch, Albert Fert and Peter Grunberg.

Speaking at the launch, European commissioner for Information, Society and Media Viviane Reding said: "In this period of economic uncertainty, ICT becomes even more essential: to revitalise the economy, to improve our productivity, to boost our capacity to innovate, create jobs and tackle key societal challenges."

The commission will increase funding by 20% year-on-year in FET until 2013, and is inviting member states to do match the growth.

Previous research projects to receive FET funding include work to develop a brain-computer interface that will let wheelchair users control direction through thought alone.

The MAIA project was the combined work of the Leuven University in Belgium, the Idiap research institute, in Switzerland, and the Fondazione Santa Lucia, in Italy.

Beyond the ultimate economic drive to fund such research, the conference emphasised the inherent interdisciplinary nature of such research pursuits as artificial intelligence or the reverse-engineering of complex networks and simulated brains.

As a result, the commission's initiative urges more flexibility for young researchers working on FET projects to move around, both between countries and between disciplines.

"What drives what?," asked Henry Markram of the Brain Mind Institute in Lausanne in the conference's opening address.

"We can't say computers and ICT are driving society and medicine or vice versa; science is driving medicine and new demands in medicine are driving new kinds of science.

"Engineering is driving and enabling science, technology is enabling ICT. It has itself become an intricate network."

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