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Future and emerging technologies: investing in Europe’s future, improving people’s lives

Written by Andrus Ansip, European Commissioner for the Digital Single Market

The EU has supported and prioritised top-quality scientific research and innovation for a long time.

Several years ago, we decided to fund and promote ambitious and long-term research into uncharted areas that stretch the boundaries of science and technology.

This is the origin of the Future and Emerging Technology (FET) Flagships. It is frontier and ground-breaking work. That is no exaggeration.

These mammoth projects are academic-industrial partnerships on an unprecedented scale. They are inspired by several scientific disciplines with cross-sectoral expertise spanning many EU countries.

They have major implications and benefits for society. And we do not yet know all of them.

The first two Flagships were launched in 2013.

Briefly, to start with Graphene: this is a transparent and flexible two-dimensional material based on single atom-thick layers of carbon.

It comes with a long list of unique properties: many times stronger than steel and a highly efficient conductor of electricity and heat. The idea is to take graphene from the laboratory to the marketplace in numerous practical applications.

The Human Brain Project (HBP) aims to create the world’s largest experimental facility for developing the most detailed model of the brain and studying how the human brain works.

Ultimately, it aims to develop personalised treatment of neurological and related diseases, as well as new computing technologies inspired by the brain’s abilities.

A third FET initiative, on quantum technologies, is in the pipeline and coming soon. It will be the subject of an event to be held by the Maltese Presidency of the EU on February 17, in cooperation with the Commission, in Malta.

A solid political and financial commitment

Each one represents a public-private investment of €1 billion over 10 years. That is a good deal longer than the EU’s usual 2-4 year research funding period.

Why? Chiefly because the scientific challenges involved require a degree of funding that neither the Commission or a single EU country can meet on its own.

This represents a solid political and financial commitment: to keeping Europe as a home of scientific excellence, and also to building the base for radically new next-generation technologies that have the power to change how we look at whole industries and society at large.

These are not just scientists working in universities and research institutes.

Many industrial partners are also involved, helping to identify and develop practical applications that can make a real difference to people’s lives, as the original research concepts move from academia and laboratories into European society.

People really will feel the benefit of these technologies – certainly in terms of improving health and lifestyle.

After three years of activity, the whole FET Flagship concept was recently scrutinised by a panel of independent experts.

Their report comes out with a strong endorsement, finding that both running projects are “contributing towards excellent science” and delivering world-leading results, beyond the initial targets.

Here are just two examples among many, because there is so much more one could say about these two projects:

  1. the Graphene Flagship set a new world record in infrared fibre-optic communication systems, reaching data rates of up to 100 gigabits per second thanks to faster photodetectors based on wafer-scale graphene.
  2. in brain science, HBP achieved a world-first digital reconstruction of the micro-circuitry of part of the rat brain.

The report also recommends launching new FET initiatives where the concept is relevant. We are looking at these, and also at future financing.

For me, the bottom line is that if we fail to invest now, then Europe gets left behind – ‘out of the game’ – for these important emerging technologies.

But it is not all plain sailing. The report identifies where there is room for improvement – in reconciling the two objectives of excellent science and innovation, for example.

It is not a new problem. To translate an idea into a mass-marketable product, to move from a pure-science research hub to factory manufacture: this is often not easy or obvious.

There is not enough space in a blog to write at length about these fascinating areas of research. These technologies are our future; they fit in well with what we are trying to achieve with the Digital Single Market.

I plan to revisit them in later blogs during the year.

With the Graphene Flagship, for example, I plan to visit the Commission’s pavilion later this month as part of my visit to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

I want to experience this revolutionary material for myself and learn about some of the specific applications that industry has helped to identify.

This post first appeared here on the European Commission blog.

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