Flying the “big science” flag

Predicting the success of the next generation of technologies isn’t easy, but that’s the mission of the European Union’s €1 billion Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Flagships programme. “FET Flagships aren’t simply moon-shots for delivering tomorrow’s technology”, says Aymard de Touzalin, deputy head of the FET Flagships Unit. “They look to the day after tomorrow, to where the biggest impact on society may be.”

Projects on graphene and the human brain are already underway, and one on quantum technologies is in the pipeline. Now the Brussels-based European Commission, which is providing half the funds, has begun seeking input to identify the next candidates.

In December 2016, a roundtable discussed possible topics, which were then divided into key areas: information and communications technology for connected society; health and life sciences; and energy, environment and climate change (see examples of candidates in the boxes). In the coming months, it will be decided which domains will receive funding to launch preparatory action in 2018. One or two of them should then graduate to full FET Flagship status.

Martin Pearson

Martin Pearson of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory with a biomimetic robot. The device navigates using whiskers modelled after the Etruscan pygmy shrew.

1. Model Earth

Society’s wellbeing depends on understanding our changing planet. Despite the vast wealth of new satellite data and efforts to consolidate existing infrastructure, important datasets remain incomplete or inaccessible.

The Ultimate Earth Flagship candidate will develop the digital infrastructure needed to create and maintain an exhaustive, community-driven, open-access model for the planet in all its states – physical, chemical and biological. The idea is not new, but the latest observing systems and informatics have finally brought the possibility of an Ultimate Earth model within sight.


2. Tailor-made treatment

The Future of Health Flagship candidate focuses on a powerful emerging healthcare concept: the Internet of Humans. The aim is to construct a virtual model for every patient by feeding their clinical, molecular, imaging and sensor data into complex computational models.

Doctors will use the models to test and optimise personalised treatment strategies based on an individual’s biology. Access to these virtual patients will also help guard against incompatibilities between patients and the drugs they take, the food they eat and the exercise they do.


3. Conscientious companions

Turning to nature could help researchers build humanoid robots with unprecedented intelligence and adaptability. The field has tended to focus on mechatronics, but biomimetics – which adds AI, cognitive sciences and biology into the mix – may prove a better basis for robots capable of navigating unfamiliar environments.

The RoboCom++ Flagship candidate aims, among other things, to untangle complex relationships between the brain and body, known as embodied cognition. This will help open the door to a generation of robots capable of supporting a post-work society.