ICTs - the glue that binds future research

Heraklion 19 June 2006"ICTs - Information and Communication Technologies - provide the glue that binds together multiple themes in European research. The time to address this multiplicity of themes and their inter-relationships is now", stated Dimitris Plexousakis of the Institute of Computer Science in Heraklion, Crete. Dimitris Plexousakis is scientific co-ordinator of Beyond-The-Horizon, a road-mapping initiative, led by the European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics (ERCIM), which has been investigating new frontiers in ICT research, to identify the boundaries with other disciplines, the relationships between them and the opportunities for cross-fertilisation.


Such roadmap projects can influence national government and European Union strategies as well as those of a variety of commercial, industrial, medical, social and cultural organisations, believes Dimitris Plexousakis. The interdisciplinary research that they incorporate can stimulate the exploration of new directions and lead to significant breakthroughs.

"ICTs have always profited from cross-fertilisation with other scientific disciplines", he stated, pointing out that Beyond-The-Horizon addresses fields ranging from mathematics to biology, from materials science to psychology. "For example, the ongoing miniaturisation of components onto a single processor chip requires further advances in materials and chip design", he stated, as well as progress in alternative computing methods such as quantum computing.

Future ICT systems are also going to need much more "intelligence" to function properly. The study of how living organisms, from a single cell to the human brain to animal colonies, process information is likely to be a promising way to research this area. We could also learn from nature how to deal with complex systems, an increasingly important area as humans interface with many small, embedded, mobile devices causing data and networks to rapidly expand in volume and grow in complexity. At the same time mechanisms need to be devised that ensure security and inspire trust in the use of such future technologies, which while they may offer dazzling promise, can also imply serious threats to our freedoms of action.

Beyond-the-Horizon, an IST project funded under the European Union's Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) initiative, aimed in particular to identify ideas for research that may be high-risk in terms of the ratio between expenditure and reward, but at the same time could offer great potential for radical innovation and a long-term pay-off. In this way, the project has gone much further than many ICT research roadmaps, which may just identify issues where "no known solutions" are available.

The project sought to identify such issues through a series of workshops and broad consultation with the relevant research communities. It split its work into six themes, each of which represents the efforts of a specific group of researchers across Europe. The themes are:

  • Pervasive computing and communications.
  • Nano-electronics and nanotechnology.
  • Security, dependability and trust.
  • Bio-inspired information and communication technologies.
  • Intelligent and cognitive systems.
  • Software-intensive systems.

"The idea was to address certain ICT research areas where no roadmaps have yet been drafted", stated Dimitris Plexousakis. "We hope that in early 2007, the proposed new areas for research under the coming Seventh Framework Programme will be influenced by our results."

Dimitris Plexousakis emphasised that the most significant finding to come out of Beyond-The-Horizon is the importance of interdisciplinary research. "The need for interdisciplinary research if we are to make progress is far greater than we imagined at the beginning of the project. All the different groups of researchers have to contribute to a research area if any real breakthrough is to be achieved."

He picked out as example the growing synergy between research in the biosciences and ICT. "Suppose you are working on nanoscale devices for implantation in the human body - devices that will communicate at the cell level. This is not a subject for engineers alone, nor for doctors or biologists, but for experts in the all the disciplines working together."

Using this example, Dimitris Plexousakis pointed to the current status of European research in such areas. "With built-in systems that interface between computers and biological systems using nanotechnology, we cannot at present match the lead held by semiconductor and nanotech industries in Asia and the United States."

"However", he continued, "where we can demonstrate excellence is in the actual interface between biological and computer systems in nanoscale technology - where the European Union is ahead in some areas. We need to maintain this lead."

A summary of the findings is available in a booklet entitled "Anticipating Future and Emerging Information Society Technologies". The full report will be published on-line.

For more information you can contact Professor Dimitris Plexousakis, Institute of Computer Science (ICS), Foundation for Research and Technology - Hellas (FORTH), Heraklion, Crete GR-71110, Greece, Tel: +30-2810-391637, Fax: +30-2810-391638, or visit the Beyond-The-Horizon project Web site.

This article has been reprinted from the IST Results Web site.

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