Eörs Szathmáry, professor of biology at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, underlined in a recent video interview the importance of basic research behind any exciting technological development. He explains how his EU-funded project, Insight, largely contributed to the advancement of research on neurodynamics and its applications on robotics.

Representation of a brain's neurons

Basic science and applications cannot be separated, they must go hand in hand.

The project Insight, funded by the Future and Emerging Technologies (FET)-Open programme and coordinated by the Parmenides Foundation, has been a milestone for recent research on neurodynamics in Europe. Besides the value of its scientific results for the entire research community, the success of the project has facilitated the foundation of a new Institute of Evolution studies within the Centre for Ecological Research at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

The project tried, for three years (2013-2016), to provide answers to a series of unsolved and exciting questions: What happens in our brain when we focus on the solution of a problem and suddenly, after a lot of thinking, we find an answer, without really knowing why? Which processes, at a neuronal level, take place when we finally solve an insight problem and we experience what is also called as a eureka moment?

Insight dwelled exactly on this kind of complex issues, trying to dig deeper into the fascinating discipline of neurodynamics, with the aim of sheding light on complex thinking, insight problem solving and language acquisition, by adopting a Darwinian perspective.

The idea on which Insight research has laid upon is that something like evolutionary selection, with processes akin to Darwinian ones, goes on in the brain every time we need to solve a complex problem, but on a milliseconds scale.

What Insight has investigated is itself thrilling and extremely relevant basic research, as it provided new insights, indeed, on evolutionary neurobiology, neurolinguistics and human psychology. However, it also contributed to the development of a new generation of smart robots, capable to engage in creative, autonomous and open-ended exploration.

Professor Eörs Szathmáry had pointed out how the project has been crucially important along two dimensions. The first one is strictly scientific and it has to do with the evidence that such Darwinian neurodynamic process actually take place in the brain, as shown by computer simulations and experiments on robots and humans.

The second one has to with the future applications of these research findings mostly in the field of robotics. As put by Prof. Szathmary, basic science and application need to go hand in hand, as the tip of the iceberg (the practical apllication), without realising that  the biggest part of the iceberg is basic research. This kind of projects are a seed for further investigations and so to future innovation, which would not happen without a profound effort in explorative and visionary research.


FET-Open and FET Proactive are now part of the Enhanced European Innovation Council (EIC) Pilot (specifically of the Pathfinder), the new home for deep-tech research and innovation in Horizon 2020, the EU funding programme for research and innovation.