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How to grow computers from slime or why the EU funds emerging technologies
The University of the West of England, Bristol, is leading an EU-funded project that aims to build a computer chip out of protoplasmic slime tubes coated with conductive material. An independent study of the programme that funds it - EU Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) - shows that such visionary and interdisciplinary research results in a high number of quality scientific publications and in technological solutions of interest to industry.
The team behind the project coordinated in Bristol, PhyChip, thinks that chemical, molecular and biological components are the future of computing. This project is a typical example of the novel and risky ideas that FET supports. An analysis by the Fraunhofer Institute and the Austrian Institute of Technology of 224 projects carried out between 2007 and 2014 argues that this risk-taking pays off.
63% of the projects were highly quoted in leading peer reviewed journals while the average citation ratio for all projects was above the ratio in physics, a domain traditionally used as a benchmark. For the vast majority – 83% - there were no relevant publications before the research started under the FET.
The programme has three lines of action:
- FET Open funds projects on new ideas for radically new future technologies, at an early stage when there are few researchers working on a project topic. This can involve a wide range of new technological possibilities, inspired by cutting-edge science, unconventional collaborations or new research and innovation practices.
- FET Proactive nurtures emerging themes, seeking to establish a critical mass of European researchers in a number of promising exploratory research topics. This supports areas that are not yet ready for inclusion in industry research roadmaps, with the aim of building up and structuring new interdisciplinary research communities.
- FET Flagships are 1-billion, 10-years initiatives where hundreds of excellent European researchers unite forces to focus on solving an ambitious scientific and technological challenge. One such example is the new material graphene initially discovered by researchers based in Manchester University.
The independent assessment also found that a quarter of FET participants have applied for at least one patent, 31% have branched into new research and a massive 86% secured funding for follow up projects to develop the ideas pursued in their FET projects.
Among other concrete examples are basic research into the twisting and splitting of light which can help solve the problem of bandwidth bottlenecks in optic fibre and or a project which looked into quantum random number generators and quantum protocols that underpin the security and data privacy of two- and multi-party transactions.
Although the majority of the researchers who apply for FET funding see themselves as part of the technological community, often their research addresses key societal challenges. For example, one research paper served as a foundation for new banking laws while another led to new health policies in several countries.