High-risk research returns

How visionary technologies are shaping the future

Margherita Sforza

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“When I grab something hard, then I can feel it in the fingertips, which is strange, as I don’t have them anymore. It’s amazing,” said Robin af Ekenstam, who lost his hand when an aggressive tumour was discovered on his right wrist. Amputation was the only way to save his life. After the operation in 2009, the Swedish boy was one of the first in Europe to try a robotic hand, an early prototype weighing in at a hefty 2 kg.

 

The development of technologically advanced prosthetic devices is fundamental to allow amputees to conduct independent lives

 

EU-supported research, first with the CYBERHAND project and then the NEBIAS project, has developed a cybernetic prosthetic neuro-controlled hand which is helping those who’ve lost limbs to regain their independence. Today the technology is small enough to fit in a rucksack, making it portable, and much lighter, like the one worn by Almerina Mascarello, who lost her hand in an accident. Her prosthetic hand moves using sensors that detect information that is relayed to Almerina’s brain via tiny electrodes implanted in nerves in the upper arm.

 

The BRAINBOW project, too, is using these brain-machine interfaces to help disabled people walk again by using mind-controlled exoskeletons.

 

Projects that began as a dream or a far-fetched sci-fi fantasy are now a reality for citizens in Europe: an example of how the so-called Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) are creating horizons we never imagined we’d see,developing solutions some of the most complex and challenging conundrums facing humanity, from the rise of artificial intelligence to applying greener technologies to combat climate change.

 

A recent study showed that this disruptive and innovative research has a concrete impact on the everyday life. The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research and the Austrian Institute of Technology have found that FET support has founded a start-up company in about 12 percent of the projects. Moreover, according to the study at least one industrial enterprise is involved in 40% of the projects and there are direct links to companies in the majority (83%).

 

For example, Switzerland-based healthcare tech firm InSphero has grown rapidly through its access to this funding. Its ‘Body on a chipproject produces advanced 3-D microtissue models that mimic the behaviour and function of living organs much better than conventional cell cultures. This scalable, flexible technology promises to support more rapid and accurate testing and safety screening of new drugs, decreasing the need for animal testing.

 

The most difficult part of this research is that drug discovery is a long, cost-intensive and viscous process involving many stakeholders,” says Olivier Frey, project manager of Microphysiological Systems at InSphero. “New in-vitro technologies including 3D cell cultures and microphysiological systems require a paradigm change, ranging across multiple scientific and management levels.”

 

Game-changing FET technologies are also taking on energy consumption with some projects that are currently focusing on alternatives to using fossil fuels.

The study of leaves may lead to the development of new, sustainable energy sources. Photo credits: Pixabay

The ongoing A-LEAF project aims to create a photo-electro-catalytic cell which will combine sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to produce carbon based liquid fuels, and oxygen as a by-product. This first step towards “artificial leaves”, could lead to sustainable fuel for power generation.

 

Other plant-inspired projects are SWARM-ORGAN, which is developing swarm-robotics inspired by cellular level morphogenesis in plant roots, and PLANTOID, which is more focused on culture and society and looks to see how root and shoot growth can be used to influence living spaces.

 

The FET programme has also been pioneering quantum technologies since 1998. For example, the Minos project drove research into quantum applications in various directions. These include more efficient signal conversion with minimal noise, integrating multiple modalities (optical, RF, mechanical) into hybrid metamaterials to reach signal interactions with ultra-high frequencies and bandwidths. Early computers were using mechanical relays as switches – future systems may well use nano-opto-mechanical devices.

 

Another broader trend is to develop a new generation of personal monitoring systems. The three-year SimpleSkin project has created a synthetic washable fabric woven with a silver-copper alloy that can sense and monitor changes in the body such as breathing rate and posture. Connected to computers and smartphones, they have proven to be viable for a broad range of applications far beyond wearable systems, like an intelligent exercise mat that analyses the user’s movements through pressure sensors, and a pillow that detects people’s sleeping posture is currently under development.

 

Twenty years ago, the digital revolution was in its infancy and the concept of a mind-controlled robotic hand was the stuff of science fiction. Today, the integration digital technology with everything from urban planning to genomics-based healthcare shows no signs of slowing down.

 

However, as discussed at the recent European leadership through disruptive technologies event held in Brussels on March 7, 2018, FET projects are intrinsically experimental, high-risk and unpredictable.

 

In the past two decades the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme has devoted more than 2.5 billion euro to more than 180 projects. Researchers and many policy makers are keen for Europe to expand on current financial support levels, so it can invest in long-term research that might affect our lives for decades to come.

 

Cover image: via Flickr