What will save Ireland?


2 Jan 2003

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In a world that is saturated with the debts of telecommunications firms, the debris of dotcom players and empty coffers of venture capitalists that should have known better, the world of research and development (R&D) has never stopped turning.

If anything, it’s still playing on the minds of investors and scientists, who perhaps should know better.

By the end of 2003, initial public offering (IPO) start-ups with their dotcom mantras will be long forgotten. Visionary CEOs may well be wearing handcuffs and doing time. The world will have moved on and, hopefully, so will Ireland.

Emerging from the chaos is a new world order where life sciences and biotechnology are inexorably linked with information technology and tiny electronic devices that can only be described as digital dust.

Dangerous though it may be to place bets on what’s around the corner, we can learn lessons from the past. In 1999, all the talk was about e-commerce and internet banking. In 2000, it was business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce. In 2001, it was mobile commerce (m-commerce). In 2002, it was digital subscriber line (DSL) and web services. All of these have been implemented in various shapes and forms and impact on our lives in small ways, yet their full potential will not be realised for many years.

A prominent US tech journalist known as Robert X Cringely expounded Cringely’s Law — ie that technology changes far less in the short term than we expect — but has a far greater impact in the long term than we realise. Therefore, wise investors as a rule prefer trends that are rooted in an imminent market demand, but which will have far-reaching implications.

Going into 2003, we will focus on highlighting some of the technologies that are already taking shape and are rooted in real world possibilities, starting with two that Ireland has a real chance to compete in.

Bio-informatics

Bill Gates once famously remarked that biotechnology has the potential to outgrow even IT over the coming decade. Whether he is right or wrong, Gates is not alone in his thinking and the increasing marriage of information technology with breakthroughs in biotechnology and nanotechnology have sparked many an imagination.

However, before investors and pundits go rushing after the next big trend, it is important to realise that these are long-term plays that are the culmination of years of R&D and patent filing.

But where does Ireland fit into this vision? Our prowess in the field of pharmaceutical manufacturing can be summed up by the fact that nine out of 10 of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies have a base here. Over 120 overseas companies employ 20,000 people and export US$32bn annually. This represents over 29pc of total exports and makes Ireland one of the largest exporters of pharmaceuticals and fine chemicals in the world.

However, pharmaceutical manufacturing is only a near relation of biotechnology and the foundations for this field in Ireland are still somewhat rudimentary. Our biotech community, involving firms such as Elan and Trinity Biotech, is somewhat dwarfed by the scale of biotechnology clusters in the UK, France and Germany, not to mention the US and Asia.

A €600m Technology Foresight Fund, managed by Science Foundation Ireland, has been created with the purpose of developing world-class research excellence in information and communication technologies (ICT) as well as biotechnology.

To date, the most notable impact of biotechnology has been in the medical and pharmaceutical arenas, whereby important medical and pharmaceutical products, such as human insulin and factor VIII, are produced through genetic engineering. Breakthroughs in biotech could have the potential to improve food production, industrial processes, renewable energy generation and bio-mining.

The small scale of Ireland’s indigenous biotech industry may not be seen as a disadvantage when the possibility of marrying the experience of a major world industry on our doorstep with our ICT expertise could create enormous opportunities in the coming together of biotech with information technology.

Digital content media

We’ve heard so much about it from pundits and government departments that we are dizzy. Yet no one can adequately put his or her finger on what exactly constitutes digital media. Nevertheless, it has seen the creation of a Digital Hub in Dublin’s Liberties area that will cost the Government some €250m to develop, as well as the arrival of the illustrious Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) MediaLab Europe, which attracts some €50m in research revenue each year.

Forfás describes digital content as the convergence of previously distinct areas, such as traditional content, media and entertainment, software and multimedia and electronic hardware and communications. It encompasses the creation, design, management and distribution of digital products and services and technologies that underpin them.

Ireland’s standing as one of the world’s largest exporters of software as well as its acknowledged richness in the realms of art, music and literature is believed by many in the industry and government sectors as a suitable calling card — one which PricewaterhouseCoopers values globally at US$17bn in 2001.

However, some observers might point to our poor communications infrastructure as having hindered any such prowess in this field. It was revealed recently that Microsoft’s developers for the Xbox in Dublin were unable to test the Xbox’s internet games locally and had to do so in the US for the want of broadband.

Forfás has acknowledged that our previous expectations for the overall ICT sector may have been overly optimistic and premature. It believes that developments that will drive digital media are only now beginning and are not anticipated to impact the industry until at least 2005 or 2006, by which time there is expected to be mass market penetration of broadband access and devices.

In the intervening period, the global digital content market is expected to grow strongly at an annual rate of 30pc, reaching US$434bn by 2006.

In the intervening period, Forfás says that this country has an opportunity to get its house in order in the following areas: funding and finance, R&D, legal and regulatory environment, fiscal environment, infrastructure and skills.

Silent commerce

Otherwise known as ubiquitous or u-commerce, silent commerce joins the e, m and t members of the commerce family. Electronic commerce is still here — you can still buy your books on Amazon.com or groceries through Tesco over the internet. Mobile commerce is real insofar as you can buy cinema tickets and download games and ringtones today. Television commerce is real inasmuch as you can buy the right to watch movies from the Sky Box Office. However, these things are only at the fringe of our day-to-day lives.

Always-on, always aware, always active, this new wave of technology will build on breakthroughs in barcode technology and mobile commerce, enabling shopping centres, trucks and warehouses to form a more dynamic, living yet silent and invisible ecosystem for business.

This will be enabled by the arrival of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, tiny sensors and tiny intelligent mobile computers that will all feed into a web of supply chain management systems. RFID tags are the next generation of barcodes. These are little computers capable of communicating by radio within a store or warehouse and contain a far more complete history of the lifecycle of a product than currently enjoyed through the current barcode system.

In the US, furniture manufacturers have implemented a rule whereby if a customer removes an RFID tag from a sofa, they violate any service agreement. The same is becoming true amongst car manufacturers.

Technologies such as RFID are finding widespread early adoption in a variety of places, ranging from inventory control in the US Army to collaborations between MIT and Wal-Mart to enhance inventory management and the shopping experience of the consumer. Agricultural uses of RFID have also been mooted, with farmers using RFID chips to keep an eye on cattle movements, milk shipments and utilising sensors and actuators to manage quality control.

Seamus Mulconry, a strategy manager for Accenture in Dublin, said: “Advances in nanotechnology, which involves making tiny intelligent devices and RFID tags, are helping more and more devices to communicate. This is silent commerce. We are talking about a world where machines are connected to each other and are doing work that today is mostly manual. Most of this stuff is in prototype stage, but we are starting to see an uptake in business for it. It is very early days yet — we are talking about a five- to seven-year horizon — but it is coming. Five years ago, we were at the same stage of e-commerce.”

Whether Ireland will have any stake in such embryonic technologies remains to be seen.

Wi-Fi

If silent commerce will be invisible, Wi-Fi, or wireless local area networks (WLANs), will probably be the one technology that will make the most visible impact on Irish life in 2003, although it will start slowly. At present, throughout the US and Europe, Wi-Fi hotspots are popping up everywhere — in businesses, in coffee shops, in airports and hotels. They are enabling laptop owners to enjoy 11 megabits per second (Mbps) of broadband access to the internet over a wireless network and to access the internet. They are also enabling owners to download email and access corporate virtual private networks (VPN) at their leisure.

Originally spawned from the 802.11b wireless standard, Wi-Fi is about to make the jump to up to 54Mbps broadband speed this year, with the introduction of the 802.11a standard. The beauty of this technology and the reason why it might impact so heavily is its cheap cost value — a network hub costing only €500 would give a 500-foot radius of broadband speed internet access that laptop owners who purchase a €50 Wi-Fi card can tap into. The Wi-Fi revolution is only in its infancy. More laptops and bundled software now support WLAN as PC manufacturers integrate WLAN cards into their laptops and personal digital assistants.

In recent weeks, Eircom, Esat BT and mobile network operator O2 announced separate plans to put in place public wireless hotspots throughout various hotels, airports and railway stations in the Republic. At present, there are some 378 privately-owned wireless hotspots active in Dublin today, according to DIT and Enigma. It is believed that within five years some 91 million different technology devices will be capable of connecting to these mini-networks and research by Analysys predicts that in the US alone more than 21 million Americans will be using WLANs by 2007.

Grid computing

Otherwise known as autonomic computing, this is a new trend that is being strongly pushed by the likes of IBM with a view to making computing and computer services available as a utility in the same way as electricity, gas or water are supplied.

Grid computing involves the creation of a reliable and scalable global infrastructure that connects computing and other information resources owned and managed by many organisations into a giant, global virtual computer.

The most recent technology forecast from PricewaterhouseCoopers backed this theory and put forward the vision of pervasive or ubiquitous computing, whereby IT is both universally available and invisible, because it is part of the fabric of daily life.

The forecast also suggests the arrival of an internet protocol (IP) dial-tone; the idea is that access to the internet and to the data transport services it offers will become omnipresent, like the dial-tone of the public switched telephone network (PSTN) we have in our homes today.

So far, the creation of computing grids has progressed the farthest among experimental physicists, who have created the European Data Grid, the Particle Physics Data Grid and the Grid Physics Network (GriPhyN) for the distributed management and analysis of large experimental data sets. Similar work has been undertaken by other research communities, such as civil engineers, who use the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation Grid to conduct research on designing seismically safe buildings. IBM is involved in building a giant computing grid for university hospitals in the US engaged in top-level cancer research.