We spoke to researchers working at the forefront of emerging technology to find out how sociable artificial intelligence, organs-on-chips and more will impact our lives in the future.
You might have heard of the internet of things, but what about the nanothings? You might know graphene, but can you name any other single-atom layer materials? And, while you’ve surely heard the buzz around autonomous vehicles, have you given much thought to the next-generation batteries required to power them? Or how we might source that energy from perovskite solar cells?
These are just some of the breakthrough technologies identified by the World Economic Forum on the Top 10 Emerging Technologies 2016 list, compiled by the Forum’s Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies and published in collaboration with Scientific American.
This list represents the technological advances Forum members believe have the power to improve lives, transform industries and safeguard the planet. Though some of these technologies have been around for some time, inclusion on the list was determined by the likelihood that this year would represent a tipping point in the deployment of each technology.
And so, with the help of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), we have tracked down the researchers working at the cutting edge of these mind-blowing fields of research to find out how they are tackling some of the world’s most pressing challenges.
Nanosensors and the internet of nanothings
With the internet of things (IoT) expected to comprise 30bn connected devices by 2020, one of the most exciting areas of focus is now on nanosensors capable of circulating in the human body or being embedded in construction materials.
Many signals in our bodies are carried by naturally occurring nanoparticles which, unlike proteins, are always meant to be there, but some of these are made only as a result of various stresses or diseases.
“Our challenge is then to be able to fish out from the mass of complex proteins and then separate only those nanoparticle markers of disease that are being produced in our body, and signal some important event,” said Prof Kenneth Dawson, Centre for BioNano Interactions (CBNI) at University College Dublin (UCD). “This is like the classic ‘needle in a haystack’.”
By reading the vast detail of information contained in there, we would also have a real personalised and detailed diagnosis, and that is the gateway to a meaningful form of personalised medicine.
In our technology-driven world, few things are more important than battery life. That makes next-gen batteries an area of significant focus. Forward-thinking companies – Elon Musk’s Tesla, most notably – are spending big money on creating batteries that provide more energy and last longer.
But it’s not just the big companies doing the heavy lifting. Researchers like Prof Kevin Ryan – course director for pharmaceutical and industrial chemistry at University of Limerick (UL) and SFI principal investigator at the Bernal Institute – are also working on innovative approaches to the problem.
Ryan and his team at UL have, on a nano scale, developed a tree-like structure with germanium stems and silicon branches that could be used as anodes for lithium batteries. (This research has been published in ACS Nano.)
The lab-grown structure offers a unique possibility: the ‘tuning’ of a battery’s performance by altering the size, length and number of branches on the stem.
This development could be instrumental in future designs for mobile computing and telecoms, but could also be essential as the electric vehicle market grows. It would allow for smaller and lighter batteries that can hold more charge for longer, and maintain this performance over the lifetime of the product.
The blockchain is a distributed database that maintains a continuously growing list of data records, hardened against tampering and revision, that is being increasingly used in the area of banking and payments – most famously, by the bitcoin cryptocurrency.
Dr Donal O’Mahony is a computer scientist in Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and was one of the researchers who wrote a book on Electronics Payment Systems in 1997. His expertise in the area is such that he has even been rumoured to be the elusive Satoshi Nakamoto, creator of bitcoin.
‘Dr Donal O’Mahony’s expertise in blockchain is such that he has even been rumoured to be the elusive Satoshi Nakamoto’
Research O’Mahony has undertaken in relation to the blockchain includes tracing through the records of transactions, grouping them and finding clues as to the identity behind clusters of bitcoin addresses, as well as looking into systems like Ethereum and smart contracts. He is also looking at how we might build in protections against failure into Ethereum contracts.
Dr Oisín Boydell and Dr David Haughton are researchers at the Centre for Advanced Data Analytics Research at UCD. Their research in the area of blockchain is looking at evaluating different consensus algorithms and blockchain implementations based on a range of factors, such as throughput, latency and computational efficiency. The results can then be used to determine which algorithm and implementation is best suited to a particular task.
AMBER (Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research) and CRANN (the Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices) are two of the leaders in the 2D materials field. As the World Economic Forum described, graphene may be the best-known, single-atom layer material, but it is by no means the only one.
“It’s certainly more than just graphene,” said Colm McAtamney, GM for operations at CRANN. “Boron nitride is another popular material, for example,” he said, noting his group’s recent project with a company on a gas barrier in a plastic composite material.
McAtamney, with a background in photonics, features alongside Prof Jonathan Coleman and Prof Valeria Nicolosi as prominent researchers in this regard. Coleman’s work with low-dimensional nanostructures, as well as Nicolosi’s in the field of battery development, bring 2D materials to the fore.
Plummeting production costs mean that such 2D materials are emerging with a wide range of applications. Thomas Swann, for example, produces materials in commercial quantities, though the research in Ireland would largely relate to smaller measurements.
The CAR Group at NUI Galway, jointly led by Dr Martin Galvin and Dr Edward Jones, develops signal and image processing and machine-learning algorithms for intelligent transportation systems, particularly intelligent vehicles.
Based in the Electrical and Electronic Engineering research programme at NUI Galway, the group has over 17 years’ experience in working with the automotive industry (particularly with Valeo), developing algorithms for on-car sensors such as cameras, infrared, radar and LiDAR to monitor the road environment, and detect other road users and objects in the environs of the car.
“The CAR Group also has expertise in biomedical signal processing, and apply that expertise to driver monitoring applications, particularly for occupant monitoring in autonomous vehicles,” explained Galvin.
Diagnostic capabilities are reaching new heights with the dawn of big data and the continual improvement in processing capabilities. This, in part, has swayed into an interesting field loosely termed ‘organs-on-chips’. Cells, built into minute microchips, can essentially be studied and tested against various things like bacteria and toxins.
In Dublin City University (DCU), Prof Richard O’Kennedy alongside Jonathan Loftus and Prof Christine Loscher, are at the cutting edge of this field.
Establishing the make-up of mycotoxins (which are produced by fungus) is one thing, but establishing their effect on organs is something else. “We’re working on a chip at the moment that will allow scientists test mycotoxins against cells, adding context to the field,” said O’Kennedy. “We call it ‘mycofluidics’, combining microfluidics with mycotoxins.”
Two years into the project, O’Kennedy says Ireland is “at the front” of this area of science, with DCU – which also hosts Tia Keyes and Jens Ducree in this field – helping to drive it forward. “It’s not just us either,” said O’Kennedy. “Tyndall, in Cork, are doing interesting work in this field.”
Perovskite solar cells
It is hoped that perovskite solar cells – solar cells created with materials that mirror the crystal structure of calcium titanium oxide (perovskite) – will make the possibility of using solar energy as a sole power source a commercially viable option for everyone.
A team led by Prof Stefan Sanvito, director of CRANN and chair of condensed matter theory in the TCD School of Physics, are collaborating with a research centre for solar energy in Qatar to solve some of the issues and questions surrounding the technology.
The first question seeks to understand the microscopic mechanism that drives the perovskite cells’ enhanced solar-harvesting performance and is, essentially, solved. To answer the second question, Sanvito and his team are using computational tools to screen and find hypothetical compounds that would lead to more stable and sustainable perovskites.
Existing perovskites dissolve incredibly quickly in water and contain toxic materials, making them more or less unusable in many parts of the world. Finding suitable alternative materials could bring solar energy to a much wider audience, for a significantly better energy-cash trade-off. Perovskites pay for themselves in less than three months, compared to the two years for current solar cells.
Open AI ecosystem
The Adapt Centre for Digital Content Technology at Trinity College is leading the charge in the area of machine learning systems. Areas of research being explored include speech processing, artificial intelligence, natural language processing, deep learning technologies and computational linguistics.
An example of the research underway at Adapt is the work by Prof Nick Campbell to help robots, digital devices and apps estimate cognitive states and act naturally. Campbell pointed to the example of Hermes, a conversational robot previously exhibited at the Science Gallery that chatted with visitors to gather data about the way ordinary people can interact naturally with machines and devices.
“The main use for this research in the Adapt Centre is to deliver digital content in a friendly way – personalising information and chunking it so that we can be sure our message is getting across,” said Campbell.
“The sub-theme of the research is enabling machines to be aware of the environment so that they can intrude in socially acceptable ways – not speaking when they should remain quiet, and interpreting social signals such as laughter – to enable them to adapt the timing and delivery of content for maximum effect.”
‘The sub-theme of the research is enabling machines to be aware of the environment so that they can intrude in socially acceptable ways’
– PROF NICK CAMPBELL, ADAPT
The use of light and colour to record the activity of neurons in the brain has been around for some time, but recent developments mean light can now be delivered deeper into brain tissue, something that could lead to better treatment for people with brain disorders. This is achieved using advanced photonics to identify and understand neuronal interconnections between brain cells and the responding stimulated senses.
The science involves transfecting animals (that is, infecting a cell with free nucleic acid) with the light-sensitive proteins channelrhodopsins, which are similar to existing proteins in the animal eye. When these cells are illuminated with light of the correct wavelength (blue light at 465nm) the intensity causes the cells to fire, allowing their outputs to be tracked and identified.
Brian Corbett, a principal investigator the Irish Photonic Integration Centre (IPIC), and fellow researcher Pleun Maaskant are involved in creating a structured light source of micro-LEDs that allow the stimulation of the cells in a programmed way. The next step is to integrate these micro-LEDs onto a silicon needle that would provide electrical stimulation and allow measurement of stimulated responses.
Systems metabolic engineering
Metabolic engineering looks at optimising genetic and regulatory processes within cells. In Ireland, those carrying out research in this area include Roy Sleator, a senior lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences and a principal investigator at CREATE in Cork Institute of Technology.
A principal investigator in the APC Microbiome Institute’s Microbes to Molecules Spoke, Sleator has an interest in the design of improved probiotic strains by rational genetic manipulation. In his current research, he is engineering pharmabiotics with improved ability to colonise the gut to combat infections such as Clostridium difficile. These microbes can also be ‘reprogrammed’ to function as novel drug and vaccine delivery systems, targeting difficult-to-treat cancers.
Dr Cormac Gahan is also based at APC in University College Cork as a senior lecturer. He is currently looking at how to use genetic engineering approaches to change how the complex community of micro-organisms known as the gut microbiota chemically modify bile acids in the gut. This opens up the possibilities of changing a host metabolic pathway through a simple alteration to gut microbes, which could have positive health implications.
Both Sleator and Gahan cited the power of systems metabolic engineering to drastically improve health and even save lives as reasons why they pursued research in this area.