All eyes on Ireland

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Dublin’s “Silicon Docks” may be known as a welcome destination for U.S. tech giants, but the Emerald Isle has plenty of native innovation to shout about.

Dublin

From James Joyce’s depictions of Dublin life to the archetypal “old boy” telling anecdotes over a pint of stout, storytelling is embedded in Irish culture. In fact, the country’s reputation for creativity sometimes overshadows its rich scientific and technological history, but those perceptions are set to change.

The Internet age has spawned swathes of content and data that, if skilfully filtered, analysed and interpreted, can provide profound insights about the complexities of human behaviour and the world in which we live. In this new era of narrative building, Ireland is yet again developing an enviable reputation.

The work of the ADAPT Centre (one of 12 Irish Research Centres of Excellence) provides a good illustration of just how well-placed Irish research and development is right now. The Centre is a one-stop shop for innovation in digital content; whether textual, audio or visual, if it’s online, the researchers at ADAPT are pushing its limits.Ireland

Beyond the babble

Many football fans may have already encountered ADAPT’s work. In collaboration with Microsoft, the team built the Brazilator Twitter service for the last World Cup, which was capable of dynamically translating the real-time Twitter feeds of opposing fans into 12 tongues. As if that wasn’t challenging enough given the noisy, diverse and unstructured language in use, the service also ran analysis on the tweets for deeper insights about each game. The service wasn’t just translating narratives; it was providing the stimulus for fresh ones.

Another eye-catching example of ADAPT’s work concerns the personalisation of digital content. “People think of personalisation in terms of tailor-made recommendations for products, songs or videos,” CEO Vincent Wade points out. “Next generation personalisation, which we’re now focused on, is about recomposing content.” One early exampleis Yodle, a tool that automatically generates presentations. Type in a topic on the Yodle interface along with the desired length of presentation and moments later the tool has synthesised relevant text, images and audio from a range of trusted sites into a clear, bespoke structure.

The suite of tools developed by ADAPT has caught the attention of some of the world’s biggest tech companies. “When industry looks at some universities, they may only find small pieces of the solution they’re looking for,” Wade explains. “In contrast, our Centre is able to not only look at single issues, for example around machine translation or digital media analysis, but also consider recomposition of the content, its delivery and customer interaction.”

Material matters

The strength of Ireland’s digital research doesn’t come at the expense of stellar innovations in physical technologies. From medical devices to offshore renewable energy innovations, the island boasts a host of impressive R&D specialisms. The country’s advanced materials research is proving particularly noteworthy.

Depending on your background, the terms “advanced materials” and “nanotechnology” may seem dauntingly complex, but the message preached by Jonathan Coleman, one of Ireland’s foremost materials scientists, runs contrary. “Nanoscience doesn’t have to be complicated, it doesn’t have to be big, scary and expensive,” he says. “It can be simple and cheap. And potential applications are everywhere.” In front of a large live audience, Coleman has demonstrated how graphene, the one-atom-thick wonder material, can be created in a blender using nothing more than a pencil, water and some washing-up liquid.

To recap, that’s graphene, the strongest, thinnest, best conducting material known to man …made in a €40 blender.

One foot in the future

As well as having a keen eye on where tomorrow’s innovations may lie, Ireland is investing in young researchers. Under leadership of Linda Doyle, Director of the Connect Centre, the EU-funded EDGE postdoctoral programme will provide funding and resources for 71 researchers, helping advance work in materials science, telecommunications networks and digital content technology at Trinity College Dublin. “The three participating research centres have unrivalled access to industrial partnerships and already work with more than 70 companies,” Doyle explains.

The bright future is partly down to the pragmatism with which funders and decision makers – most notably Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) – have turned the economic crisis into an opportunity to rebuild and redirect the country’s R&D efforts. Reorganisation has placed special emphasis on including engineers and technologists in Irish R&D, with >basic and applied research given a more equal footing in order to promote radical innovation and industry-led problem solving contiguously. “Companies, which in the past were inclined just to invest in-kind in partnership activity, are now increasingly prepared to invest both cash and in-kind at 30–50% of the total value of the research,” says Darrin Morrissey, SFI’s Director of Programmes.

In general, improving cooperation with industry is a steep challenge across Europe. However, Ireland – through the combination of its cultural heritage and an innovation ecosystem in sync with the modern economic landscape – is already on the verge of becoming a major success story.

Graphene on a Friday afternoon 

The news that Irish researchers had figured out a way to produce high-grade graphene simply and cheaply sent ripples through research and industrial communities. True to Irish form, the discovery also had an interesting story attached. “Before graphene came to prominence, carbon nanotubes were the biggest thing in nanoscience, and our lab had developed lots of theory around producing nanotubes in liquids,” explains materials scientist Jonathan Coleman. After Andre Geim produced graphene in a UK lab in 2004, it became clear to Coleman and his colleagues that they could apply their theories to graphite in order to produce high-quality graphene in greater quantities and far more cheaply than anyone would have predicted. “We knew that testing our theory was really just a case of a one-hour experiment on a Friday afternoon. And it worked the first time.”

While many future applications will be industrial, graphene will also make flexible display screens possible and will likely be used in a range of smarter plastics. Graphene is also thin enough to print with an inkjet printer, and Airbus is interested in using it in composites for lighter weight aircraft. However, it should be noted that many of these applications are still 10 to 15 years away. “The technology is in a sort of twilight zone,” says Coleman. “Companies are making graphene-based materials, but they’re still not certain what the first major markets will be. However, this phase will pass very quickly when someone develops the sort of product you find on shelves in supermarkets.”

Story tellers

By Ben McCluskey  @FreelanceSciWri

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