The ones to back in the race to the future

 

Leading economies globally are anxiously staking out territory in the next-generation internet. However, with many research centres already operating in this area, Ireland has a head start

THE INFORMATION super highway is getting congested. It is also growing more powerful, with new applications and functionality becoming available almost every day. These developments have led to moves to define the next-generation internet, increasingly referred to as the “future internet”.

The scope and functionality of this future internet will be much broader than that of the internet we know today. Its core infrastructure will incorporate sensor networks, as well as wireless and fixed communications networks. Access and management of data, plus issues of privacy and accountability, are central to its development. However, its most important feature will be its focus on service, which will mean an emphasis on applications supporting all aspects of society, from health to education to commerce.

These developments will undoubtedly create opportunities in science, engineering and related fields. Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) recently hosted a high-level workshop to explore how Ireland can take advantage of such opportunities and establish itself as a leading force in the field.

The workshop brought together experts from industry and large research centres engaged in next-generation web technologies and applications. It offered an opportunity to map out a strategic plan for engagement at national and international level in a sector that affects virtually every aspect of life in today’s world.

Other countries have been quick to stake out territory.

“A move is now on by advanced economies to define and deliver next-generation internet, recognising its influential role as a driver of economic growth,” says Professor Fionn Murtagh, director of SFI’s Information, Communications and Emergent Technologies Directorate. “The US, South Korea, Japan, Australia, South Africa and Europe have already established major future internet initiatives.”

In Europe, 27 countries have established national initiatives to roll out future internet testbeds and trial services with a view to becoming early adopters in this field. “To take just one example, Spain invested over €300 million in future internet initiatives in the past year,” says Prof Murtagh.

“Ireland is now focused on formulating a comprehensive research and innovation road map that identifies our capacity to excel in this space, and the means by which we will attain such excellence.”

“The internet is becoming stressed with all the traffic and data it’s carrying,” adds Dr Sandra Collins, scientific programme manager with SFI. “There is already more data out there than you could read in a lifetime and it is doubling every 11 months.

“The future of the internet is partly about trying to understand what’s on it, as well as making the information more accessible. It’s also about making sure the infrastructure can carry all the data and services, as well as about the development of new applications and functions which take advantage of the increased power of that infrastructure.”

According to Dr Collins, Ireland has a disproportionate number of research centres operating in this area. This gives us a head start which can be exploited.

“SFI has invested more than €200 million to date in research that will build the future internet. SFI is funding five different Centres for Science, Engineering and Technology (CSets) in this area. We also have a large number of companies – such as IBM, Bell Labs and Ericsson – which collaborate in research and take the products of that research. Alongside that, we have many Irish SMEs – like Intune Networks, which develops network architecture to cope with the massive increase in unpredictable traffic demand.”

CTVR, the telecommunications research CSet, is engaged in research into future networks. CTVR’s work is on the development of flexible networks that are evolvable, submissive and sustainable. These will be of particular importance, says Dr Collins, when events generate dramatically increased traffic on telecommunications networks.

“The Olympics in London will be a massive network hotspot. Thousands of spectators will be using smartphones to send e-mails and tweets and so on at any one time, and this will place enormous strain on the networks. CTVR is developing technologies which can divert energy and bandwidth to the part of the network that needs it most at any given time.”

This is extremely timely research: Ericsson predicts that 2012 will be the inflection point when the number of smartphones will overtake the number of PCs connecting to the internet.

“The internet is going mobile, and that’s making it even more complicated,” Dr Collins observes. “According to Ericsson, mobile data traffic nearly tripled between 2009 and 2010.”

Making the web more accessible and efficient for users is the focus of the Digital Enterprise Research Institute (Deri) CSet based at NUI Galway. Deri is carrying out cutting-edge research in an area known as the semantic web. “They are looking at bringing meaning to all of the information on the web,” says Dr Collins. “If we could search the web more meaningfully rather than trawl through pages and pages of raw data, it would make it far more useful and efficient.”

The Clarity CSet in UCD works in an area known as the “sensor web”. This relates to a new generation of cheap, reliable and flexible sensor technologies which will serve as input devices for the internet, bringing a whole new world of data to it.

Sensor technologies will permit the sensing of diverse events – from traffic congestion to river pollution, from energy consumption to recycling – and put them on the web in a usable form. This will enable the creation of new types of information services across a wide range of sectors, from health and the environment to education, retail and entertainment.

One example of Clarity’s work is the use of sensors to monitor gas emissions from landfill sites and, following data analysis, the reporting of the findings to the landfill manager and the EPA via wireless internet connections.

The Centre for Next Generation Localisation (CNGL), based in DCU, is engaged in research into the process of adapting and translating digital content to various cultural, geographical and linguistic environments at high quality and speed. Aiming as it does to overcome language and cultural barriers, localisation is a key enabling and value-adding component of the global software and content distribution industry.

“You think when you’re on the web that English makes up the majority of the content but it only accounts for 27 per cent of it,” says Dr Collins. “Content in English and other languages has to be translated to make it fully accessible – and doing this as rapidly as possible will be key to the future internet.

“An example of the technology in action was seen at last year’s football World Cup in South Africa. CNGL and Clarity collaborated on a unique service to automatically translate on-the-fly all Twitter messages generated at the tournament into six different European languages, allowing fans from different countries to communicate with each other in their own language.”

The fifth CSet involved in future internet research is Lero, the Irish Software Engineering Centre at UL. It focuses on evolving critical systems – software which needs to change and adapt yet remain absolutely reliable and predictable. “Lero is looking at clever ways for this software to run on the internet.”

The next step for SFI’s future internet initiative will be the hosting of a national conference this summer. This will bring together industry stakeholders and decision makers to build collaborations big enough to take advantage of opportunities at a national and international level.

“We can be internationally competitive and a world leader in the future internet,” Dr Collins claims. “We have a lot of advantages that we can build upon. We have the research base; we have the industry base. Ireland is also small as a country which makes it a good testbed for technology. Our aim is to bring the different players together on a collaborative platform which results in the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.”