Jean-Christophe Desplat, Director of the Irish Centre for High-End Computing, outlines his perspective on how the rapid evolution of disruptive technologies will help to revolutionise Ireland.
Disruptive technologies like cloud computing and big data have rapidly emerged over the past decade and much more change is on the way soon. Deep learning methods are being used to deliver artificial intelligence, and further disruption with quantum computing and autonomous vehicles is coming. Indeed, we are realising that these technologies have the potential to completely transform the way in which people live and work, and all sectors of society are set to be affected over the coming decades.
To enable each of these technologies and emerging areas, high-performance computing (HPC), often referred to as supercomputing, is essential. The Irish Centre for High-End Computing (ICHEC) has a well-established track record of engagement with disruptive technologies and Ireland now has a timely opportunity to leverage ICHEC’s exceptional expertise and experience to deliver next-generation services through emerging disruptive technologies, greatly aided by the new national Disruptive Technology Innovation Fund (DTIF).
But there are risks which need to be taken into account. Given the major impact of these disruptive technologies on society and everyday human life, we also need to be able to trust these systems. We need to ensure they provide for everyone, not just a few. That means gaining public acceptance of the technologies. We must resist the temptation to encourage development without caution to the concerns of society, including privacy.
At ICHEC we have just launched our new SPÉir (Satellite Platform for Éire) platform, taken from the Irish word for sky, which has been developed in-house and involves the acquisition of global satellite data via the ESA. This will allow Ireland to catch up with other EU countries who are already adopting similar earth observation databases. The implications are huge for commercial and societal activities, and the associated creation of jobs, especially with regards to future innovation in using environmental data.
While the benefits will certainly include those economic in nature, the real boon of the new infrastructure will be of a more fundamental societal kind, relevant to the wider public. Just as the internet has improved many aspects of our lives over the past twenty years, Earth Observation will help improve our quality of life in the future and indeed is already doing so.
In recent years Earth Observation via satellites has seen massive growth and has fuelled much innovation, and is already providing Big Data which AI networks are helping to interpret. The SPÉir platform includes archived and near-real time information about the nation’s land surface, the atmosphere above us, and the North Atlantic in which we sit. The data is useful in areas like national planning and land use, including agriculture, woodlands, environmental issues and pollution monitoring, where large datasets are becoming essential. Planners of the future simply will not be able to work without this data, so it’s crucial that we are developing this database now, to enable applications to be developed.
ICHEC has identified the immediate need and potential to build expertise for programming quantum computing platforms and co-develop the quantum software ecosystem with European partners. Recently, we have been awarded funding from Enterprise Ireland and Intel Ireland for a new collaborative quantum computing project which will develop solutions for a natural language processing problem on Intel’s quantum platform. This project is deemed by Intel Corporation to be of high value to their operations and the wider quantum computing community in Ireland and worldwide. More such industry collaborative quantum programming projects that target areas such as quantum chemistry, financial analysis and machine learning are in the pipeline at ICHEC.
In a broader perspective, ICHEC is working with a quantum computing roadmap to build expertise and leadership in three areas: quantum application development; R&D in quantum software; and education and training. With software-based HPC simulators and small-scale quantum computers currently available, it is essential that we develop the software ecosystem and programming expertise to target quantum platforms that will be available within the decade. This initiative at ICHEC will provide the international research community with really valuable solutions and best practises for the next generation of high-performance computing in the quantum era.
One area that is currently very much in ICHEC’s frame of view is smart transport. We are working on a project which aims to create a consortium of key organisations responsible for the future planning of Ireland’s transport. To do this we will apply the latest advances in the disruptive technologies of AI, allied with the recent increases in processing power of HPC, to develop innovative solutions to optimise the existing traffic flow in Irish cities, improve road safety and to enable agile planning of Ireland’s future transport infrastructure. This will help improve the overall experience of commuting, a known source of stress in our lives.
Throughout the project, national transport networks will be analysed and
re-organised on a continual basis, as well as being intelligently managed during seasonal fluctuations, changing weather conditions, incidents and accidents. In addition, the project shall provide a measured economic impact, fuel-efficiency, lowered traffic congestions, reduced accident response time, along with reduced carbon emissions for an environmental friendly national transport operation.
Steps to move forward
Ireland needs to take advantage of early adoption of emerging disruptive technologies. Current barriers include infrastructure deployment, skills development and legislative change to incentivise and facilitate cross departmental initiatives and joined-up thinking. The current skills shortage in software engineering and numerical modelling will soon be exacerbated by a dramatic rise in demand to develop software for these new technologies. In addition, the scale and the limited window of opportunity require a more agile and timely response. In that respect the first DTIF call clearly demonstrated that such an ambition was realistic, and we expect the Future Jobs Ireland strategy to provide the necessary opportunities for enhancing skills and developing and attracting talent. ICHEC intends to fully leverage these vehicles.
Another risk factor is that national focus in terms of technology is on job creation and economic growth, and not on the wellbeing and happiness of individuals, which depends on the quality of their public services, housing, commuting, and environment. Sure, economic growth is a part of that, and employment follows — but it isn’t everything. Disruptive tech should alter how we citizens engage with the world in terms of raising our happiness. This is something which should be considered in the next DTIF calls.
To conclude, I’ll point out that one real positive is that Ireland has recently been announced as a founding member of the European High Performance Computing Joint Undertaking (EuroHPC JU), a project which has been approved for €1 billion in investment in 2019/2020, and ramped up under the next EC multi-annual funding framework, Horizon Europe. The EuroHPC JU has the aim of building a world-class European supercomputing infrastructure, in recognition of the potential contribution to the digital economy from supercomputing capabilities. This can help ensure that Ireland is in a strategic position to regain any lost competitiveness over the past decade and leverage our ability to deploy disruptive technologies.
Prof. JC Desplat
Director of ICHEC
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