The EU is throwing an eye-watering €1bn of public funds to bankroll some of the most whimsical technology projects ever envisaged – for a decade. A shortlist of six applicants includes talking pet robots, and ambient low-power sensors that provide health tips and "emotional" advice.
The program is called FET, and is funded by the European Commission (which means it is funded by member states – although they can also
fritter contribute even more money through matching funds) Lucky beneficiaries will be forgiven for thinking Christmas has come early: €1bn to be doled out over 10 years is earmarked for the winner: that's €100m a year.
The final six nominees were unveiled by Digital Czar Neelie Kroes earlier this month. One project, "Robots Companions for Citizens", from robotics expert Paolo Dario, promises us lifelong cyborg chums.
"We have to go beyond the master-slave relationship," writes Dario in his application. "These novel devices will not be 'slaves' executing orders given by a human operator, but they will act like apprentices able to learn from experience, to understand the goals of their actions, to adapt to contingencies and to anticipate, in a developmental and evolutionary way, the intentions of their human companions (as apprentices becoming more and more skilled up to the level of autonomy desired by the personal human companion).
Er, autonomy? Up to a point, Professor. The robot that refuses to fetch its citizen a beer from the fridge may soon find itself decommissioned.
But perhaps training the human, not the robot, is the real goal here.
For example, another recipient project is "Guardian Angel for a Smarter Planet".
The "Guardian Angels for a Smarter Planet" [website] wants to build zero-energy sensors that monitor the environment, that can be built into clothing, or worn as bracelets. Sensor research isn't new, so the Swiss team has tailored its pitch to match the sponsor's desires.
The sensors could guess the wearer's emotional state and give them advice, or alert somebody else:
"Take a trader in the stock exchange, for example," the team write. "If he succumbs to his emotions, the transactions he's proposing would need to be carefully vetted before being accepted. In the classroom, students' attention levels could be monitored."
It's certainly handy to know who to throw the board rubber at, although perhaps that can be automated in a subsequent project.
Another recipient is "The FuturIcT Knowledge Accelerator" which draws on aMfM for inspiration – and distinctive capitalisation. This promises to "unleash the Power of Information for a Sustainable Future", as Professor Dirk Helbing of ETH Zurich explains: "The FuturIcT Flagship will build a knowledge accelerator to address the challenges for humankind in the 21st century." This involves a large SIM-style game capable of handling more than 10 billion nodes.