ERCIM News No.20 - January 1995


Pekka Silvennoinen, Director of VTT, Finland: The challenges of Information Technology

The IT research community is going through tumultuous but interesting times. Never before has our operating environment experienced such profound changes at such a breathtaking pace. The challenge is there for anyone wishing to influence the future orientation of the information-intensive technologies.

Computer users have been moving away from mainframes and centralized systems, except perhaps for the very specialized area of supercomputing - although even there the standard practice involves sets of interactive machines. Ever more efficient processor chips guarantee that new distributed systems are of a higher caliber than the big centralized models of the preceding year. Full exploitation of available computing power would require the abandonment of existing software and the rapid development of new replacements. However, software technology does not yet really have the theoretical foundation or practical means to do all this automatically.

For many, there is no reason to limit their horizons to an isolated computer environment. Computers and communications are being integrated through alliances of telecommunication companies and software houses providing services and data messaging for networks. Today, research institutes stand before an untrodden, virgin landscape full of unexplored opportunities.

The developing communications infrastructure is making ubiquitous broadband access a reality. Widening the bandwidth is a research area in itself. New innovative software products and sophisticated end-user hardware have an expanding marketplace both in the home and consumer electronics sectors as well as in dedicated business networks. New evolving generations of cellular and satellite systems are extending the network concept and gradually eliminating the need for physical links between hosts. Access is growing less and less dependent on place or time. Faced with this exciting and challenging scenery, it is just as important as it is difficult to keep a cool head. A researcher must be mindful of the fact that in order to do anything meaningful at all, one has to be the world's best in that particular field. And one cannot be the best without specialization. Just as different technologies are interlinked in user applications, R&D institutes must organize themselves into networks if they are to develop and supply new technologies for the marketplace.

In a nutshell, this aspiration dictates the spirit in which VTT approaches the other ERCIM institutes. We have focused our efforts on a selected set of IT-based industrial applications in the service and automation sectors. Our areas of basic research are even narrower, but we have already brought information systems and telecommunications together within our organization.

For success - and for that matter for survival - it is essential that we synchronize our R&D efforts with those of industrial partners. Their appreciation of our presence has grown as they have learnt, usually to their cost, that the time constants for the acquisition and accumulation of new knowledge have not been reduced. As a research institution, we must go on replenishing the long-term knowledge reserve, while being able to marry it with the current needs of those we serve.