ERCIM News No.39 - October 1999

ERCIM: the Challenge of the Next Century

Gerard van Oortmerssen, President of ERCIM

At the turn of the century ERCIM is celebrating its 10th anniversary and on this occasion it is appropriate to look back at the developments in our field, and look ahead, to determine the challenges that lie ahead of us.

I think it is a privilege to live in this unique period, in which a digital revolution that pervades all areas of our existence is taking place. It started only 50 years ago, with the development of electronic computers. As the name suggests, they were designed to help us perform difficult or tedious computations. Gradually, the functionality increased, and computers now enhance various functions of the human brain: reasoning, perception, memory, etc. The combination with modern communication technology and internet gave a new impulse to the digital revolution, creating a world encompassing noosphere. It is truly amazing to watch the world wide web, cellular telephones, notebook computers and personal digital assistants conquer the world in just a few years.

It is tempting to make predictions about where this will lead to in a few more years, but technology forecasts are usually falsified by history. In 1943, Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, said: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”, and in 1981 Bill Gates stated: “640 K ought to be enough for anybody”. Therefore, I will not even attempt to make this kind of forecast. Technological development will continue, but the final result is not only determined by researchers and developers, but also by the market, the people that use the technology. They will decide whether they want to use a single hand-held device that combines the functionality of a computer, an organiser, cellular phone, internet access, camera, and A/V remote control, or prefer separate devices which can mutually communicate. Naturally, the potential of new technology appeals to users. But choices that users make depend also on other, sometimes non-rational factors: ease of use, and confidence. The further development of electronic commerce, for instance, will very much depend on the perceived privacy and security of payments. One trend is clear, however: most human-built products will possess embedded intelligence as well as the ability to communicate with other systems. Differentiation and integration increase at the same time: billions of distributed digital computers are integrated in a single communication network.

What are the Trends in Information and Communication Technology Research?

During the first decades of the digital revolution, development was mainly driven by mono-disciplinary research in mathematics, logic and theoretical computer science. With the increase of complexity, the need for multi-disciplinary research has increased. A proper design of user interfaces requires co-operation with psychologists. Development of intelligent search engines requires co-operation of computer scientists with linguists and cognition scientists. Also, I am convinced that the life sciences will prove to be very important for further developments in our field – new developments in ICT may be inspired by principles of biological evolution.

Another trend that is evident among member institutes of ERCIM is the enhanced interaction between research and society. On the one hand this is a result of pressure from society to generate economic activity. This has led to increased co-operation with industry, and to the stimulation of start-up companies. On the other hand, the deployment of new technology creates new problems that have to be solved. The most illustrative example at this moment is the millennium bug.

Last but not least, internationalisation. Country boundaries are becoming less and less important. Transnational co-operation has been an important trend in business during recent decades. The world is truly becoming a global village. In Europe, co-operation among researchers as well as with industry, has been stimulated by the Framework programmes of the European Union.

ERCIM was founded with the objective of enhancing European co-operation among researchers in the fields of information technology and applied mathematics. During the 10 years of its existence, ERCIM has evolved into an effective network organisation which comprises an important portion of the European research community in ICT. Important activities are the ERCIM Working Groups, an overview of which you can find in this issue of ERCIM News, and the contracts that ERCIM carries out for the European Union and the World Bank. For the coming years, I see three important challenges for ERCIM. First, further develop ERCIM as a network organisation. This will of course mean extension of ERCIM with new member organisations in Europe. But ERCIM wants to be an open network, and therefore this also means increased co-operation with researchers from non-member organisations, and co-operation with research organisations outside Europe. Second, strengthen the role of ERCIM as point of contact and contract partner for the European Commission, other non-governmental organisations and multi-national companies. And finally, increase the self-organising capacity of the European research infrastructure. The digital revolution brings the need for a strong, effective and efficient research infrastructure, which contributes to economic growth and well being of Europe. This requires the development of joint objectives, exploitation of existing strengths and joint actions aiming at minimising weaknesses. Over the last ten years, ERCIM has greatly enhanced communication and co-operation between its members. As a matter of course, this leads to co-ordination. Not as a top-down mechanism, but as a self-organising system. ERCIM is ready to meet the challenges of the next century, for the benefit of its members and of society.

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