Beyond human: LIST spin-offs tackle next generation technologies

Published on 17/12/2018

The human brain has been responsible for remarkable achievements: it has built bridges and railways, unravelled the human genome, written symphonies and timeless novels. However, in terms of efficiency, it has its limitations. The reliance of technological progress on the involvement of humans to achieve its full potential has inevitably restricted its development in a variety of ways.

These limitations are perhaps most obviously visible in cars. An automatic reminder to fasten a seat belt, relying on a human who might be in an impatient or reckless mood to carry out the action, is clearly less effective as a safety measure than if the car was able to do it automatically. The same could be true about stopping at a red light, or swerving to avoid a pedestrian. Where there is a human involved, technical innovation can only go so far.

Harnessing AI and big data

The advent of artificial intelligence and the harnessing of big data have made possible a new model in which the human is removed from the equation. Machines can be trained to do tasks at least as well as a human, and, in some cases, significantly better. They can be programmed to interpret the data they store or receive and take actions based on that interpretation. Technology can rationalise and achieve a specific goal, enabling humans to be removed from the process.

The potential efficiency available from bypassing humans, allowing technology to gather data and determine actions, is phenomenal. Examples include sprinkler systems that measure the level of rainfall and adjust their output accordingly, or medical devices that measure blood sugar and automatically dispense the correct dosage of insulin. The uses for this type of automation extend across healthcare, financial services, retail supply chains and resource management of all kinds.

Disintermediating the human factor 

Companies that are instigators or beneficiaries of this disintermediation of the human factor include several of the spin-offs in recent years from the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST). Take RTC4Water, which was launched in 2014 by three research engineers who believed they could improve the efficiency of water distribution and wastewater management systems through technology. They set out to tackle a huge problem. The Worldwatch Institute reports that water scarcity already affects one-third of the world’s population, and is set to grow in magnitude and urgency as a result of global population growth and rising incomes.

RTC4Water now works with a range of clients around the world, from wine producers to fire services, to address network and physical resource inefficiencies in wastewater and water distribution facilities. One recent project to tackle water efficiency was close to home in Luxembourg's Moselle valley town of Wormeldange, whose economy is based on wine production. The EU Water Framework Directive required local officials to monitor its daily water reserve capacity to avoid financial penalties. RTC4Water helped the town achieve significant efficiency improvements and cost savings, all to the benefit of the area's wines.

Precision agriculture decision-making

Another firm drawing on advanced technology to tackle environment-related issues is Agroptimize, which was founded as a partnership between agricultural consultancy Wanaka and the University of Liège's agrometeorology research unit and its Laboratory of Climatology in association with LIST. Agroptimize specialises in the technological development and marketing of precision agriculture decision-making tools for the European and African markets that test and analyse soil conditions and plant development data in order to create optimum growing conditions.

Automation can also bring needed rigour to activities such as assessment and marking that are often vulnerable to human biases. Open Assessment Technologies, a provider of open-source assessment solutions for education and public sector employment, has found an international market for its TAO platform, which is designed to boost the efficiency of testing processes and ensure objectivity though automatic marking.

Putting IT systems in context

Other companies use technology to improve the efficiency of human actors. Consulting firm Abacus seeks to identify and formalise business requirements, and build IT solutions to manage them. It helps to ensure that, as far as possible, business processes run seamlessly, removing unnecessary steps and impediments.

Abacus considers IT solutions in their holistic business context, including organisational aspects, relying on strong business process management, project management and technical skills. The firm seeks to address the fact that the efficiency of technology solutions is often not fully realised because of problems in the ecosystem within which they operate.

Cutting-edge science

Another LIST spin-off, Lion Nano-Systems, provides cutting-edge analytical instruments for scientists that are better than could be achieved by a human, working with some of the leading names in microscopy and microanalysis to create advanced analytical tools. The firm's latest innovations mean that 'infinitely small’ objects can be explored at previously unheard-of scales, allowing scientists to conduct surface analysis at a resolution of around 10 nanometres - around 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of human hair.

Molecular Plasma Group, formerly known as Tailwind and based at Luxembourg's Technoport technology incubation facility at Foetz, conducts application development and design in the field of customised surface functionalities, including adhesion, release, tunable super-hydrophobicity and the anchoring of biomolecules onto substrate. The firm can design, build and service equipment ranging from lab systems for R&D facilities and universities to industrial production systems.

> This article is the Tech Watch of LIST Quarterly. Discover the e-newsletter in English or in French, or visit LIST's e-Newsletter page.

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