Precarn faces funding crunch

The coffers of Precarn, a non-profit IT development consortium of corporations, research institutes, and government partners may be all out of money in a year or two, according to Precarn vice-president Graham Taylor.

Some of Precarn’s funding for universities was released through the Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems (IRIS), a Precarn-managed network of institutions and one of the federally-funded Networks of Centres of Excellence, according to Taylor. But a federal policy dictated that funding could only be offered for two seven-year periods. “Then (the money would be used) to fund new networks,” said Taylor. “It seems like a rather arbitrary policy.”

“We’re looking for more funding to keep our (research) funding going, but we might not be able to continue,” Taylor said. While university-led research is currently tapped out, company-led research is operating under a five-year grant given in 2005.”We’re not taking on any new projects — we’re just finishing the ones we have now. We might be unable to keep going a year from now.”

Taylor said that he and his colleagues have been anxiously awaiting word from The Hill ever since Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty released his annual Economic and Fiscal Update in November, which promised a forthcoming science and technology strategy that has yet to materialize. “We hope that they plan on aggressive support for technological research and development in this country,” said Taylor. For now, he said, Precarn is already actively hunting for new money sources, and has approached other government agencies as well as the private sector.

He mourned the potential loss of cutting-edge research — especially in the arena of robotics and intelligent systems. “They’re a huge part of the future. We need excellence in robotics to be able to compete on the world stage,” Taylor said. Precarn, with a mandate to only fund research that has a specific partner and implementation in mind — “how it can be put to work,” according to Taylor — is uniquely situated, he said, to pair up with intelligent systems and robotics researchers, who face complex challenges. “You need different technologies and scientific disciplines to work on (these kinds of research), so the work has to be colloborative.”

One of the research projects that stands to suffer if Precarn folds is McGill University’s Centre for Intelligent Machines (CIM). “The Centre for Intelligent Machines was built, to a large extent, by our funding,” according to Taylor, who said that 20 per cent of all IRIS funding –approximately $12 million — over the last 16 years went to the Centre. “They’re one of the best intelligent systems teams in the entire world, and they’re going to be looking at a decrease in funding.”

McGill unveiled Monday a Precarn-sponsored video kiosk that will showcase ongoing robotics research projects, via news and real-time video feeds. Two of the projects are indeed cutting-edge — one (conducted with CAE, Simon Fraser University [SFU], Actenum, and the Ottawa Paramedic Service) will use sensors, artificial intelligence, and GPS technologies to create an ultra-efficient ambulance dispatch system, while the other seeks to allow visually impaired people to be able to “feel” text, Braille-style, on computers and mobile devices.

Frank Ferrie, a computer and electrical engineering professor at McGill, is a member of McGill’s Polyguard research team, which primarily covers the sensor research (Actenum and SFU cover the AI portions, while CAE handles the hardware side). “Polyguard is meant to provide a dispatcher with optimal placement and scheduling for a fleet of ambulances,” he said. The technology would be in the hands of a dispatcher, who would receive “recommendations” from the dispatch system. The system would receive information from traffic cameras and GPS installed in the ambulances. “This would give the dispatcher efficient reasoning about it in real time, rather than the poor human being clobbered with information they need to sort out, which can be life-threatening when they can’t get a team there in time.”

The intelligent system, composed of an aggregate of sophisticated computers, would be, according to Ferrie, an ace at mastering “information overload” that would swamp a person; it could parse out many complex things at once, including traffic flow, which teams need to be rotated out, and roadwork. “Getting the computer to (be able to take in the information and do the reasoning) will be the challenge,” said Ferrie, who believes that this combination makes their project unique. He estimates that the team should have a working prototype in 18 months.

Eighteen months is a drop in the well when it comes to the timeframe of McGill’s other Precarn-funded project, Haptics-Hi-Vec-they don’t expect to see a usable consumer version for at least five to 10 years (if that), according to PhD student and research team member Vincent Levesque. At this point, they don’t even know exactly how their invention works.

While the technology that will one day hopefully allow visually impaired people to “see” the contents of cell phone and computer screens may be in early days yet, the researchers know that it works due to an illusion. After the person would moving over a bit of text on a screen, a small set of ceramic actuators would be programmed by a computer to emit a traveling wave of lateral skin stretching that would correspond to the letter or number or symbol, which, to the person, feels like a bump, and could indicate everything from some Braille from a downloadable novel to, if installed on a wheel of a cellphone, for example, an indicator of how many calls one has missed.

Levesque said that the team has also come up with a matrix of the devices that could one day lead to a person being able to feel a larger field, tracing a diagram, chart, or image. The technology could also be used by everyone, allowing people to use their Blackberry in the dark, or in their pocket at a meeting. “It’s wherever vision is overused. We want to reintroduce touch into interfaces,” said Levesque.

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