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€2.4bn available to researchers in ERC’s largest ever grants budget

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With special allowances for researchers impacted by the pandemic, the ERC core grants will provide backing for around 1,100 proposals.

The first of the European Research Council’s (ERC) work programme 2022 grants opened yesterday (15 July) for applications from researchers working in Europe.

The details of the work programme were announced on Wednesday (14 July) and includes more than €2.4bn to fund grants for approximately 1,100 scientists and scholars in the EU and associated countries.

This is the ERC’s second work programme under Horizon Europe, which has an overall budget of €95.5bn and will run until 2027.

The ERC funding will be awarded in a series of grant competitions refereed by panels of researchers. It is intended to support projects that push the frontiers of human knowledge.

Researchers of any nationality and any scientific domain are eligible, as long as they work in Europe or are willing to move from other parts of the world to do so.

“This work programme is backed by the biggest ever annual budget for ERC grants – a powerful sign of Europe’s continuing support for frontier research,” said Mariya Gabriel, European commissioner for innovation, research, culture, education and youth.

“I am also delighted to see that most of the financial support is earmarked for grants for early and mid-career researchers. It is vital that we support this new generation of European talent.”

While the majority of grants will open in the last quarter of 2021, the synergy and proof-of-concept grant brackets opened yesterday (15 July).

All dates provided are subject to change, with the possibility of opening earlier or being delayed by a period of one month. Deadlines may also be extended by two months.

The ERC scientific council previously released a statement (21 April) relating to this work programme, saying it was “particularly concerned about the potential specific impact of the pandemic on the youngest members of the scientific community, in particular women.”

Towards this, researchers will be able to include details in their proposal explaining any gaps in their CV or track record that were caused by the pandemic.

The main ERC grants include starting grants, consolidator grants, advanced grants, and synergy grants. The number of research grants available in each category has increased from those last year due to the increased total budget.

Starting grants are for researchers who are beginning their own team or programme and will provide up to €1.5m in funds, with the potential for €1m additional funding over a period of five years.

There are 502 grants available under the scheme, with calls due to open on 23 September.

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Consolidator grants are also for researchers in the earlier stages of their career and will support principal investigators who are solidifying their research teams or programmes.

The funding here clocks in at up to €2m, with €1m available once again as additional funding over the five-year period. These grants will open slightly later on 19 October, with 388 positions on offer.

For researchers who are firmly established within their field, there is more money on the table for individual teams in the form of advanced grants. These have €2.5m available over the five years and the same €1m available in additional support.

The call for these grants will be the latest of the core group, not opening until 20 January 2022. This year’s programme will see 223 of these grants made available.

Finally, synergy grants are back on offer, after being temporarily unavailable last year due to the transition from the previous Horizon programme.

These will allow for two to four principal investigators to join forces and tackle research questions that are too large for individual teams.

The guidelines state that “transformative research funded by synergy grants should have the potential of becoming a benchmark on a global scale”, with up to €10m being granted across six years and the possibility for €4m additional funding.

The call for these is open since yesterday (15 July) and closes on 10 November. Only 33 of these group grants will be made available.

There will also be two proof-of-concept funding calls, spread across four separate deadlines. The first call is now open for €25m in grants of €150,000 each.

Then in November 2021, the ERC will open a call with €25m divided between three deadlines in February, May and September of the following year.

There are also multiple awards for public engagement with research.

The awards will recognise three ERC grantees, with a prize of €10,000 each, in the three categories: Involve for citizen science, Inspire for public outreach, and Influence for media and policy.

The competition is expected to open on 5 October 2021.

Prof Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, interim president of the ERC, commented: “I am pleased that with its 2022 work programme the ERC is again offering the full range of its grants.

“This includes synergy grants, which are especially well fitted to support interdisciplinary research, and proof of concept grants, which help ERC grantees explore the social or commercial potential of their discoveries.”

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Protecting data now as the quantum era approaches • The Register

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Analysis Startup QuSecure will this week introduce a service aimed at addressing how to safeguard cybersecurity once quantum computing renders current public key encryption technologies vulnerable.

It’s unclear when quantum computers will easily crack classical crypto – estimates range from three to five years to never – but conventional wisdom is that now’s the time to start preparing to ensure data remains encrypted.

A growing list of established vendors like IBM and Google and smaller startups – Quantum Xchange and Quantinuum, among others – have worked on this for several years. QuSecure, which is launching this week after three years in stealth mode, will offer a fully managed service approach with QuProtect, which is designed to not only secure data now against conventional threats but also against future attacks from nation-states and bad actors leveraging quantum systems.

“The current and near-term capability in quantum computing, which would allow for the decryption, is the big threat,” Mike Brown, a retired Navy rear admiral and former senior cybersecurity specialist with the Department of Defense (DoD) and Homeland Security (DHS), told The Register. “That’s what we’ve been talking about for years.”

Brown, founder and president of security consultancy Spinnaker Security, who now onsults with QuSecure and other companies, said there has been steady progress in building up the capabilities of quantum computers in the US and abroad. He points out that nation-states with a checkered history in cyberspace, such as China, are spending huge sums and mounting massive efforts to develop such systems.

Steal now, decrypt later

A key worry is what is known as “steal now, decrypt later,” QuSecure co-founder and COO Skip Sanzeri told The Register.

“This is the biggest problem, where data gets exfiltrated and it sits on servers waiting to be decrypted. If that data has 50 or 75 years of life left in its value [and] you crack it in 10 years, that’s 40 to 65 years of value. This is the problem,” Sanzeri said.

“This is why things need to happen. We’re getting a lot of inbound inquiries from both federal and commercial [entities]. We’ve got pilots going across both sides of it. People are now starting to take it seriously.”

Chinese AI

Warning: China planning to swipe a bunch of data soon so quantum computers can decrypt it later

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The Biden Administration earlier this month issued a national security memorandum to address quantum computing and security, including ordering federal agencies to begin a multi-year process of migrating computer systems to quantum-resistant cryptography.

In addition, a bipartisan bill – dubbed the Endless Frontiers Act – calls for spending $100 billion on emerging technologies, including quantum computing and artificial intelligence, to close the innovation gap with China. The bill is moving through Congress.

Another bill, the Quantum Computing Cybersecurity Preparedness Act, is also finding bipartisan support to ensure that government systems adopt post-quantum cryptography by securing systems with algorithms and encryption that will be difficult for even quantum computers to break.

The USA’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is undergoing a multi-year process of setting such standards, with the hopes of publishing those by 2024.

The promise of quantum

Quantum computers promise to solve problems that are out of reach of today’s supercomputers.

Classical computing elements are bits, which can be either 0 or 1. Quantum computing uses qubits, can be 0, 1 or any combination – what’s referred to as a superposition. The concern is quantum systems will easily be able to break encryption methods that would take the most powerful machines today years to crack.

Like other vendors, QuSecure is working to address these challenges. It’s QuProtect as-a-service architecture includes a software suite that combines zero-trust, post-quantum cryptography, quantum-strength keys and active defense. It leverages Quantum Random Number Generation (QRNG) to create truer randomness in the encryption keys, which is central to secure encryption because patterns in keys can often be detected by cryptanalysts.

The architecture also relies on a proprietary technique that enables QuSecure to get this protection out to the various endpoints, from on-premises servers and web browsers to the Internet of Things and the edge, while also ensuring the security of the networks that data traverses.

“We now have a way to create a quantum channel without putting software out on all these devices,” Sanzeri said. “This method that we’ve discovered and are using … allows us to create quantum channels rapidly between any end devices. If you think of IoT and edge, a lot of time those little sensors don’t have any storage capacity, almost no compute capacity aside from doing the one job they do. But we can still secure those.”

That said, if an enterprise or government agency needed to keep its data behind a firewall, QuSecure will manage it on-premises or in a private cloud.

QuSecure also built software interfaces, a UI and protocol switch and developed the ability to send encryption keys. It also partners with companies like Quintessence Labs and ID Quantique for QRNG.

In addition, it has what Sanzeri called “crypto agility.” The architecture is optimized for all the algorithm finalists in the NIST program, so it doesn’t matter which ones the organization eventually chooses, it will be supported by the QuSecure service.

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The telehealth revolution is here to stay – and here’s what’s coming next

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Webdoctor CEO David Crimmins offers up his insights into the growth of telehealth in Ireland and worldwide.

The pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented shift to healthcare being delivered outside of the traditional clinical settings. While businesses and industries in marketplaces across the world were forced to pivot their services or close their doors for a period of time over the last two years, the pandemic created an opportunity for the telehealth sector as patient demand for virtual healthcare soared rapidly.

Digital health offerings are not new services per se. In fact, Webdoctor was established in 2013. And whilst telemedicine was already on the rise before Covid-19, the pandemic put a magnified spotlight on the sector.

Future Human

Recent reports show the global market is projected to grow to $185.6bn by 2026, with 83pc of patients saying they expect to use telemedicine post pandemic. We’ve already seen an indication of this in the Irish marketplace with the demand for Webdoctor consultations up 226pc in 2021 compared to 2019 – the last full year before the pandemic.

This trend is backed up by another recent report, which surveyed hundreds of clinicians around the world. More than half (56pc) of doctors surveyed predicted that they will make most of their clinical decisions using artificial intelligence tools within the next 10 years.

Global trends

With the telehealth space evolving at a rapid pace both domestically and internationally, digital healthcare platforms and technologies are fast becoming much more than just a convenient alternative.

Mirroring global trends in the telehealth sector, results from the latest National Health Watch report conducted by Webdoctor illustrate that while the demand for online GP services may have increased out of necessity due to Covid 19, it is now the preferred service option for the majority.

For example, given the choice, 60pc of people would prefer to use an online GP or prescription service instead of going to an in-person consultation for general health concerns. This figure rises when it comes to specific concerns such as erectile dysfunction (85pc), hair loss (70pc) or sexual health checks (77pc).

This demand, combined with lengthy waiting times for physical in-person GP appointments, is driving mass growth for online GP and prescription services like Webdoctor and other health-tech platforms.

Telemedicine also offers employers a real opportunity to implement digital healthcare offerings as part of their employee benefits strategies. A recent study from Mercer revealed that 68pc of employers globally expect to increase their investment in digital health and wellbeing, while 40pc of employees say they would be more likely to stay with a company that offers digital health services. By looking after the wellbeing of your workforce through these benefits, you are contributing to the overall long-term success of your business.

In addition, employers in traditional healthcare businesses such as a GP practice or pharmacy, should seize the opportunity to expand and implement new telemedicine technology where possible. The sector is constantly evolving and by using digital tools to complement traditional care, it offers the opportunity to broaden their current offering, improve patient care and potentially increase profits.

Remote monitoring with wearables

So, given the swift pace of progress within the sector, what innovations are coming down the track?

Wearable technology has become a regular part of our everyday lives and is significantly changing how we collect and analyse health-related data. These devices range from smartwatches to virtual at-home health monitors such as Pulsewave, a modern alternative to the traditional arm cuff to measure blood pressure.

A key benefit of wearable sensors is that by providing real time data and enabling people to track their progress, they are encouraging patients to take a more active role in their health. This is something everyone could gain from.

As more digital healthcare platforms incorporate remote patient monitoring utilising wearable technology, it could lead to a more diverse range of results which would help create more accurate diagnoses that ultimately would result in better patient treatment and outcomes.

Increased patient autonomy

Digital healthcare platforms can give patients direct instant access to their medical records or provide them with self-tracking devices. This gives people the opportunity to take control of their health.

As the sector continues to evolve, patient autonomy is likely to continue to increase. While this is a positive outcome for patients, it will be important not to lose the personal interaction and relationship side of traditional medicine as it progresses.

Effective, integrated telehealth services are more than just GPs behind a computer screen. They essentially act as a virtual gateway to the healthcare system, providing easily accessible, affordable medical advice and a positive patient experience, which ultimately improves the patient and GP relationship.

At Webdoctor, our mantra is to “allow clinicians operate at the top of their licence” by reducing unnecessary administrative processes and freeing up their time to focus on patient outcomes. The future of this sector will see hybrid models emerge and the key to achieving success going forward for all health-tech platforms and medical practices alike will be to recognise this and integrate telemedicine into their patient’s care and journey.

What’s also evident is that there is much more growth and development still to come for the telehealth sector. We will see the continued integration of telemedicine and online GP services into everyday life.

Health professionals are excited to explore what the post-pandemic future of telehealth looks like and patients will ultimately benefit. Telehealth, with its flexibility, innovation and convenience, is most definitely here to stay.

By David Crimmins

David Crimmins is the CEO of Webdoctor, a telehealth service that has carried out over 100,000 patient consultations in Ireland.

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‘A catastrophic failure’: computer scientist Hany Farid on why violent videos circulate on the internet | Social media

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In the aftermath of yet another racially motivated shooting that was live-streamed on social media, tech companies are facing fresh questions about their ability to effectively moderate their platforms.

PaytonGendron, the 18-year-old gunman who killed 10 people in a largely Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, on Saturday, broadcasted his violent rampage on the video-game streaming service Twitch. Twitch says it took down the video stream in mere minutes, but it was still enough time for people to create edited copies of the video and share it on other platforms including Streamable, Facebook and Twitter.

So how do tech companies work to flag and take down videos of violence that have been altered and spread on other platforms in different forms – forms that may be unrecognizable from the original video in the eyes of automated systems?

On its face, the problem appears complicated. But according to Hany Farid, a professor of computer science at UC Berkeley, there is a tech solution to this uniquely tech problem. Tech companies just aren’t financially motivated to invest resources into developing it.

Farid’s work includes research into robust hashing, a tool that creates a fingerprint for videos that allows platforms to find them and their copies as soon as they are uploaded. The Guardian spoke with Farid about the wider problem of barring unwanted content from online platforms, and whether tech companies are doing enough to fix the problem.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Twitch, Facebook and YouTube did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Twitch says that it took the Buffalo shooter’s video down within minutes, but edited versions of the video still proliferated, not just on Twitch but on many other platforms. How do you stop the spread of an edited video on multiple platforms? Is there a solution?

It’s not as hard a problem as the technology sector will have you believe. There’s two things at play here. One is the live video, how quickly could and should that have been found and how we limit distribution of that material.

The core technology to stop redistribution is called “hashing” or “robust hashing” or “perceptual hashing”. The basic idea is quite simple: you have a piece of content that is not allowed on your service either because it violated terms of service, it’s illegal or for whatever reason, you reach into that content, and extract a digital signature, or a hash as it’s called.

This hash has some important properties. The first one is that it’s distinct. If I give you two different images or two different videos, they should have different signatures, a lot like human DNA. That’s actually pretty easy to do. We’ve been able to do this for a long time. The second part is that the signature should be stable even if the content is being modified, when somebody changes say the size or the color or adds text. The last thing is you should be able to extract and compare signatures very quickly.

So if we had a technology that satisfied all of those criteria, Twitch would say, we’ve identified a terror attack that’s being live-streamed. We’re going to grab that video. We’re going to extract the hash and we are going to share it with the industry. And then every time a video is uploaded with the hash, the signature is compared against this database, which is being updated almost instantaneously. And then you stop the redistribution.

How do tech companies respond right now and why isn’t it sufficient?

It’s a problem of collaboration across the industry and it’s a problem of the underlying technology. And if this was the first time it happened, I’d understand. But this is not, this is not the 10th time. It’s not the 20th time. I want to emphasize: no technology’s going to be perfect. It’s battling an inherently adversarial system. But this is not a few things slipping through the cracks. Your main artery is bursting. Blood is gushing out a few liters a second. This is not a small problem. This is a complete catastrophic failure to contain this material. And in my opinion, as it was with New Zealand and as it was the one before then, it is inexcusable from a technological standpoint.

But the companies are not motivated to fix the problem. And we should stop pretending that these are companies that give a shit about anything other than making money.

Talk me through the existing issues with the tech that they are using. Why isn’t it sufficient?

I don’t know all the tech that’s being used. But the problem is the resilience to modification. We know that our adversary – the people who want this stuff online – are making modifications to the video. They’ve been doing this with copyright infringement for decades now. People modify the video to try to bypass these hashing algorithms. So [the companies’] hashing is just not resilient enough. They haven’t learned what the adversary is doing and adapted to that. And that is something they could do, by the way. It’s what virus filters do. It’s what malware filters do. [The] technology has to constantly be updated to new threat vectors. And the tech companies are simply not doing that.

Why haven’t companies implemented better tech?

Because they’re not investing in technology that is sufficiently resilient. This is that second criterion that I described. It’s easy to have a crappy hashing algorithm that sort of works. But if somebody is clever enough, they’ll be able to work around it.

When you go on to YouTube and you click on a video and it says, sorry, this has been taken down because of copyright infringement, that’s a hashing technology. It’s called content ID. And YouTube has had this technology forever because in the US, we passed the DMCA, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that says you can’t host copyright material. And so the company has gotten really good at taking it down. For you to still see copyright material, it has to be really radically edited.

So the fact that not a small number of modifications passed through is simply because the technology’s not good enough. And here’s the thing: these are now trillion-dollar companies we are talking about collectively. How is it that their hashing technology is so bad?

These are the same companies, by the way, that know just about everything about everybody. They’re trying to have it both ways. They turn to advertisers and tell them how sophisticated their data analytics are so that they’ll pay them to deliver ads. But then when it comes to us asking them, why is this stuff on your platform still? They’re like, well, this is a really hard problem.

The Facebook files showed us that companies like Facebook profit from getting people to go down rabbit holes. But a violent video spreading on your platform is not good for business. Why isn’t that enough of a financial motivation for these companies to do better?

I would argue that it comes down to a simple financial calculation that developing technology that is this effective takes money and it takes effort. And the motivation is not going to come from a principled position. This is the one thing we should understand about Silicon Valley. They’re like every other industry. They are doing a calculation. What’s the cost of fixing it? What’s the cost of not fixing it? And it turns out that the cost of not fixing is less. And so they don’t fix it.

Why is it that you think the pressure on companies to respond to and fix this issue doesn’t last?

We move on. They get bad press for a couple of days, they get slapped around in the press and people are angry and then we move on. If there was a hundred-billion-dollar lawsuit, I think that would get their attention. But the companies have phenomenal protection from the misuse and the harm from their platforms. They have that protection here. In other parts of the world, authorities are slowly chipping away at it. The EU announced the Digital Services Act that will put a duty of care [standard on tech companies]. That will start saying, if you do not start reining in the most horrific abuses on your platform, we are going to fine you billions and billions of dollars.

[The DSA] would put pretty severe penalties for companies, up to 6% of global profits, for failure to abide by the legislation and there’s a long list of things that they have to abide by, from child safety issues to illegal material. The UK is working on its own digital safety bill that would put in place a duty of care standard that says tech companies can’t hide behind the fact that it’s a big internet, it’s really complicated and they can’t do anything about it.

And look, we know this will work. Prior to the DMCA it was a free-for-all out there with copyright material. And the companies were like, look, this is not our problem. And when they passed the DMCA, everybody developed technology to find and remove copyright material.

It sounds like the auto industry as well. We didn’t have seat belts until we created regulation that required seat belts.

That’s right. I’ll also remind you that in the 1970s there was a card called a Ford Pinto where they put the gas tank in the wrong place. If somebody would bump into you, your car would explode and everybody would die. And what did Ford do? They said, OK, look, we can recall all the cars, fix the gas tank. It’s gonna cost this amount of dollars. Or we just leave it alone, let a bunch of people die, settle the lawsuits. It’ll cost less. That’s the calculation, it’s cheaper. The reason that calculation worked is because tort reform had not actually gone through. There were caps on these lawsuits that said, even when you knowingly allow people to die because of an unsafe product, we can only sue you for so much. And we changed that and it worked: products are much, much safer. So why do we treat the offline world in a way that we don’t treat the online world?

For the first 20 years of the internet, people thought that the internet was like Las Vegas. What happens on the internet stays on the internet. It doesn’t matter. But it does. There is no online and offline world. What happens on the online world very, very much has an impact on our safety as individuals, as societies and as democracies.

There’s some conversation about duty of care in the context of section 230 here in the US – is that what you envision as one of the solutions to this?

I like the way the EU and the UK are thinking about this. We have a huge problem on Capitol Hill, which is, although everybody hates the tech sector, it’s for very different reasons. When we talk about tech reform, conservative voices say we should have less moderation because moderation is bad for conservatives. The left is saying the technology sector is an existential threat to society and democracy, which is closer to the truth.

So what that means is the regulation looks really different when you think the problem is something other than what it is. And that’s why I don’t think we’re going to get a lot of movement at the federal level. The hope is that between [regulatory moves in] Australia, the EU, UK and Canada, maybe there could be some movement that would put pressure on the tech companies to adopt some broader policies that satisfy the duty here.

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