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Shining a light on how industry can tackle R&D challenges

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From pharma to medical devices, Dr Liam Lewis and his team are tapping into light-based tech to help companies with different research projects.

Dr Liam Lewis is gateway manager at the Centre for Advanced Photonics and Process Analysis (CAPPA). Based at Munster Technological University in Cork, this centre conducts applied and fundamental research based around the science of light.

Lewis completed a PhD in 2008 on novel materials for LEDs at University College Cork. After a postdoc, he moved to what was then Cork Institute of Technology to work with CAPPA as a researcher.

Over the last number of years, he has moved into a business development and project management role, primarily engaging with industrial clients and developing research projects to meet their R&D challenges. He oversees approximately €6m worth of active research projects, with a significant number of these having an industrial focus.

‘Many industrial partners do not have the ability to carry out in-house R&D’
– DR LIAM LEWIS

Tell us about the research you’re currently working on.

We currently are working with over 20 companies on a variety of different research projects, using light and light-based technologies to assist in solving their R&D challenges.

The breadth of engagements includes companies in the pharmaceutical, food and beverage, and medical device thematic areas, covering a diverse range of topics such as process monitoring, product development, theoretical design and simulation and quality control. Each new challenge has allowed us to broaden and develop the skillset within the centre and in turn leads to new application spaces.

Significant emphasis on impact-based research has also assisted in forging stronger links between industry and academic partners. It has become more impactful and efficient now for companies to have collaborating partners and the variety of supports available to assist this has brought us to a new level of industrial engagement.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Many industrial partners do not have the ability to carry out in-house R&D. They strongly recognise the need to innovate in order to be more competitive and to reach broader markets, but the scale of their operations mean there is no time or experience for improvements.

By partnering with an academic research partner, the companies get access to a high level of expertise and know-how, which can help them to understand their R&D needs more completely and also develop a roadmap for innovation within the company.

Many of our engagements also allow for an education of the industrial workforce, which builds internal capability and allows ultimately for a certain level of autonomy in the internal R&D process. As a result, companies become more resilient, more informed and also more engaged in their own research capabilities.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I recall my very first day in a college lecture, which happened to be physics. The introduction the lecturer gave about science and research in general was very appealing to me.

It seemed to completely align with my own curiosities about how things work and I knew that the variation of topics and research questions that were being studied meant that this career would never be boring.

I can safely say that has held true right to this day. I hope also to instil this enthusiasm in new potential researchers. There is also a wonderful sense of satisfaction in this career. Solving problems is highly rewarding and the achievement felt when a challenge is overcome is second to none. You don’t win every challenge – but certainly more than you lose.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

Being a researcher in general can be very tough. Certainly when you struggle to solve a problem it can be a tricky time, and engaging with industrial people can be difficult if they think that you are not fully appreciating their needs and pressures. This has improved as more and more collaborations are built, but it’s still a challenge.

It’s also sometimes difficult to explain to lay people that not all research questions can be solved. Everyone may push themselves to their limits but sometimes the answers are not achievable. Overall though, these aspects are far outweighed by the other aspects of conducting research.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

Personally I think it has improved. The vast majority of researchers are very happy to talk about their research – it helps them to understand it in simple terms and highlights the value to the general public when they can speak about the research they do.

We continually encourage our own students and staff to talk about their research in both academic and public settings. We have a very strong outreach programme aimed at schools as we want to encourage the next generation of scientists to become involved.

Research can also be a long road and I think it’s important to highlight to the non-scientific community where we are heading and what we hope to achieve. Ultimately, the vast majority of research has resulted in a positive impact on humanity. We can never say enough about that.

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Graphcore launches C600 card for China amid financial woes • The Register

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British AI chip designer Graphcore has wrapped its two-year-old, second-generation Intelligence Processing Unit for China and Singapore amid recently reported financial woes.

The Bristol, UK-based startup announced on Tuesday that its Colossus Mk2 GC200 IPU will be available in the new C600 PCIe card, making the processor compatible with servers beyond the company’s pre-integrated M2000 IPU system.

The company said pre-orders are now open for the C600 card in China and Singapore, and it will be available through approved hardware partners in Graphcore-qualified systems. It didn’t say whether the card will expand to other markets.

The C600 card was designed “in response to customer demand in markets where datacenter configurations, including rack size and power delivery, vary widely,” said Chen Jin, Graphcore’s vice president and head of China engineer, in a blog post.

“This highly versatile form-factor enables Graphcore customers to tailor their system setup, including host server / chassis, to their exact requirements,” Jin added.

It’s not clear if Graphcore had to tune the C600 card to abide with the recent US export restrictions for advanced chips to China. While Graphcore is a British company, the export bans have extended to semiconductor companies far beyond American borders because the restrictions cover US manufacturing and design tools used to make most of the world’s advanced chips.

The US restrictions have prompted Graphcore’s much larger rivals to switch gears, with AMD halting sales of its MI250 GPU to China and Nvidia slowing down its A100 GPU to continue sales in the country. Biren Technology and Alibaba in China have also reportedly had to step down processing speeds for new GPUs.

Tech specs suggest it’s good enough

Graphcore’s C600 card is designed for AI inference workloads at low-precision number formats, capable of hitting up to 280 teraflops of 16-bit floating point (FP16) compute and delivering as much as 560 teraflops of 8-bit floating point (FP8) math.  

The FP8 support is new for Graphcore, as it is for the rest of the industry. Intel, Arm, and Nvidia published the specification for FP8 in September. The goal of FP8 is to create a lower precision format for neural network training and inference that optimizes memory usage and improves efficiency while providing a similar level of accuracy to 16-bit precisions.

The C600 is a PCIe Gen 4, dual-slot card with a thermal design power of 185 watts. Up to eight of the cards can fit into a single server chassis, and they communicate directly using Graphcore’s IPU-Link high-bandwidth interconnect cables. The C600’s IPU-Link bandwidth is 256GB/s [PDF].

The Mk2 IPU inside the C600 card has the same 1,472 IPU cores and 900MB of in-processor memory when the second-generation IPU was first announced in 2020.

The C600 release comes not long after multiple reports have painted a gloomy picture for Graphcore. In September, the startup said it was planning job cuts due to an “extremely challenging” macroeconomic situation. The next month, The Times reported that investors had slashed Graphcore’s valuation by $1 billion in the face of financial woes, including a terminated deal with Microsoft. ®

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200 Irish businesses are getting the chance to test-drive electric vehicles

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The Government is looking to boost the electrification of commercial fleets as part of plans to have nearly 1m EVs on Irish roads by 2030.

As part of plans to drive down emissions in Ireland, a new initiative will let businesses test out electric vehicles for free.

Fully electric cars and vans will be loaned to 200 Irish business free of charge for three months under the Government’s Commercial Fleet Trial.

The aim is to encourage businesses to make the switch to an electric vehicle and contribute to the targets of the Climate Action Plan.

Ireland is aiming to reach a 51pc reduction in emissions by 2030, setting the country on a path to net-zero emissions no later than 2050. One element of this plan is to have 945,000 electric vehicles on Irish roads by the end of this decade.

Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan, TD, said an “important component” in achieving this target is the electrification of commercial fleets.

“Businesses up and down the country are already telling us that they are keen to make the switch to more sustainable practices, but they also need to know that the switches they want to make are going to be good for their bottom line,” he added.

“The findings from this trial will give us real-world feedback and provide us with the evidence to encourage even more businesses to switch to electric.”

The trial will involve 50 fully electric vehicles – 30 passenger cars and 20 vans – while giving businesses the option to install an EV charger.

By the end of this month, 14 businesses across Dublin, Sligo, Limerick, Louth, Wexford, Cork, Waterford and Galway will have received cars to test out.

The trial will be coordinated by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland and Zero Emissions Vehicles Ireland – a new office of the Department of Transport that is tasked with supporting the switch to electric vehicles.

While the number of electric cars in Ireland is on the rise, there have been concerns about meeting the ambitious 2030 EV goal.

Ryan said this week that the Government is “on track” to deliver the 945,000 EVs target, and that it will launch a new €100m strategy next month to boost the number of charging stations installed around the country.

A study last year found that Ireland lags behind other European nations when it comes to EV charging infrastructure, which could hamper the roll-out of these vehicles.

However, the Government has been making moves to change this. It recently announced a new suite of grants and initiatives to boost Ireland’s transition to electric vehicles, and a €15m all-island investment to set up 90 rapid EV charging points across Ireland.

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Changes to online safety bill tread line between safety and appearing ‘woke’ | Internet safety

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The online safety bill is returning to parliament under the aegis of its fourth prime minister and seventh secretary of state since it was first proposed as an online harms white paper under Theresa May.

Each of those has been determined to leave their fingerprints on the legislation, which has swollen to encompass everything from age verification on pornography to criminalisation of posting falsehoods online, and Rishi Sunak and the digital and culture secretary, Michelle Donelan, are no different.

Some of the changes to the bill, which was unceremoniously pulled from the agenda in early summer as the government cleared parliamentary time to launch its own confidence motion backing Boris Johnson, are simple additions. After the law commission recommended updating legislation covering nonconsensual intimate images, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport folded the changes into the bumper bill, announcing plans to criminalise “downblousing” and the creation of pornographic “deepfakes” without the subject’s consent.

But others reflect the contentious nature of the legislation, which faces a balancing act between the government’s desire to make the UK “the safest place to be online”, and its fear of appearing overly censorious or, worse still, “woke”.

On Tuesday, Donelan triumphantly announced that the latest version of the online safety bill would be dropping efforts to regulate content deemed “legal but harmful”. Earlier drafts of the bill had hit upon a canny way to please both sides of the debate: rather than requiring social media companies to remove certain types of content outright, the bill simply requires them to declare a position on that material in their terms of service, and then enforce that position. Theoretically, a social media company could explicitly declare itself content with allowing harmful content on its platform, and receive no penalties for doing so.

But free speech groups, in and out of parliament, worried that the requirement would have a chilling effect, and social networks backed them up: few deliberately want to have harmful content on their platforms, but faced with a legal requirement to take action on it or face penalties, they could end up being forced to over-correct. For topics such as suicide or self-harm, aggressive over-moderation can cause real world harm just like lax policies can.

The push against those regulations reached its height during the Tory leadership contest, when the online safety bill was caricatured by its opponents, such as trade secretary Kemi Badenoch, as legislating for hurt feelings. And so upon its reintroduction, the “legal but harmful” provisions were stripped out, at least for content aimed at adults. And then the government went further: in an effort to burnish its free speech credentials, it added in new legal requirements forcing not over-moderation but under-moderation.

“Companies will not be able to remove or restrict legal content, or suspend or ban a user, unless the circumstances for doing this are clearly set out in their terms of service or are against the law,” DCMS announced. The rules, described as a “consumer friendly ‘triple shield’”, could prevent companies from acting rapidly to ensure the health of their platform, and leave them facing a legal risk if they take down content that they, and other users, would rather see removed.

Some of the changes to the bill are deep and technical. But others seem to be simple headline-chasing. The government has dropped the offence of “harmful communications” from the bill, after it became a lightning-rod for criticism with Badenoch and others arguing that it was “legislating for hurt feelings”.

But in order to remove the harmful communications offence, the government has also cancelled plans to strike off the two offences it was due to replace: parts of the Malicious Communications Act and the Communications Act 2003 which are far broader than the ban on harmful communications was to be. The harmful communications offence required a message cause “serious distress”; the Malicious Communications Act requires only “distress”, while the Communications Act 2003 is even softer, banning messages sent “for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety”. Those offences will now remain on the books indefinitely.

But becoming part of the psychodrama of the Conservative party is the only way legislative scrutiny can occur in this parliament. The rest of this monster bill, stretching over hundreds of pages and redefining the landscape of internet regulation for a generation, has barely been discussed in public at all. Proposals ranging from an attack on end to end encryption to the christening of a first-of-its-kind internet regulator in the shape of Ofcom are being treated as technocratic tweaks, but if they were given the time they deserved, it would be likely the legislative process would outlast a fifth prime minister as well.

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