EXCITE has been created with the purpose of filling an important role on the global IT research landscape, where people are trying to find solutions for current issues as well as future challenges.
EXCITE has been active since 2016 and unites 16 Estonian research teams in order to research and develop ways for developing secure and dependable IT systems and services. EXCITE operates on an activity matrix principle where common research topics that were previously operated separately by different research teams are brought together and PhD students and postdoctoral researchers are jointly supervised. TalTech, the University of Tartu and Cybernetica AS are our partner institutions. EXCITE is funded by the European Regional Development Fund.
TalTech’s Professor Maarja Kruusmaa is the person who kick-started EXCITE during its early years. TalTech’s Professor Ivo Fridolin took over her role in 2020. He begins by saying that a researcher in EXCITE is never alone. All top Estonian IT researchers can help and support them.
“We have joint PhD students across research teams in order to be better organised as well as financially supported. In a sense, researchers are required to collaborate, even if their personality traits suggest that they would be better off working quietly on their own,” says Fridolin.
Nevertheless, this is certainly not the only reason why EXCITE was created. It also provides a more constant and sustainable funding for researchers, who according to him have “crazy ideas”, which may not find immediate application. The research funding system in Estonia is extremely competitive and EXCITE provides a degree of certainty that even if a researcher and their team may not get funding during the call for proposals this year, they are not going to have to leave the university to take a different job.
EXCITE researchers utilise scientific methods in order to develop dependable and reliable ICT systems and apply them everywhere – health care, safety (hardware and work environment), environmental protection (water quality), banking and other fields.
Top research challenges
EXCITE is not only an umbrella organisation for top researchers. All researchers concerned about research and its future have gathered here. Whether it be young talent or resources – the two are clearly intertwined. Fridolin says that you might believe a top researcher can find ideas out of nowhere, but there to actually a complex causality linked to it.
“Throughout history, the brightest members of society have been excited by unexplored areas or depths that regular minds have not been able to make sense of,” says the EXCITE coordinator. “In ideal situations and during the best times, EXCITE researchers are able to work on these unexplored areas. IT is completely intertwined with all areas of life and because of that, the variety of challenges is broad and is only expanding further. It must be noted that high tech discoveries have made mankind rather powerful. So powerful in fact, that it is not the imagination of top researchers that is limiting, but rather man’s own imperfections and our ability to maintain that delicate balance between our wishes and actual possibilities.”
Complexity and intrigue work hand in hand here, but the former means time and resources. As a consequence, research is expensive, especially top research. Fridolin recalls 19 December 2018, when Estonian researchers, politicians and business organisations signed a social contract with the president as witness in which the focus was to increase public funding for research and development as well as innovation to 1% of the GDP and at least keep it at that level.
“Unfortunately, this was not carried out. The new national budget foresees an increase for research funding to 1% of the GDP, but that may no longer be sufficient anymore.”
The Estonian Employers’ Confederation annual conference entitled “Tuulelohe lend – Who are the winners in a changing world?” was held in late March 2021, and the President of Estonia as well as the Chairwoman of the Estonian Employers’ Confederation Council Kai Realo signed a contract to establish a club for innovation intensive companies. The Estonian Employers’ Confederation initiative brings together companies that invest at least 2% of their turnover into research and development. Fridolin says that this is a worthy initiative which clearly states that there is no growth in prosperity without innovation.
“Aligning the national aggregate indicator to 2% of the GDP requires an increased number of companies investing in research and development” says Fridolin.
Researchers at EXCITE (Professor M. Dumas’ research team) are developing ways for monitoring business processes in order to predict the future states of those processes, e.g. the probability that a process instance will end with an unsatisfactory result.
“Highly stressful and competitive conditions for research funding is the current reality, and it is difficult for young people to see a career as a researcher as a viable life goal. However, true innovation is based on high-level basic research and an adequate number of specialists with university degrees. Will society sense this requirement?” asks Professor Fridolin.
Top researchers are dedicating themselves to the future
It is thanks to top bioinformatics researchers (Professor J. Vilo’s research team) that we were able to monitor and represent the spread of COVID-19 so quickly and successfully. Meanwhile, we are faced with a number of other extremely important topics that humanity needs to deal with and find solutions to. If we don’t, the consequences may be fatal.
Let us start by making technology more environmentally friendly. IT has a huge part to play in this. For example, EXCITE’s research areas include simulations of energy network process optimisations, contributing to the development of innovative energy services and offering versatile products for managing energy consumption (Professors J. Raik’s and Ü. Kotta's research teams).
EXCITE’s research areas also include developing algorithms and methods that enable the use of new and reliable equipment and information sources in order to analyse the impact of floods caused by extreme climates and weather conditions on infrastructure and to assess the conditions of ecosystems (Professor M. Kruusmaa and her research team). Guidance systems have to be modelled in order to do this (Professor Ü. Kotta’s research team). Testing the hardware of IT components and systems for fail safes and reliability (Professor J. Raik) helps ensure the sustainable performance of all this equipment.
“We cannot ignore the contradictions,” Fridolin says. Extracting Bitcoins requires a colossal amount of energy – is that in accordance with the fact that about 2.2 billion people, or one in four people on our planet, do not have access to clean drinking water? Who will decide where energy is best spent and how? Is that an ICT issue?“
Complex and significant topics
The opinion of researchers in mass media regarding the COVID-19 pandemic has become an inseparable part of everyday life. Government decisions are made in collaboration with the Scientific Advisory Board. Fridolin thinks that’s wonderful. That is how it should work in an innovation-based and sustainable society. Society realises the significance that education provides in determining the future of people themselves. However, there is still a long way to go.
“Everything that may seem simple is not so in reality. We live in an extremely complicated world. The COVID-19 pandemic is great proof of this. EXCITE research teams that are working on developing new theoretical models and new algorithms prove this as well, using functional programming, transforming programs and constructing methods and modal logics computer science applications (Professor T. Uustalu’s and N.Veltri’s research teams).”
Estonia is rapidly developing its own high-speed Internet network across the country, including in sparsely populated regions. This would ensure that every Estonian resident has access to ICT services. When compared to other developed nations in the world, we are spearheading Internet connection speed and availability. A solid and high-quality data network enables remote work, homeschooling and also the simplified use of public services. Cloud computing and the Internet of things will join our everyday technological life in the future, and EXCITE researchers are heavily involved in making this happen (Professor Y. Le Moulec’s and Professor S. Srirama’s research team).
Cyber security and human health
Mass media also uses high-speed internet. The positive aspect is that people can continue working and communicating even during the restrictions brought by the state of emergency during a pandemic. However, opportunity and freedom also require responsibility.
EXCITE’s cyber security research topics dedicate their strength and knowledge to making people feel secure while they socialise in cyber space. To keep their identity and personal data free from exploitation. Developing secure e-Estonia applications (e-voting, secure data exchange protocols) is conducted by EXCITE research teams from Cybernetica AS (Professor P. Laud’s) and the University of Tartu (Professor V. Skachek’s research team).
ICT-solutions based on quantum computing will increase security in the future. These are studied by EXCITE’s top researcher D. Unruh and his research team.
ICT is one of the causes of smartphone addiction. It has been assessed that the biggest risks to our health in addition to infectious diseases (COVID-19 and influenza) and non-infectious diseases (cardiovascular, respiratory and lung diseases and cancer) are soon going to be addiction, mental disorders and related diseases, which will have a monumental psychological and economic impact. Several
EXCITE research teams are working on improving our health – both physical health (Professor A. Aabloo, Professor I. Fridolin, Professor M. Min, Professor Y. Le Moullec, Professor J. Vilo) and mental health (Professor M. Bachmann, Professor R. Vincente Zafra).
“We hope humanity has the intelligence to support their top researchers and apply their creations to the benefit of everyone” concludes Fridolin.
Estonian Centre of Excellence in ICT Research (EXCITE) webpage: www.excite.it.ee
Photos: Heiki Laan, Hendrik Osula
EXCITE is a project funded by the European Regional Development Fund.