By Alison Abbott

The European Commission has selected six futuristic proposals to compete for two huge flagship projects that will apply information and communication technologies to social problems.

The Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Flagships aim to unite Europe's scattered academic forces around well-defined missions that feed directly into the European Union's social or political goals. "They are like 'moon-landing' projects," says Henry Markram, a neuroscientist at the EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland, and coordinator of one contender, the Human Brain Project, which aims to build a supercomputer simulation of the brain.

"Ours has brought together all of the neuroinformatics-related projects and initiatives in Europe to help address the burden on society of brain disease."

The victors, to be decided at the end of 2012, expect to receive an unprecedented level of funding for academia: €1 billion (US$1.4 billion) over ten years. That sort of EC money has normally been reserved for collaborations with industry, such as the Joint Technology Initiatives (JTIs).

From guardian angels to cuddly robots

As well as the Human Brain Project, the six shortlisted projects include Graphene, which will develop the thinnest conducting material known for data storage and processing platforms; and Guardian Angels, a project to develop nanoscale sensors and interfaces for detecting and responding to environmental danger.

The others are Robot Companions, which will develop soft-bodied 'perceptive' robots as companions for the lonely; FuturICT, for planetary-scale modeling of human activities and their impact on the environment; and ITFoM (IT Future of Medicine), which will develop ways to apply research data more efficiently in health care.

Those shortlisted were selected for the grandeur of their vision. "We can't even imagine today all the applications for Guardian Angel interfaces - they could even respond to changes in emotional states of people," says Adrian Ionescu of the EPFL, who leads the Guardian Angels project. The EPFL is one of the two sites of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH).

Each project involves a large consortium of scientists from all over Europe, and each will now receive €1.5 million for a one-year feasibility study.

The commission created the FET Flagships scheme because it was concerned that the academic community was missing out on the EU's large-scale technology programs. It issued a call for ideas from universities and public research institutes in late 2009 and received 21 eligible applications.

Expensive success

Switzerland, an associate member of the EU, has done surprisingly well in the competition, with the EPFL leading both the Human Brain Project and Guardian Angels, and the ETH in Zurich co-leading Futur ICT with University College London. "We are proud," says Paul Herrling, head of research at Novartis in Basel, and a member of the ETH board of directors. "We didn't engineer it, though - the applications were all bottom-up."

But there is also nervousness in some quarters, as success will be expensive. The winning projects must come up with matching funds, whose exact formula has not yet been worked out. It is also not clear whether the commission's contribution will come from the Eighth Framework Program of research which launches in 2014, or whether each project should have its own separate legal entity, like the JTIs.

The two winners will probably be selected by the EU Council of Ministers, the political body that represents member states, with input from the European Parliament.

Losing a bid need not be fatal. If Robot Companion is not selected next year, the consortium will find another way to continue, says Paolo Dario of the Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna in Pisa, who leads the project. "We have concrete ideas." Other consortia share the same sentiment.