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Research • May 2022

Brains On Code: EU funding in the millions for pioneering research on brain activity during program comprehension

What goes on in the minds of programmers when they think about program code? Understanding this is important, because it could influence many aspects of modern software development - for example, programming education or the design of programming languages • Sven Apel, Computer Science professor at Saarland University, now receives an "Advanced Grant" from the European Research Council (ERC) for his research on this question and will be funded with about 2.5 million euros over the next five years.

"Basically, we are working on understanding the process of program comprehension," explains computer science professor Sven Apel. The EU-funded research project is about using a multimodal and interdisciplinary approach to determine, through various neurophysiological measurement methods, which mental processes take place when reading and understanding program code. This way, the project aims at understanding which key factors influence these processes and at developing a theory and models to simulate and thus optimize these comprehension processes.
In addition to Professor Sven Apel, who is receiving the EU funding, other key research partners are involved in the project: Expertise in the field of neuroscience comes from Dr. André Brechmann, who conducts research at the Leibniz Institute for Neurobiology in Magdeburg. Furthermore, Janet Siegmund, Professor of Software Engineering at Chemnitz University of Technology, is also significantly involved.
But why is such an effort put into deciphering the cognitive steps involved in program comprehension? "If we know what cognitive processes are involved, we will be a big step closer to finding answers to very fundamental questions about programming: What makes programming code easy and what makes it difficult, good and bad, comprehensible and confusing? What skills does a good programmer need? How can these skills be trained in education? And, as a result, how can we make software safer, more reliable and more efficient," explains Sven Apel.
Specifically, the research team is using multidisciplinary and multimodal methods to tackle the question: "Our approach uses methods from neurology, psychology and computer science," says Sven Apel. Using experiments that combine various imaging techniques from the neurosciences, the researchers want to investigate, for example, which brain areas are activated during program comprehension (fMRI), how strong the activation of these areas is and how quickly it occurs (EEG), and in which order the research participants read the code presented to them (eye tracking). "This way, we want to open the 'black box', which is the programmer, and gain insight into the internal, cognitive processes during program comprehension," Apel explains.
The team of researchers around Apel, Brechmann and Siegmund pioneered this experimental setup and have already used it in past, highly recognized studies. For example, the team has already been able to show that program comprehension mainly activates the language region in the brain and, contrary to expectations, not the parts of the brain responsible for logical and mathematical reasoning. "Our experimental setup has now been adopted by numerous groups around the world. With the new funding, it is possible for us to expand our leading role in this field," says Sven Apel.
Based on the results of these experiments, the researchers want to develop a "digital twin" of the program comprehension process in two steps. First, a predictive theory is to be developed that can make reliable predictions about the processes involved in program comprehension and contains verifiable assumptions. Using this theory, the scientists want to develop a "cognitive model", in which they can turn the various knobs of the comprehension process, such as program complexity or the activation of certain brain regions, in order to be able to simulate comprehension processes for questions not carried out in experiments (using the ACT-R method). Based on these findings, the researchers aim at providing answers to fundamental questions of programming methodology, language design, and programming education.
The project, entitled "Brains On Code: A Neuroscientific Foundation of Program Comprehension" is funded with an "Advanced Grant" from the European Research Council (ERC) with around 2.5 million euros over five years. ERC Advanced Grants are among the most prestigious research grants worldwide.

For the current funding period, a total of 1735 projects were submitted, of which only 253 were approved. The research project described is the seventh ERC Advanced Grant and the 30th funding award of the European Research Council that was awarded for a project at the Saarland Informatics Campus. There, Sven Apel holds the Chair of Software Engineering in the Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science at Saarland University. • 5/22

More info: ERC

Africa • Journalism • Nov 2020

APO Group's African Women in Media Award

Here is a full list of the judges of the 2020 APO Group African Woman in Media Award


Technology • Linguistics • Sep 2020

EU research funding in the millions for Saarbrücken-based computational linguist

People adapt their language to their conversation partners, for example by using technical terms. Computers, on the other hand, still find it difficult to react individually to different users • Vera Demberg wants to change that. The professor of Computer Science and Computational Linguistics at Saarland University is tackling a key issue of communication: People infer things beyond what is literally said – and everyone makes his or her own assumptions • This fact poses a major difficulty for computers. For her research project on this topic, Vera Demberg has received the prestigious ERC Starting Grant from the European Research Council, which provides 1.5 million euros over five years.

In this research project, Vera Demberg is working with computer systems that can explain or summarize content. So-called chatbots, programs that automatically ask customers about problems and offer them solutions, are an example of this.

"The goal of my research project is to ensure that systems that automatically generate language adapt to individual users in their manner of expression. In this way, I want to reduce misunderstandings and ensure that people can communicate with computers more naturally," says the Saarbrücken-based computational linguist.
Current voice-based computer systems react to a specific user only to a very limited extent, for example by recommending certain products. "People, however, adjust not only the content but also the spoken form of their statements to their counterpart, so that as much as possible of what they say is understood. This is exactly what I want to achieve for computer systems," explains Vera Demberg.

In the future, a computer system should be able to recognize whether it is, for example, talking to an expert or a layperson, and adapt the frequency of technical terms or the sentence length accordingly.
To achieve this, the researcher must first analyze how people understand language on an individual level and how this process can be modeled in a computer. "An essential component of individual language comprehension is what conclusions one draws when hearing an ambiguous statement," explains Vera Demberg. 

For example, the sentence "Today Anna arrived precisely at three o'clock" allows two different interpretations: Anna came on time (as always), or Anna came on time (as an exception). Explicitly emphasizing the word "precisely" allows both interpretations.
It is essential to model such individual conclusions, so-called inferences, in a computer so that the system can anticipate and prevent possible misunderstandings. "The project is therefore very interdisciplinary. I am working together with colleagues from computer science, language science and psycholinguistics to get to the bottom of this question," explains Demberg.
As an application for her basic research, Demberg mentions dialog- and task-oriented systems in which facts are explained and summarized or users are provided with a virtual tutor. The new technology could also be used in cars to create driver assistance systems that are able to adapt their language to the traffic situation – just like a real co-driver.
The project, titled "Individualized Interaction in Discourse (IDDISC)," is located at the Saarland Informatics Campus at Saarland University. It is funded by the European Research Council with a grant of 1.5 million Euros over five years, creating five scientific jobs. The award is already the tenth ERC Starting Grant and the 21st award of the European Research Council assigned to a project at the Saarland Informatics Campus. • 9/20


Entertainment • Australia + New Zealand • Ago 2020

Streamed Video Content Dominates Media and Entertainment Consumption in ANZ 

Video views in Q2 increased by 40% and connected TVs grew by 160% as consumption of news and entertainment content nearly doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic

Brightcove Inc published the Brightcove Q2 2020 Global Video Index Entertainment and Media Edition, which found that OTT streaming of entertainment content continued to dominate, even as governments began loosening stay-at-home restrictions. The data suggests that consumers’ media consumption habits may be permanently shifting away from linear TV, cementing streaming as the go-to choice for entertainment viewing.

Brightcove’s Q2 2020 Global Video Index analyzes hundreds of billions of recent data points from Brightcove’s customers globally to provide insights into how viewers are watching video content. The Q2 data shows that consumption of news and entertainment content nearly doubled (40%) from Q1 (23%) – a significant finding considering Q2 typically sees slower growth in video viewing compared to Q1. Looking at the first half of 2020 compared to 2019, the number of views overall is up more than 30%.

“A recent PwC report found that 69% of video users in Australia under 45 years of age say mobile is their top choice for watching streaming video. Our data also supports that fact showing that smartphones – and now and connected TVs – are driving consumers to stream more content than ever,” said Jim O’Neill, Principal Analyst and Author of Brightcove’s Global Video Index. “There’s been a shift in entertainment video consumption, and streaming will now continue to grow and serve as the entertainment medium of choice during the pandemic and beyond.”

Where consumers choose to view their content is also shifting. Connected TVs (CTVs) saw the most growth in Q2 (160% year-over-year), indicating a resurgence in larger screens as the viewing medium of choice for entertainment.

Other notable findings from the Q2 2020 Brightcove Global Video Index that are specific to Australia and New Zealand include:

“2020 has become video’s evolutionary moment, and streaming entertainment video content is one area where we will continue to see growth,” said Jeff Ray, Brightcove CEO. “The crisis has impacted people at an emotional and financial level, making the need for human connection through video content more crucial than ever. We’re seeing this play out with the rise of streaming services subscriptions, indicating that the future of entertainment consumption lies in connected and mobile devices – linear television could soon be of the past.” • 8/20


Health • Information • Ago 2020

Free-To-Air Satellite Channel to Fight Spread of COVID-19

Millions of households across Africa, Europe, and Asia-Pacific are able to access a free-to-air TV channel via SES satellites dedicated to delivering reliable, informative content about COVID-19 • The channel – Fight COVID-19 – broadcasts content that is aimed at providing underserved and rural communities with critical information about how to limit the spread of the virus.

The content is provided by trusted organisations such as UNICEF and AFP as well as global EdTech social enterprise www.Potential.com. The content aims to impartially inform TV viewers about identifying COVID-19 symptoms, the recovery process, and how to manage the effects of a global pandemic and social distancing, such as managing a household, children or mental health. SES welcomes additional content providers from international and regional organisations to contribute to the COVID-19 channel.

The channel is broadcast free-to-air from SES’s satellite fleet and is available in the following regions:

“Our lives have been disrupted by COVID-19 in the last few months, and unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Through the global reach of satellite, we are in a position to contribute our resources wisely to help provide important information to vulnerable communities,” said Steve Collar, CEO of SES. “We have been really fortunate to be able to collaborate with UNICEF, AFP and www.Potential.com who are willing to contribute their content for this good cause. Together, we hope to reach a wide group of audiences with reliable and trustworthy content and do our part in helping slow the spread of COVID-19.” • 8/20

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Imaging solutions • Dec 2020

KONICA MINOLTA signs definitive agreement to acquire SPECIM

Konica Minolta, Inc. (‘Konica Minolta’) announced that Konica Minolta Sensing Europe B.V., its wholly-owned subsidiary for the sensing business, based in the Netherlands, has entered into a definitive agreement to acquire Specim, Spectral Imaging Oy Ltd (‘Specim’)

Specim is the leading global supplier of hyperspectral imaging solutions, offering the broadest range of hyperspectral cameras, imaging spectrographs, systems, and accessories. Specim is a recognised leader and forerunner created by pioneers in the commercialisation of hyperspectral imaging and has assembled a team of the world’s leading engineers in optics, electronics, software, and machine vision.

Specim’s vision of ‘Spectral imaging made easy’ means that its customers can rely on the scalability of its technology and on increasing ease of implementation through ‘out of the box’ solutions.

The hyperspectral imaging market is at an inflection point of rapid industrial growth, enabled by the rising adoption of machine vision. More and more machine builders are embracing the benefits of upgrading from visual cameras to hyperspectral imaging, with resulting improvements in quality, productivity and efficiency for their industrial end-customers.

Specim has capitalised on this to grow its business by offering optimised solutions for machine builders as well as for its research and airborne customers.

Specim’s remarkable technological achievements and its global commercial success have so far been supported by its two Finnish investors, Nordic Option (since 2015) and Bocap (since 2017). Both investors welcome Konica Minolta as an acquirer, as this step forms part of a continuum of evolution for Specim.

In the spring of 2020, Specim’s investors and founders felt the company had reached a suitable point of maturity and opportunity, complemented by external interest, and initiated a competitive trade sale process resulting in offers from several global players.

Of these, the Board determined Konica Minolta to be the perfect home for Specim’s technology, customers and employees. This transaction will fuel Specim’s growth through deployment of its technology and capabilities to global industrial markets under the trusted brand and experienced leadership of Konica Minolta.

Upon acquisition, Specim will maintain its existing offices and facilities in Oulu. Specim was advised on this transaction by Bryan, Garnier and Co.

With a 140-year history, Konica Minolta was a pioneer of photo-films and cameras and is now a global leader in imaging, vision and colour measurement. The company has cultivated four core technology fields (imaging, materials, optics and nano-fabrication), and continues to leverage its brand and rich technological heritage to reshape its business model toward higher value, more profitable technology fields and market opportunities.

“I am proud of our founders, world class employees and management team as well as our dedicated investors, who have together brought Specim to this point of market leadership in hyperspectral imaging. Konica Minolta shares our vision and values and will greatly support our business through improved sell-through and reach to global customers markets”, said Tapio Kallonen, CEO of Specim.

Hitoshi Kamezawa, Executive Officer, General manager of Konica Minolta’s Sensing Business Unit stated, “In Specim, we saw an innovation leader with a strong commercial product-set that shows huge growth potential just as the market for hyperspectral imaging is taking off.

Specim’s products and skillsets are a good fit for our sensing business and will support Konica Minolta’s continued leadership in imaging, vision and colour measurement. Furthermore, Konica Minolta is working on addressing important social-responsibility challenges. Specim’s assets in hyperspectral imaging will significantly contribute to our growth strategy, which expands our business into the fields of safety, security, and environmental sciences. For us, this is one of the most important driving forces.” • 12/20

The transaction is subject to customary closing conditions

Information • Disinformation • Oct 2020

Hunt for fake news on mobile devices is now on duty

The #FakeHunter application of the Polish Press Agency (PAP) is now available for Android and iOS. Thanks to it, not only computer users, but also mobile device users will be able to report potentially false information

"The #FakeHunter application is a natural supplement to the tools, previously created by the Polish Press Agency, for finding false information about the coronavirus circulating on the Internet. "Thanks to this application, we will be able to reach 100 percent of network users. Our tools already work on computers and mobile devices," said Wojciech Surmacz, President of the Management Board of PAP.

In mid-April, PAP offered internet users a plug-in for the browsers to allow easy and intuitive reporting of potentially false pieces of news for verification by experts. The fakehunter.pap.pl website has also been launched, where you can read the experts' verdicts regarding the reported news. The expert opinions on the reported information are based on thorough research and both proven and reliable sources.

The project was implemented jointly with GovTech, a Polish government agency responsible for introducing new technologies in the public sector.

In July, PAP offered a new #FakeHunter Chatbot service, accessible via Facebook Messenger, which is an AI-based instrument that allows the automatic verification of the accuracy of information.

The development of these tools is a natural response to the phenomenon of the overflow of false information regarding the coronavirus pandemic. In early March, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that the COVID-19 crisis had been accompanied by a huge "infodemic," or global deluge of information. Over the following months, the phenomenon was growing stronger.

"We decided that this should be counteracted," said the president of the Polish Press Agency.

Surmacz pointed to the key nature of the social element of the #FakeHunter project by saying that internet users decide which information should be verified.

"This is what distinguishes the website launched by the Polish Press Agency from other solutions of this type. Many foreign media, such as the Agence France-Presse (AFP) or British Reuters, currently run services dealing with disinformation, but in those cases it is journalists who decide which news should be verified. User involvement in catching fake news affects the scale of the project - far more publications with potential disinformation are passed through FakeHunter's modes, then onto other fact-checking sites," he said, adding that he would like the whole project to develop in this particular direction. "To engage people to fight fake news. To catch it."

In his opinion, the PAP project "educates and teaches vigilance."

Initially, #FakeHunter focused on news related to the coronavirus pandemic. In early July, the "Finance" tab was added to the website, in the section with verified information, and now PAP is about to launch another Science and Health tab.

All the initiatives undertaken by PAP in cooperation with GovTech and other partners of this social project result from observing how much fake news from various fields results in public disinformation. There are pieces of fake news that require a lot of knowledge, so the agency is working together with groups of experts and researchers from various areas.

"Finance, medicine and telecommunication is another very sensitive area, especially in the 5G area. During the pandemic, we verified the rumour that the state intends to tax (bank - PAP) deposits. Of course, this was not true, but what if, fearing taxation, everyone started withdrawing cash from the bank at the same time? Will COVID-19 vaccinations be safe? One false piece of information is enough to cause the entire system to collapse," Surmacz said.

At the same time, he added, as intended, the PAP and GovTech project should cover all thematic areas, because fake news does not only concern pandemics, finance and medicine.

The next step is to create an English version of the website. • 10/20


Africa • Infrastructure • Ago 2020

Factors impacting the Development of Infrastructure in Africa

The world is eager to do business with Africa but finds it difficult to access African markets because of poor infrastructure

By Tonny Tugee

Without a doubt, Africa is one of the world's fastest-growing economic hubs. Crucial to this rate of development is the ability to meet the demand for key infrastructure. At the end of last year, a World Bank economic update reported that Kenya has seen its Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector grow at an average of 10.8% annually since 2016, becoming a significant source of economic development and job creation with spillover effects in almost every sector of the economy.

While this is hugely encouraging news for Kenyans, it also raises questions about the factors which might impact the ongoing positive trajectory of infrastructure development, both in Kenya and the rest of the continent.

Fixed-line networks

In 2019, Kenya invested US$59 million in the Djibouti Africa Regional Express (DARE) submarine fibre-optic cable system, which reached the shores of Mombasa during March this year. The others include SEACOM, East African Marine System (TEAMS), Eastern African Submarine Cable System (EASsy) and Lion2 systems. According to Njoroge Nani Mungai, Chairman of Kenya's Communications Authority, the investment demonstrates the government's desire to improve Kenya's position as a regional IT hub. It is also aimed at guaranteeing both companies and individuals' access to a faster, more secure, and more reliable Internet connection. Revenues generated by the digital economy should reach US$23,000 billion by 2025, thanks to investments 6.7 times higher than those in other sectors.

In addition, terrestrial fibre networks have continued to expand, offering more connectivity options and better network redundancy – great news for land-locked countries. However, according to MainOne's CEO, Funke Opeke, these remain underutilised due to high prices and a failure to establish an enabling environment.

Mobile network coverage

Telecommunications has continued to register positive growth, with increased uptake and usage of mobile phone services. High-bandwidth Internet infrastructure has become more widely available, while the rollout of 4G infrastructure by the MNOs has already led to substantial growth in subscriptions to data and Internet services. With the expansion of fibre-optic infrastructure across the country, more homes will be connected to better-quality, higher-speed broadband services, which will be extended to the rural areas.

Consequently, the increase in mobile network coverage has led to a decline in fixed-line networks related to voice calls. Alternative solutions need to be considered to ensure a stable Internet connection throughout Kenya to bridge the rural and urban digital development divide.

Poor infrastructure

The world is eager to do business with Africa but finds it difficult to access African markets because of poor infrastructure. Greater economic activity, enhanced efficiency and increased competitiveness are hampered by inadequate transport, communication, water, and power infrastructure. The World Bank economic update, mentioned earlier, highlighted challenges relating to the inadequate power supply, transport networks and communication systems as crucial to ensuring ongoing connectivity, and continental economic development. It found that the poor state of infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa reduced national economic growth by two percentage points every year and cut business productivity by as much as 40%.

It is estimated that about US$93 billion is needed annually over the next decade to overhaul sub-Saharan African infrastructure. About two-thirds or $60 billion of that is needed for entirely new infrastructure and $30 billion for the maintenance of existing infrastructure. Only about $25 billion annually is being spent on capital expenditure, leaving a substantial shortfall that must be financed.

Economic potential

The economic climate of Kenya will determine access to the tools needed to build the relevant infrastructure. According to André Pottas, Deloitte's Corporate Finance Advisory Leader for sub-Saharan Africa, this translates into exciting opportunities for global investors who need to look past the traditional Western view of Africa as a homogeneous block and undertake the detailed research required to understand the nuances and unique opportunities of each region and each individual country.

The key to unlocking Kenya

With governments across the continent committing billions of dollars to infrastructure, Africa is at the start of a 20 to 30-year infrastructure development boom. Fortunately, we have access to a global network of exports, which we need to be utilising optimally to ensure a stable infrastructure, both digital and physical.

However, in preparation for the boom, the only way for Africa's infrastructure backlogs to be cleared and to unlock connectivity and communications in Kenya is through globally competitive, growth-oriented, mobile, and digital technology businesses. It is imperative to establish partnerships with trusted private sector players who already cater to the local and international communications market with reliable connectivity solutions. • 8/20

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