Quaero, Europe’s Answer To Google, Still Searching For Results

The French-based mega technology project shows some small signs of progress, but critics say its top-heavy, public structure stands in the way of any real innovation

PARIS - What exactly is Quaero searching for? It's a 200-million-euro question, in light of the huge investment in this research program, which was selected by the Agency for Industrial Innovation and launched by then-French President Jacques Chirac. Since its birth in 2006, Quaero has been called the ‘European anti-Google" and has been the source of repeated criticisms: it is too big, too expensive, illegitimately controlled by French industrial group Thomson -- and ultimately destined for failure.

Since its founding, Quaero's German industrial partners have left the venture, and Thomson has become Technicolor – and it took two years to even give a concrete existence to the project. It effectively launched in 2008, and is expected to be completed in 2013. After nearly three years, the 26 program partners maintain a low profile, no longer mention Google, and let their results speak for themselves: twenty patent applications, nearly 300 scientific publications, and a multitude of applications and software programs.

"Quaero is a research accelerator that helps to stimulate the transfer of technology to industry," says Pieter van der Linden, research director at Technicolor and coordinator of the program. Nevertheless, the precise contours of the project, which aims to be "the first European center for research and development of the automatic extraction of information, analysis, classification, and the use of multimedia and multilingual content" are difficult to identify. Even for specialists.

"Quaero brings together a team of some 30 partners, and it has been difficult to navigate, even for us," says Olivier Galibert, an engineer at the Laboratoire National d'Essais (LNE), one of the agencies responsible for assessing Quaero.

Specifically, Quaero has created a "core technology cluster" (CTC), which is led by the French government-funded National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the German RWTH Aachen research university. Nearly half of the 300 Quaero researchers and engineers work for this CTC, which is "an R&D tool shared by the entire program," explains van der Linden. Quaero is organized around five application projects that are each coordinated by industrial leaders: Jouve, France Telecom, Exalead, Yacast and Technicolor.

Exalead (owner of the search engine of the same name) is leading a project focused on the exploitation of multimedia documents. One of its primary achievements has been Voxalead, a multimedia search engine that implements Vocapia technology, which was developed by the LIMSI-CNRS Laboratory outside of Paris. Voxalead, an easy-to-use research software, uses keywords to find passages or radio news programs that correspond to any given topic.

Proponents of this tool are considering multiple applications, from the automated analysis of recorded conversations in call centers to the expansion of e-learning. "The application has already been sold to KSU University in Saudi Arabia, where all classes are videotaped and available online," says Jean-Marc Lazard, who is in charge of strategic projects at Exalead.

Measuring Speaking Time

Yacast, which specializes in audiovisual media analysis (radio music monitoring, measurement of advertising investment), has been supervising projects around the clock. One system, media monitoring social impact (MMSI) is used by Radio France to measure the speaking time of politicians. "With Quaero, we worked a lot on speaker identification, which allows us to automate this process," explains David Scravaglieri, Director of R&D at Yacast. The interface allows the company to monitor speech counts by candidate and by political party. MMSI is now also proposing to link with the blogosphere, in order to judge the effects of political discourse on blog content.

Another project concerns the personalization and interactivity of television content. One of the software platforms developed through Quaero allows users to browse an online video store that proposes selections based on their user profiles and past purchases via a gyroscopic remote control that controls a virtual environment in the home. "Imagine that you can order your evening movie while still watching the news on the big screen," explains Thierry Filoche, Project Manager at Technicolor.

"A very state-based approach"

Despite these projects, Quaero has become a punching bag for others in the high-tech industry. "Quaero is a scandal," says Jean-Pierre Gérault, President of the Richelieu Committee and CEO of I2S, which runs Polinum, a consortium for the digitization of heritage collections. "It's a good idea, but has been poorly implemented. To put a large group in charge of this kind of project is a mistake. Large companies are not inherently collaborative, and it winds up as a waste of money."

Stéphane Distinguin, the founder FaberNovel, a start-up specializing in interactive content, is also critical of Quaero: "This project started with a very state-based approach. It was very arrogant and will be costly to the (high-tech) community, especially to small projects. I imagine we will see very little from it in terms of disruptive innovation."

The specialists in charge of assessing Quaero have thus far remained calm. "It is true that the costs are high and the duration of the project is long, but this will allow it to go further" than other public research projects, maintains Olivier Galibert. In response to another recurrent criticism, the relative secrecy enshrouding the project, the Quaero team has promised to offer a detailed progress report of their latest projects this fall.

Read the original article in French

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!