In This Issue
Winter Bridge on Frontiers of Engineering
December 15, 2017 Volume 47 Issue 4

Editor's Note: Engineering US Competitiveness

Friday, December 15, 2017

Author: Robert D. Braun


There’s no better collection of brainpower gathered in one place each year than the US Frontiers of Engineering Symposium (US FOE). This year’s event was hosted September 25–27 by United Technologies Research Center (UTRC) in East Hartford, Connecticut. About 100 outstanding engineers under the age of 45 met for an intensive 2½-day symposium to discuss cutting-edge developments across fields of engineering.

The goal of the Frontiers symposia is to bring to-gether engineers from all disciplines and sectors—industry, academia, and federal labs—to facilitate cross--disciplinary exchange and promote the transfer of new techniques and approaches across fields in order to sustain and build US innovative capacity. Engineering, now more than ever, is critical to US leadership in the 21st century global economy, and the US FOE is a crucial part of the equation for the United States to remain at the cutting edge in technology research, development, and innovation.

The four focus areas for this year’s meeting were

  • Machines That Teach Themselves
  • Energy Strategies to Power Our Future
  • Unraveling the Complexity of the Brain
  • Megatall Buildings and Other Future Places of Work.

The meeting was introduced by C. D. Mote, Jr., president of the National Academy of Engineering, and with a welcome address by Michael McQuade, senior vice president, Science and Technology, United Technologies Corporation (UTC).

The first session, Machines That Teach Themselves, was chaired by Rajan Bhattacharyya, a senior research engineer at HRL Laboratories. Emma Brunskill (-Stanford University) kicked off the session with a talk entitled “Reinforcement Learning and Learning to Promote Learning,” followed by Suchi Saria (Johns Hopkins University), who asked, “Can Machines Spot Diseases Faster than Expert Humans?” The final talk in this session was by Jordan Boyd-Graber (University of -Maryland), on “Humans and Computers Working Together to Measure Machine Learning Interpretability.”

After the first of several breakout sessions where participants had a chance to discuss this and other topics in more depth, the US FOE hosted two government officials: Sohi Rastegar from the National Science Foundation led a discussion on finding the emerging frontiers of research and innovation, and William C. Regli from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -(DARPA) described DARPA’s disruptive way of thinking.

The second session, Energy Strategies to Power Our Future, was cochaired by Katherine Dykes (the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory) and Jeremy Munday (University of Maryland). Tim Heidel (National Rural Electric Cooperative Association) examined the nation’s power grid in a presentation on “Reenvisioning Power System Architecture.” Bouchra Bouqata (GE Renewable Energy) considered opportunities, trends, and challenges in big data -analytics as applied to wind energy.

We then broke for the evening’s keynote speech, always a highlight of the US FOE. We were lucky to hear from David E. Parekh, UTRC corporate vice president and director, who talked about navigating uncertainty in today’s world of innovation, with fascinating examples from his own career.

On the second day of the meeting, we picked up where we left off with Energy Strategies to Power Our Future. “Across Dimensions and Scales: How Imaging and Machine Learning Will Help Design Tomorrow’s Energy Conversion Devices” was the title of a talk by Mariana Bertoni (Arizona State University), and the session concluded with a presentation by Khurram Afridi (University of Colorado Boulder) on “Wireless Charging of Electric Vehicles.”

The third session, Unraveling the Complexity of the Brain, was cochaired by Xue Han of Boston University and Maryam Shanechi from the University of Southern California (USC). Ellis Meng (USC) opened with an account of “Technologies to Interface with the Brain for Recording and Modulation,” followed by Jose M. -Carmena (University of California, Berkeley), who explored “Brain-Machine Interface Paradigms for Neuroscience and Clinical Translation.” Konrad Paul Kording (University of Pennsylvania) talked about “Rethinking the Role of Machine Learning in Bio-medical Science,” and Azita Emami (-California Institute of Technology) delivered a presentation on “Efficient Feature Extraction and Classification -Methods in Neural Interfaces.”

The final day of the meeting was kicked off by Greg Hayes, UTC chair and chief executive officer. After his remarks, the session on Megatall Buildings and Other Future Places of Work was cochaired by Maria Paz Gutierrez, University of California, Berkeley, and Marija Trcka of UTC. Stephen Nichols (Otis Elevator Company) talked about the development of his industry in “Evolution of Elevators: Digital Interaction, Physical-Human Interface, Intuitive Behavior, and Megatall Buildings.” Michael H. Ramage (University of -Cambridge) described “Supertall Timber: Functional Natural Materials for High-Rise Structures.” Jenny E. Sabin (Cornell University) rounded out the session with an explanation of “Applications of Insights from Biology and Mathematics to the Design of Material Structures.”

In addition to the topics and presentations, the meeting featured lively discussions, Q&A, and networking opportunities.

As chair of the past three US FOE symposia, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the NAE staff who continuously make this program a success through their peerless dedication. Janet Hunziker, NAE senior program officer, and others went to great lengths to make our community gathering so fruitful each year. I also thank the sponsors of this year’s symposium: The Grainger Foundation, Microsoft Research, DARPA, NSF, Air Force Office of Scientific Research, DOD ASDR&E–Laboratories Office, and Cummins. Special gratitude is due to our gracious host, United Technologies Research Center, whose facilities were key to the collaborative spirit of this event.

This year’s meeting was my last as chair. It has been an honor to chair the organizing committee for the US FOE Symposia and meeting operations for the past three years. This program has meant a great deal to me since my first exposure to the NAE was through the US FOE as a young engineer in 2000. The program continues to make a positive impression on me each year. Seeing firsthand the energy, innovative spirit, collegial cooperation, and growing entrepreneurial prowess of our profession never gets old.

Looking forward, I encourage you to nominate eligible colleagues for next year’s symposium, September 5–7, 2018, to be chaired by Dr. Jennifer West of Duke University and hosted by MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Massachusetts.

About the Author:Robert D. Braun (NAE) is dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Colorado Boulder.