Arthur M. Bueche Award

2023 Arthur M. Bueche Award Acceptance Remarks

Dr. David L. Tennenhouse
2023 Arthur M. Bueche Award Winner 
Acceptance Remarks

The grand bargain is that society funds research, and our community ensures the nation’s health, prosperity, and security.

Today, the US and the world are facing new challenges, including global competition, societal challenges, and the sustainability challenges we are discussing this morning. These challenges require that we accelerate the translation of research into practice through new partnerships across the three legs of the Bueche triangle: industry, government, and academia.

That is why I have joined the NSF’s new TIP Directorate. Whatever parts of the triangle you work in, let’s live up to our end of the bargain and engineer a future in which the entire US population is healthier, more prosperous, and more secure.

I am speaking today in my personal capacity and not as a representative of the NSF — and these comments try to bring an engineer’s perspective to the grand bargain.

In terms of prosperity, engineering has been a path to upward social mobility. I am an immigrant, and I am fairly certain that a large fraction of the NAE are also immigrants or the children of immigrants. I encourage the Academy to champion the role immigrants play in our profession and as drivers of the US economy — not just the immigrants who come here with amazing educations but all of the immigrants. They enrich us through their passion, work ethic, and risk appetite — key ingredients of innovation.

If engineering continues to provide a path for immigrants and their children, they will provide a path to continued US prosperity.

Engineers take accountability for failures and strive to learn from them. We have a deep passion for getting to the bottom of how things work and how to make them better, safer, and more efficient.

Dan Goldin, who was the NASA administrator, once blurted out that NASA had scientific triumphs and engineering disasters. My first reaction was, “OMG, I need to call Bill Wulf and tell him the NAE needs a new PR team.” Then I connected Dan’s comment to the key engineering lesson I was taught: When a bridge falls down, people are killed. We are accountable.

My own field of information technology has delivered tremendous social and economic value. I am excited about the endless frontier of new technologies that we have yet to discover — but my colleagues and I need to rededicate ourselves to engineering values. For example, it’s not okay to field systems that lack privacy guard rails or systems in which the provenance of the data is unknown, in which facts can’t be distinguished from fiction, and in which our shared models of truth are compromised.

But, today, I’d like to enlist your help in making sure the US wins two critical races in which engineering values should play a larger role.

One is financial technology. Until immigrating to the US, I didn’t realize the role capital formation plays in innovation and the role innovation plays in financial markets. If we are going to continue to lead, then we must continue to have the most innovative financial system.

Today, fintech is disruptively enabling new forms of digital assets. Our fear of the unknown could cause us to reject these technologies and allow other countries to race ahead.

Instead of a crypto winter, let’s embrace fintech as a branch of engineering. Let’s figure out how these technologies work and reformulate them in ways that align with our values — and, in doing so, renew the US franchise on financial innovation.

In almost every field, AI, the combination of big datasets and neural networks, is achieving dramatically better results than classical methods.

Grounding engineering in more real-world data has to be a good thing. So, let’s be sure to win the data race. Whatever your area of specialization, please be a leader in bringing a “big data” culture to your sub-discipline — a culture that involves the collection, curation, and privacy-enhanced sharing of data at a vast scale.

I’m eager to engage in the policy discussion around AI. But, between us engineers, the real catch is that we don’t know how neural networks work.

I love the results neural nets achieve. Now that we know those results are possible, CS researchers must reinvent AI. Let’s win the race to discover approaches to AI whose inner workings are understood and that get even better results.

We also need to double down on making sure that the next generation of engineers retains a thirst to discover how things work — and don’t just blindly accept the answers AI provides. Let’s guide them to uncover new insights by fusing traditional engineering models with the new data-driven models.

Two weeks ago, Eric Schmidt suggested that AI could enable a 2x across-the-board productivity gain.

That made me wonder: How much more productive could engineers become? Why not target a 4x gain? Wouldn’t productivity be a better basis for us to compete on than sheer numbers of engineers?

With that suggestion, I’d like to thank the Bueche family, the nominators, the award committee, my colleagues and team members, and especially my amazing wife and family for this award.