Engineering the Future: The Role of AI and Biotech

Tue, March 26, 2024

Artificial intelligence and biotech are undergoing a tremendous growth period. As they converge, there is the potential for immense benefits. However, as with all new technological advancements and innovations, optimism must be tempered with a heavy dose of reality.

This was the underlying message from the panel discussion, Engineering the Future: The Role of AI and Biotech, held in person and virtually March 14, 2024. The event brought together pioneers, researchers, and thought leaders to discuss the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI) and its role in industry and the current state of biotech, including lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. The event was co-hosted by the NAE and the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Foundation and moderated by Kellee Wicker, director of the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Wilson Center, and Victoria Jaggard, health and science deputy editor at The Washington Post. 

Following are highlights of the remarks presented at the event. To view the full webcast, click here.

Opening remarks were presented by NAE President John L. Anderson followed by NAE Executive Officer Alton D. Romig, Jr.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the nation and the world, the National Academies rapidly mobilized critical expertise in the sciences, engineering, and medicine to inform our government’s response and recovery efforts with evidence-based reasoning. Our ability to facilitate collaboration across research disciplines and between the public and private sectors was unparalleled.”

John L. Anderson, president, National Academy of Engineering

The NAE’s 2700 members are among the world’s most accomplished engineers. Their breadth of knowledge and diverse perspectives reflect the vastness of engineering itself, ranging from: aerospace engineering to biomedical engineering, and electrical engineering to manufacturing and computer science. This diversity in expertise, thought and perspective enables the NAE to tackle the great challenges that lay before us. These include climate, energy, food, health, and security—as well as emerging innovations such as artificial intelligence.

Alton D. Romig, Jr, executive officer, National Academy of Engineering 

Revolutionary AI Innovations and Their Impact 

Panel 1: Revolutionary AI Innovations and Their Impact

My view is that AI is going to have issues. I call it a friend with flaws. AI is not going to be a perfect friend. It’s going to have flaws like every technology.

Dr. Rama Chellappa, chief scientist at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Assured Autonomy and author of Can We Trust AI?

One of the remarkable things about AI is … (it’s) going to disrupt every industry. You’ve got to teach (everyone) how to use AI

Dr. Swami Sivasubramanian, vice president for Data and Machine Learning Services at Amazon Web Services  

AI has been around a long time. In the three years I flew fighters, on average, about one person a month died because of the struggle between humans trying to understand the autonomous systems that were underpinning the aircraft.

Dr. Missy Cummings, professor and director of the George Mason University Autonomy and Robotics Center and one of the first female fighter pilots in the nation 

The Evolution of Biotechnology: Lessons Learned from a Global Pandemic 

Panel 2: The Evolution of Biotechnology: Lessons Learned from a Global Pandemic

In February 2022 we distributed 1 billion (COVID) home tests to the American population. Over the course of 2022, there were 2.5 billion. Prior to that home pregnancy tests were 8 million a year and were the most widely distributed and used rapid tests in people’s home(s). This created an entire shift — a cultural shift, a technological shift, an expectation shift — that people can get testing technologies that can help with precision medicine — personalized precision medicine in people’s homes. This was a major impact of the pandemic.

Dr. Bruce Tromberg, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering

(The) realization for many people, and particularly those in government, of how vulnerable our supply chain is for every product, not just for vaccines, therapeutics, and other sterile injectables and diagnostics, but for every commodity that people utilize, and then also the limited capacity globally for manufacturing.

Dr. Gary Disbrow, deputy assistant secretary and director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority  

 From the academic research perspective … several lessons (were) learned from the pandemic and how it impacted our processes, daily life, and data access. One is interoperability, like how we can bring all these systems to interact and to exchange information in a meaningful way that can inform and get more data shared across several health care institutions and jurisdictions. The absence or lack of this interoperability hindered the efforts … of pandemic tracking.

Adil Alaoui, director of Health Information Technology and Operations at Georgetown University

Keynote speaker Dr. John Lach, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the George Washington University, cautioned that innovation should be approached by answering the question, “Progress towards what and for whom?”

According to Lach, “It is a reminder that we as a society, and certainly we as engineers, need to ask and answer that question as we work to create a better world. I can’t imagine two fields where it is more important that we ask and answer that question than in AI and in biotech.”

Finally, in the closing rapid round session facilitated by Lord John Browne of Madingley, chairman of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Foundation, venture capitalists provided an investment perspective focused on the possible impact of knowledge gained from the pandemic so that the market can sustain new and increased innovations that can improve lives with AI and biotech.

One of the things that we still struggle with is the persistence of collaboration … and also the focus on the social sciences in engineering and how important it is to build trust into the innovation process. The biggest opportunities that we see, particularly within our geographies, is to sort of bring an impact lens, or trust lens, to innovation. Rather than innovation for innovation’s sake, really looking at the ‘for whom.’ 

One of the things that the pandemic taught us is that we do have wonderful technologies at our fingertips today. And the real opportunity — and we see this in investing in companies at their earliest stages — is to build trust, to build governance from day one. Trust by design.

Saul Klein, co-founder and managing partner at Phoenix Court  

Finding ways to include the voices of everybody who will end up using this technology and being affected by it is, I think, critical. To build companies of real scale, you also have to build responsible companies.

Suranga Chandratillake, general partner at Balderton Capital  

The full webcast is available here