In This Issue
Winter Issue of The Bridge on Frontiers of Engineering
December 15, 2010 Volume 40 Issue 4

Engineering on the Cutting Edge

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Author: Andrew Weiner

Editor's Note

Every year the NAE U.S. Frontiers of Engineering (FOE) Symposium brings together approximately 100 outstanding engineers, ages 30 to 45, to share ideas and learn about cutting-edge engineering research. A unique feature of FOE symposia is that participants are competitively selected from a wide range of engineering disciplines for the purpose of identifying individuals who are emerging as (or already may be) engineering leaders. These young, mid-career engineers are drawn from academic, industrial, and government institutions. FOE provides a unique opportunity for them to learn about frontiers in engineering areas other than their own and to network with promising young engineers in other fields.

The sixteenth U.S. FOE Symposium was held September 23–35, 2010, at the IBM Learning Center in Armonk, New York. The meeting was organized into four sessions with the following themes: cloud computing; engineering and music; autonomous aerospace systems; and engineering inspired by biology. Seven papers based on the symposium presentations are included in this issue of The Bridge.

Computer-based simulations and applications are now considered a “third-pillar” of scientific discovery complementing the traditional pillars of theory and experimentation. The first session, chaired by Dilma Da Silva of IBM Research and Ali Butt of Virginia Tech, focused on “Cloud Computing,” a new paradigm in computing that lets users flexibly purchase resources from large-scale computing warehouses. Two papers on cloud computing are included in this issue of The Bridge.

The first paper, by Armando Fox, adjunct professor at UC-Berkeley, describes how cloud computing decouples lower level computer system details—including the need to purchase and administer one’s own supercomputer or computer cluster—from application development, thus freeing users to focus on their technical/scientific missions. Dr. Fox also provides a vision of next-generation clouds and the main approaches being investigated by computer scientists to ensure that future clouds are amen-able to wide-scale use and adaptation. 

In the second paper, “Green Clouds: The Next Frontier,” Parthasarathy Ranganathan, of Hewlett Packard Research Labs, discusses the implications for energy consumption and environmental consequences of using hundreds of thousands of computing nodes at a central location. Dr. Ranganathan provides examples of interdisciplinary research topics from building architecture to software design that have the potential to reduce the carbon footprint of the supporting cloud infrastructure.

Presentations in the second session on “Engineering and Music,” chaired by Daniel Ellis of Columbia University and Youngmoo Kim of Drexel University, focused on how modern digital technology is revolutionizing the storage, distribution, retrieval, and creation of music—from an engineering perspective and an artisitic perspective. For some, this topic may go beyond preconceived ideas about the boundaries of engineering, but participants responded enthusiastically to the presentations in this session. Many commented that they found them enjoyable, stimulating, and thought provoking.

One paper from this session, authored by Elaine Chew of the University of Southern California, is published here. Her article, “Demystifying Music and Its Performance,” describes how mathematics is being used to analyze and understand musical structure and how mathematical representations are being incorporated into visualizations for live performance. She provides several examples to give readers a sense of the richness and scope of research at the intersection of engineering and musical performance.

“Autonomous Aerospace Systems,” the third session, was chaired by Michel Ingham of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Jack Langelann of Penn State University. The presentations addressed aspects of autonomy that will change robotic systems from mechanisms that operate at the level of controlled systems that can function for a few minutes without human intervention to systems that can function autonomously for days or weeks in poorly characterized, or even unknown, environments. Examples were drawn from autonomous aeronautical and space autonomous systems.

Two papers from this session are included here. Mark Campbell, of Cornell University, describes research on probabilistic models of the environment and more efficient integration of human operators in the control/planning loop to enable deeper levels of intelligence in autonomous systems. In the second paper, Ella Atkins, University of Michigan, discusses the formidable challenges associated with the safe and efficient integration of unmanned aircraft systems into the National Airspace System and the role of automation and autonomy in the deployment of the next-generation air transportation system.

The final session, “Engineering Inspired by Biology,” was chaired by Mark Byrne of Auburn University and Babak Parviz of the University of Washington. The presentations described the many ways biology is influencing interdisciplinary cutting-edge engineering research.

In the article by Jeffrey Fisher and Mostafa Ronaghi, of Illumina, a private company in San Diego, the authors discuss the status and future outlook for genomic, or DNA sequencing, technologies. The article focuses on prospects for increasing throughput and reducing cost, which will be crucial to opening new markets and applications, ranging from diagnosis to drug development.

In the final paper, Henry Hess, of Columbia University, reviews biologically inspired engineering on the molecular scale, including the design of active nanosystems that incorporate biomolecular motors and the study of self-assembly. He describes research that builds on nanotechnology and cell biology to replicate critical cellular functions to test our understanding of biological mechanisms and components.

In addition to the presentations, the symposium included extended, lively Q&A sessions, panel discussions, and poster sessions and other activities that encourage personal discussions and networking. The dinner speaker this year, a traditional highlight of FOE programs, was Dr. Bernard Meyerson, IBM Fellow, IBM Vice President for Innovation, and a pioneer and leader in high-performance semiconductor technologies. In his inspiring talk, “Radical Innovation to Create a Smarter Planet,” Dr. Meyerson described innovation in large organizations. He provided examples of how radical innovation, integrated with radical collaboration, was enabling IBM to keep ahead while creating new opportunities for contributions to sustainability and improving people’s well-being. Dr. Meyerson was an enthusiastic presence throughout the three-day conference, and he and his IBM colleagues were generous and attentive hosts.

It has been my great privilege to serve again as chair of the Organizing Committee for the 2010 U.S. FOE Symposium. I would like to express my gratitude to Janet Hunziker, NAE Senior Program Officer, and Lance Davis, NAE Executive Officer, for their contributions to the planning and implementation of this unique meeting and to thank the sponsors of the symposium—IBM, The Grainger Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the U.S. Department of Defense (Office of the Director, Defense Research and Engineering), the National Science Foundation, Microsoft Research, and Cummins Inc.

About the Author:Andrew Weiner is Scifres Distinguished Professor at Purdue University and a member of the NAE.