In This Issue
Expanding Frontiers of Engineering
December 1, 2007 Volume 37 Issue 4
Volume 37, Number 4 - Winter 2007

The Expanding Frontiers of Engineering (editorial)

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Author: Julia M. Phillips

Editor’s Note

Every year, NAE sponsors a three-day U.S. Frontiers of Engineering (FOE) Symposium that brings together some 100 outstanding young engineers (ages 30 to 45) from academia, industry, and government laboratories to share ideas and learn about cutting-edge research on a wide range of engineering topics. The competitively selected, emerging engineering leaders who attend FOE symposia come from many backgrounds and have a variety of interests and talents. The symposium offers them a unique opportunity to learn about the latest research in engineering areas other than their own.

The thirteenth U.S. FOE Symposium, held September 24–26, 2007, at Microsoft Research in Redmond, Washington, encompassed five themes: engineering trustworthy computer systems; control of protein conformations; biotechnology for fuels and chemicals; modeling and simulating human behavior; and safe water technologies. Papers based on presentations from each session are included in this issue of The Bridge.

The session on the rise of intelligent software systems and machines was chaired by Annie Anton, of North Carolina State University, and John Dunigan, of Microsoft Research. The first speaker, Rebecca Wright, presented the two sides of the issue of proliferation of information about people, organizations, and their activities. The easy availability of information has led to valuable services, efficiencies, and convenience but has also raised serious concerns about privacy. Although some technological solutions are already available to mitigate the risks, this is an active area of research. Greg Morrisett, whose paper begins on p.5, outlined some common ways computers can be attacked, as well as ways of making such attacks less likely to succeed.

Diana Smetters described the challenges to developing computer-security technologies that are both usable and secure. These challenges include human limitations, such as an inability to remember more than a very small number of truly random passwords. In the final presentation in this session, Edward Felten addressed security and privacy challenges in information systems, specifically the ability to understand and access, discuss, repair, and modify commercial products after purchase. This capability poses not only engineering but also legal challenges, particularly if the product is, for example, a voting machine.

In the session on control of protein conformations, chaired by Donald Leo, of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, speakers addressed how new techniques for observing, manipulating, and controlling biological systems have led to new methods of engineering biological systems. Rama Ranganathan outlined current efforts to systematically map, and then mechanistically understand, the global architecture of amino acid interactions. If these efforts are successful, they will dramatically advance our understanding and control of proteins and their evolution. Matthew Lang, whose paper begins on p.11, described how researchers are attempting to delineate the “mechanome,” the general role of force, mechanics, and machinery in biology. Understanding the mechanome, he says, should lead to new strategies for fighting disease.

Richard Elander, of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and Vijay Singh, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, chaired the session on biotechnology for fuels and chemicals. Sanjay Malhotra, whose paper begins on p.17, opened the session by describing advances in applications of corn-based chemistry. Although the public focus has been on the drive for ethanol from corn for transportation fuel, chemicals derived from corn have many other applications, ranging from polymers to drug-delivery systems and pharmaceuticals.

In the next presentation, Bruce Dien argued that, in light of the already strong demand for corn and corn-based derivatives, biofuel production should be based on lignocellulosic feedstocks. However, he explained, making lignocellulosic ethanol cost-competitive will require a great deal of research to overcome significant barriers. Carina Alles then described the current state of sustainability assessments for quantifying the overall impacts of biofuels, a necessary prerequisite for informed debate. Science-based methods, such as life-cycle assessments for quantifying environmental impacts throughout the value chain of a biofuel, are now more widely accepted as important to decision making.

The session on modeling and simulating human behavior was chaired by Christian Lebiere, of Carnegie Mellon University, and Robert Wray, of Soar Technology. Laurent Itti’s opening presentation focused on visual cognition—an area in which human performance is generally vastly superior to computer performance. He described models of how humans and some animals notice things in a field of view. The ultimate goal of these models, which are increasingly successful at replicating actual behavior, is to integrate them with artificial-intelligence techniques. Kevin Gluck described efforts to model human performance and learning. Michael van Lent, whose paper begins on p.25, outlined his work on the development of a computational approach to incorporating cultural knowledge into models of human behavior.

The final session of the symposium on safe water technologies was chaired by Paul Westerhoff, of Arizona State University, and Carol Rego, of CDM, a consulting firm. In the first presentation, Karl Linden described the reemergence of the use of ultraviolet radiation for purifying drinking water. Amy Childress then discussed the growing challenge of desalinating water for human consumption, which is becoming increasingly important to the world population. Current methods are energy intensive and/or result in significant waste-water discharge, but new technologies promise significant improvements on both counts.
Jess Brown, whose paper begins on p.30, described biological treatments of drinking water, which have had longstanding success in some parts of the world. Although these treatments are very promising in terms of cost, effectiveness, and environmental effects, gaining widespread public acceptance for them will be a difficult challenge. Vanessa Speight concluded the session with a discussion of water-distribution systems, a behind-the-scenes, complex challenge in drinking water systems often ignored by researchers and the public.

The technical talks were followed by extensive Q&A sessions with enthusiastic participation by the audience. The program this year also featured 90-minute breakout sessions, during which attendees were divided into groups of 10 to 15 individuals who had previously indicated an interest in discussing a particular topic. The topics ranged from the societal responsibility of engineers to balancing career and personal life. The breakout sessions turned out to be highly interactive and very educational.

The dinner speaker, a traditional highlight of FOE programs, was Dr. Henrique (Rico) Malvar, managing director, Microsoft Research. He described the importance of research to the company as a whole, especially the engagement of Microsoft Research with the global science and engineering community.

The sponsors of this year’s symposium were: Air Force Office of Scientific Research; U.S. Department of Defense (Defense Research & Engineering); Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; National Science Foundation; Microsoft; and Cummins Inc.

FOE symposia are the most interdisciplinary, diverse, and stimulating gatherings I have attended. I hope the five papers included in this issue convey some of the excitement we experienced in Redmond in September. All of the presentations, summaries of the discussions, and the dinner speech will be included in the annual FOE volume published in February 2008.

About the Author:Julia M. Phillips is chair of the U.S. FOE Organizing Committee and Symposium