What’s the best part of being an IEEE member? One could easily come up with a long list of great reasons, but perhaps topping that list is being associated with the world’s leading technical professional association. Chances are good that when the leading lights in the field of technology gather, many of them are IEEE members. At Fortune magazine’s annual Brainstorm Tech Conference, held from 21 to 23 July in Half Moon Bay, Calif., a by-invitation-only group of luminaries gathered to discuss how technology can be used to solve problems facing humanity. As expected, IEEE members—invited not because of their affiliation with IEEE but because of their standing in the world of technology—made up a significant portion of the attendees.
Rodney Brooks, professor of robotics in the electrical engineering and computer science department at MIT and chief technology officer of iRobot, maker of the Roomba autonomous vacuum cleaner; Vint Cerf, Google vice president and its chief Internet evangelist; Susan Hassler, editor in chief of IEEE Spectrum magazine; and 2007 IEEE President Leah Jamieson, dean of engineering at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind., were all featured speakers or participants in group sessions on topics such as digital security, the pros and cons of increasing reliance on computer networks, the future of computer code, designing the mobile Internet, and a session called “How Green Is Your Valley?” That session was all about making the products churned out by Silicon Valley more energy efficient and environmentally friendly.
The conference also featured concurrent “lunch labs” dedicated to technology’s role in solving such problems as the world’s dependence on fossil fuel and achieving goals such as providing adequate shelter and health care to the global population. Cerf led a session on energy, where attendees thrashed out what it would take to meet former U.S. vice president Al Gore’s challenge to satisfy 100 percent of U.S. domestic energy demand with renewable energy by 2018. Among the ideas tossed out was for a smart, optical fiber–based transmission grid, analogous to the Internet, that could handle electrical inputs from commercial solar and wind power installations as well as distributed generation from backyard wind turbines and rooftop solar panels. The grid would distribute energy across the globe and allow the world to share solar-generated electricity 24 hours a day.
Jamieson gave a talk on “Rethinking the Engineer: A Redesign for Innovation.” She delivered a prescription for avoiding what she called her greatest fear for the future—“that we will fail to reverse the stagnant and declining interest by young people in studying technical fields in the United States, so that we will not be able to attract the best, brightest, most creative, and diverse minds.” The first step, she says, is to change the perception of engineering by “weaving engineering principles such as problem solving, design, and connection to community into the [precollege] educational system, starting in kindergarten.” This, she predicted, will yield a bigger crop of high school graduates prepared to handle the rigors of a top-notch engineering education.
Jamieson also called for a redesign of engineering curricula. Instead of the current four years of engineering sciences, with “a thin cap of design sitting on top,” she wants more emphasis on internships, service to local communities and developing countries, and entrepreneurship skills.
The third change she noted is a challenge to industry: how do companies make clear the connections between the tasks performed by entry-level employees and the problems they imagined they would be solving when they enrolled in engineering school? Jamieson suggested a model made famous by Google, in which all employees get to devote at least part of their workday to ideas that require not only their technical skills but also “curiosity, blue-sky thinking, and leadership.”
iRobot’s Brooks was one of three speakers who discussed synthetic life and bioenergy, which involves building biological systems from standard, interchangeable genetic parts. IEEE Spectrum’s Susan Hassler says it was a must-see session for her, noting that the advent of synthetic biology and new biomedical applications, including robotic surgery using haptics made possible by tiny motors and sensors, was the most exciting set of advances she’d seen over the previous 12 months. When these technologies take off, the panelists explained, companies might be able to meet Vice President Gore’s challenge by creating biofuels in labs, skipping the crop-growing step. Hassler says that Brooks referred to this ability as “assembling the furniture without having to grow the tree first.”
Because synthetic genetic material is already being used to make the building blocks of computers in the lab, concerns that this technology might go awry were a topic of discussion. The speakers noted that progress has been so rapid (with undergraduates programming bacteria to behave as computational logic devices) that researchers are already setting up forums aimed at setting the ground rules for its use in research and in manufacturing.
To view highlights of the conference, visit http://www.timeinc.net/fortune/conferences/brainstormtech/tech_home.html