Inventing the future

Berkeley Engineering keeps the focus on tomorrow

Interview by Karen Holtermann • Photos by Noah Berger

New buildings, new degree programs, new majors, new research centers and institutes, new curricula and entirely new areas of technology — Berkeley Engineering has been in a constant state of innovation over the last decade. Overseeing it is Berkeley’s Dean of Engineering, Shankar Sastry. Dean Sastry, however, is not one for retrospectives. He sat down with Berkeley Engineer to talk about Berkeley’s role in inventing the future.

What excites you most about what engineers will achieve in the next 25 years?

Engineering has been a catalyst of change in society for several hundreds of years, at least from the time of the industrial revolution. Each revolution has substantially changed how we live. Now there is a noted acceleration in the pace of technological change, coupled with business change, coupled with social change. It is increasingly important for engineers to shape the future.

In the past change has happened to society. We should not let the future happen to us. We should make the future what we’d like it to be.

So engineers will have a greater role in managing the change they create?

In some instances technology caused social disruption, and it took sometimes hundreds of years to settle down. In the 1970s, sociologists speculated about how information technology would change the world. Now there is the Internet of Things [IoT], data analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence — and new business models emerging from this.

Technology is changing how we live. It’s changing how we work. It’s changing the nature of companies that are being produced. We are thinking about what jobs will be like — people talk about the gig economy where people work flexible hours. I think it’s better that this all doesn’t happen unchecked. To a large extent, engineers and technologists are creating these instruments of big social change, and we have a duty to address how we integrate them into designing a better world as we go forward. We have to think about how we integrate emerging technologies, but also about the value frameworks that go into how we apply them.

The story of engineering has always been a social one. It has been about how to make available, for all, what is available to elites today by relentlessly driving down the cost curve. For example, the healthcare debate today is primarily about insurance models, but an underlying problem is how to help people live longer and also reduce costs as you provide new solutions. Today, every new cure is an axiom for increased cost. The ethos of engineering has a huge role in producing solutions that enable better care.

Where is the transformational potential of new technology greatest today?

First, it’s evident in the digital transformation of industry. The Germans call it Industry 4.0, integrating automation and cyber-physical systems to guide processes. Millions of sensors are embedded in value chains, be it the smart grid for the delivery of energy, water networks, telecommunications networks. Across industries, leaders are mandating this kind of digital transformation, integrating AI, cloud computing, IoT.

In the energy sector, energy companies like C3 IoT are taking the data from the instrumented world, analyzing it and making available new services that could not be offered before. In transportation networks, detailed information about  how various components function helps us fundamentally re-think how services are provided; this has triggered the emergence of the sharing economy — Airbnb, Uber, Lyft. In healthcare, United Healthcare wants to use these technologies for preemptive healthcare, making better use of electronic medical records to, for example, change drug dosages before problems occur.

Farming is already a very automated sector in this country. If you listen to John Deere or Caterpillar, they know that farmers are very open to the notion of precision farming. Sensors allow farmers to monitor the level of nutrients and water in the soil on a daily basis, to truly regulate what goes in. This knowledge has huge cost benefits and reduces the effluent that pollutes our waterways. It lets us think about a world where new kinds of crops can be grown, like protein-rich plants.

And at Berkeley we have a fledgling Health@Home initiative that is addressing how to bring more of our healthcare into the home and out of the hospital. It exemplifies the use of sensitized value chains. In manufacturing you call it preemptive diagnostics — they monitor processes and send in people to fix problems before something breaks down. Health@Home is preemptive diagnostics for the human body — monitor patients in their homes and send in health providers before people fall ill.

Where do you see momentum building for other major advances?

We are looking at biological systems with a similar approach — the interaction of gene-protein networks that is much like an interaction between software and embedded hardware. What began as synthetic biology is now focused on genetic engineering, thanks to tools like CRISPR-Cas9, pioneered at Berkeley.

In materials science, Gerbrand Ceder and Kristin Persson, who joined our faculty in 2015, are national advocates for a Materials Genome Initiative. They are proposing a genomic way of thinking about evolving new materials. Computer modeling and machine-learning techniques could generate huge libraries of potential new materials, based on the successes and failures of thousands of lab experiments. The best would be synthesized and tested. We’ll be able to choose the properties we want and readily create new materials with those properties, making for a more sustainable future.

Our Berkeley engineers are also involved in neuroscience, combining robotics, AI, neuromorphic computing, brain-machine interfaces and augmented reality. A goal is to augment human cognitive capability. Of course, as I speak there are scary scenarios about bionic minds, and Hollywood has already been downloading brains on screen. But there is also a great potential for good in this.

Dean Sastry
“For Berkeley Engineering, that next step is an Institute for Inventing the Future. We’re envisioning a hub, both physical space and a collection of centers, focused on some of these areas with the most transformational potential.”
-- Dean Shankar Sastry

Why is Berkeley a great epicenter for this kind of thinking? How do we craft roadmaps to accelerate these advances?

That’s a really important question, because the agendas we are talking about are large and will span institutions and countries. However, I do think Berkeley is a place to nucleate this change. First, over the years we have built up an ecosystem with a healthy interplay of tech-push and systems-pull, of developing new technologies and integrating them into systems. Most engineering schools are disproportionately focused on tech-push. At Berkeley, for example, I see EECS, materials science and engineering and mechanical engineering as tech-push departments. IEOR and civil and environmental engineering are systems oriented, synthesizing these new technologies into systems. It’s not surprising that bioengineering straddles both — as the newest department it represents a trend toward balancing tech-push and systems development.

Second, Berkeley also has a strong commitment to serving society. We strive to think not just about what we’re developing but really what it means for society. We’ve created CITRIS [the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society]; the Blum Center for Developing Economies, focused on alleviating poverty; and Professor Alice Agogino’s launch of Development Engineering, technology for improving economic prosperity. Finally, we’ve created
institutes such as the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation, the Fung Institute for Engineering Leadership and several others that now populate our academic landscape. We’re uniquely positioned from having done these experiments. They’ve given us a taste for how we can take the next step and up the ante for new educational directions.

For Berkeley Engineering, that next step is an Institute for Inventing the Future. We’re envisioning a hub, both physical space and a collection of centers, focused on some of these areas with the most transformational potential.

What will all of this change do to jobs and the nature of work in the future?

This is societal change. It is difficult. People are worried that all these technologies will take away jobs. And not just manufacturing or mining jobs. The American Association of Economics is concerned that learning analytics will play havoc with the jobs of economists in the future. Banks have similar concerns. It is a time to be really careful.

I think we technologists tend to be blindly optimistic. Over time it’ll all work out, we think, and new jobs will be created. But the people losing jobs today are not the ones who are going to get the new jobs tomorrow. So what do we do for these people? What does retraining mean? How do we get people prepared for this new world?

Broadening our educational mission is another part of our agenda for shaping the future. We need to be more involved in continuing education. We owe it to society to provide, in a manner that is compatible with a work life, continued educational opportunities to those who need new skills.

Robots on the job, implantables for health, driverless cars — what would you say to people who fear this future?

Transparency is the best we can do. It’s important not to deny fears and anxieties but to allow people to voice them and to understand whether the concerns are real and what mitigations could be put in place. Classes, town halls, public lectures, salons — I think all of the above would help us have this open exchange with the public. This social mission of the university is something that we need to define.

How must Berkeley Engineering evolve to meet this challenge?

To start, we need to create the Institute for Inventing the Future as a catalyst for change on our own campus. What change? First, there is a need for more engineers, and we need modest growth in the College of Engineering. There is great demand, and our acceptance rates for new students are extremely low. For Berkeley students outside the college, we need to evolve the curriculum for those who have a taste for the union of technology, entrepreneurship and design. We’ve begun this work, but it needs to grow.

Second, our departments are evolving. We can no longer be rigid about who does what. For instance, a huge piece of the IoT agenda is in civil infrastructures. Transportation is suddenly ground zero for creating new business models. In fact, our Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering is evolving to play a lead in these areas, as well as in engineering systems, designing resilient communities and other areas that are key to our collective future.

Finally, we need to do more in the college to unify tech-push and systems-pull. I hope we can have more cross-department faculty appointments, more curricula that span departments. In my own field of controls, the entire curriculum is being revamped because it’s now being taught in
multiple departments, which is unnecessary. We have made our first steps in offering programs of study that combine engineering with unexpected disciplines — what I call Engineering + X or Computer Science + X. How we scale this to meet the demand is a challenge.

What will Berkeley Engineering look like in 20 years?

I’d love to see it as a place where people in the workforce can come and learn as knowledge and technology advance. I’d like us to be surrounded by concentric rings of entrepreneurial companies, even big companies, like a modern-day research park. I want us to develop better, integrated ways of engaging with clinical practice. Access to industry and medical institutions is key — these are where new solutions are tested.

And, of course, over the next decades Berkeley will just get better and better as an exceptional place for engineering education.

Case studies in forward thinking

Nine Berkeley Engineering faculty members share some of their forward-looking work and how it might impact what’s to come. Read about their visions for the future.


Reach the editors at berkeleyengineer@berkeley.edu