The cyber-biophysical research frontier

April 16, 2015 by S. Shankar Sastry, Dean of Engineering

From Dean SastryWhat began at Berkeley Engineering in the late 1990s as a technology innovation called “smart dust” has evolved into wireless sensor networks, and now into the Internet of Things. Today, we can embed integrated sensing, computational and communications systems into physical infrastructures of all kinds, under the rubric of cyber-physical systems (CPS). These systems are commonplace in energy grids, transportation, manufacturing and water and agriculture, to name just a few domains.

We continue to break new ground at Berkeley by now taking CPS into a new domain: biological systems and indeed the human body.

We opened the Center for Neural Engineering and Prostheses in partnership with UCSF to develop technology that restores sensory, motor and cognitive functions in people disabled by injury or neurological conditions. Advances from our flexible electronics group continue apace, from a smart bandage that uses electrical currents to detect early tissue damage to a blanket that swaddles an infant in a network of lightweight coils for more comfortable MRI scanning.

Berkeley Engineering is also home to pioneering efforts to build intelligent exoskeletons that enhance strength, reduce fatigue or restore mobility, as well as the “heart on a chip” – a network of cardiac muscle cells housed in a silicone device that offers promise as a drug-screening tool.

These are just a few examples of our work at the intersection of the cyber, the physical and the biological, all aimed at helping people and society and transforming health care. Right in the middle of this intersection is our deep expertise in systems design: achieving security, privacy, usability and resilience in networks of tremendous complexity.

This emerging field of “cyber-biophysical systems” is taking off with great momentum here in the college, and we think the time is right to integrate our activities for even greater impact. For example, combining cyber-human sensing with our work in surgical robotics could lead to improved dexterity in minimally invasive surgery, pushing the envelope further in fine-tuning procedures and reducing post-op hospital stays.

To help us draw up a roadmap to guide our research, teaching and technology innovation in cyber-biophysical systems, we presented our ideas to our Engineering Advisory Board at our recent annual meeting. Our advisers offered their enthusiastic support and invaluable suggestions from a real-world perspective, noting a wealth of possibilities for clinical, commercial and social applications.

At the same time, we all agree on one thing: Ethical and privacy considerations – questions that examine technology’s human consequences – must be baked in to our thinking from day one. We see these deliberations not as constraints but as opportunities to shape solutions that truly enhance our quality of life and wellness.

I’d be interested in your own thoughts on this subject, at

S. Shankar Sastry
Dean and Carlson Professor of Engineering