Engineering in the Twenty-First Century

A question of convergence

Cherry A. Murray

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I’m a science-fiction fan.

One of my favorite authors, China Miéville, says, “Part of the appeal of the fantastic is taking ridiculous ideas very seriously and pretending they’re not absurd.” (I think that’s equally good advice for producing innovative research.) Miéville has a wild imagination and proclivity for making up new worlds and languages; one of his most thought-provoking inventions is the idea of “remaking” humans as a form of legal punishment or personal augmentation. “Remades” are bioengineered from a mix of organic and mechanical parts: legs become working steam engines, arms become nasty tentacles, divers become amphibious.

In contrast, Andrew Niccol’s movie Gattaca depicts another frightening bioengineered society, dominated by eugenics and populated with beautifully perfect citizens. In this world, experience and action mean nothing; genetics determine destiny. 

Miéville and Niccol aren’t predicting our future but exploring possibilities, engineering their brave new worlds using current societal and technological trends. Did you know that you can plug your DNA sequence into an Android app and find out whether you have the genetic predisposition for Alzheimer’s? Your future, delivered. Is it accurate? Who knows? But soon it will be. We are living science fiction.

This is where we come in. Engineers invent the future in fits and starts. They dream, tinker, design, build, test—and learn from their failures. Engineering, an incredibly creative process both practical and visionary, makes use of both science and art. Engineers play with potentials and solve problems. 

In the early days of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg has said, he was doing it just for the challenge. Even the most successful engineers must admit that happy accidents are what led to the next big thing. Think of nuclear magnetic resonance, the serendipitous Harvard discovery that led to an unexpected revolution in medical imaging, or more recently, the accidental creation at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) of black silicon, useful for enhancing light-sensing devices. 

So, as an engineering dean, how do I plan around the un-plannable? Even with the best artificial intelligence, we cannot predict the future, but we can ensure that Harvard will be part of its construction. I can stack the odds by hiring faculty members who, as laser pioneer and SEAS professor Federico Capasso puts it, “thrive on not knowing what will happen next.” I can invest my time and energy in making it easy for students and faculty to collaborate on research, break down boundaries, make happy “mistakes,” learn from them, think big, and invent new things (including companies).

Even though engineering has led to our current techno-society, I don’t think the twenty-first century will be the “century of engineering”—or of computing, biology, neuroscience, social science, or the humanities, for that matter. Rather, this century will call on all fields to address the most compelling issues on the planet—call this “convergence”—and engineering will underpin them all. (N.B. to all Harvard students and faculty: You should learn a bit of engineering!) The engineers of the future will likely be “T-shaped thinkers,” deep in one field but able to work across all fields and communicate well. 

If we can predict anything, it is that SEAS (and Harvard) will be wrestling with multifaceted global problems for decades to come. In fact, the main reason I came to Harvard was that this comprehensive research university, based in a core of liberal arts, is exactly the kind of place that can tackle the big problems.

• How do we maintain data privacy and security in our networked world?

As details of our everyday lives are increasingly absorbed by the “cloud,” privacy may seem a thing of the past—for good or ill. In April I co-hosted a symposium on genetics and privacy in the digital age. With DNA sequencing data now just one more digitized piece of personal information, some people strive to keep their genomic information private; others are eager to “donate” theirs to an open-source project and potentially help cure Parkinson’s disease or cancer. Both approaches carry risks. The symposium indicated that we will have to realign our expectations of privacy continuously as technology and social tolerances change. That will take cryptographers, programmers, engineers, ethicists, and, no doubt, lots of lawyers.

• How do we improve existing technologies and avoid further draining of natural resources?

Until someone finds a new miracle energy source, our electrical engineers are working to design computer chips that use energy far more efficiently and fuel cells that work at lower temperatures. Others are collaborating with bioengineers to create microbial fuel cells that generate enough power from dirt to charge a cell phone or to light a lamp. Materials scientists are creating nanostructured substances with novel electrical properties, pushing the development of more practical solar cells. Meanwhile, our environmental scientists are monitoring the global atmosphere to analyze the health of our planet and understand our impact on it.

Management of water will likely be the key to our future on this planet. Our environmental engineers are working with political leaders worldwide to create better systems for conserving, sanitizing, and delivering water. Other researchers are inventing sophisticated yet affordable ways to filter and carry water on a small scale, thereby empowering rural communities. In the urban environment, too, ecology, ethics, and aesthetics must coexist if our growing population is to survive. I hope a nascent collaboration between SEAS and the Graduate School of Design blossoms, creating healthier, more sustainable cities

• How can we improve technology to tackle challenging medical conditions?

When we discuss human health, living longer may be the mantra—but I think the real goal is living better. Bioengineering is ultimately about this quest. Consider the SEAS bioengineers who recently used artificial arteries and brain cells to explain how exposure to a blast wave from an improvised explosive device can cause traumatic brain injury at the cellular level. With help from the Wyss Institute, computer scientists are designing adaptive leg orthotics that could normalize the gait in children with cerebral palsy. As we gain understanding of the body as a system, we can more readily engineer solutions to keep it in shape.

• How can we contribute to the future of networks and computing?

New tools and software can help us build, manipulate, and model just about anything under the sun. Right now a team of interdisciplinary researchers is working to create a swarm of “intelligent” robotic bees that may one day pollinate flowers and engage in search-and-rescue missions. With advances in nanophotonics, silicon electronic ‘bits’ may be replaced by “qubits,” allowing us to compute using the interaction of light and matter. And in the next decades, computing will become more powerful, going to the exascale—ultrafast processing—and be truly ubiquitous, enabling us to model not only the mysteries of the brain but also the birth of galaxies, or global climate—and even making it easier to navigate our city streets, or work and shop online. 

I am convinced that we in SEAS, with help from collaborators across Harvard and around the globe, will be tackling questions like these for years to come. I think that is very fantastic indeed.


Cherry A. Murray, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is Armstrong professor of engineering and applied sciences and professor of physics.

Read more articles by: Cherry A. Murray

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