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John Harvard's Journal

Science Surges

November-December 2022

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan at Kempner Institute debut

At the Kempner debut, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan extolled cooperation among the disciplines.

Photograph by John Deputy


At the Kempner debut, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan extolled cooperation among the disciplines.

Photograph by John Deputy

Applied Tech 1

Harvard’s Office of Technology Development and Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have launched the Grid: a hub for funding, mentorship, and education intended to accelerate commercial development of faculty-led research. The Grid, staffed and based within the Allston Science and Engineering Complex, is a focused effort to identify commercially promising discoveries, and help with intellectual property strategy and licensing, startup formation, and fundraising—the business aspects of launching a successful venture that most bench scientists know little about. It will complement the entrepreneurial resources available as an extracurricular option to students and alumni through the iLab and related facilities. Co-curricular programs will provide interested students with the skills and knowledge to launch a startup.

The Grid, led by executive director Paul Hayre, M.B.A. ’99, is equipped to provide:

• dollar awards to support faculty-led research projects deemed close to commercial viability, but needing extra time, resources, and support to reach that point;

• dedicated workspace in the SEC adjacent to faculty labs and University shared core facilities that will help selected teams advance their work;

• on-site advisers to provide guidance on all aspects of startup formation and business development; and

• workshops, lectures by experts, and other programming that will help students, postdocs, and faculty build entrepreneurial and translational skills; expose participants to leaders from relevant fields; and engage the community of startups, industry, investors, and alumni.

The Grid does not go as far as MIT’s The Engine, a venture-funding vehicle for long-term development of high-potential, difficult technologies like nuclear fusion (Harvard has invested $25 million). But it is a closer tie to fostering faculty entrepreneurship in the physical sciences and engineering than other University efforts, giving explicit meaning to “applied sciences.”

Read a full report at harvardmag.com/grid-22

—Jonathan Shaw

Applied Tech 2

Amazon web services (AWS), the market leader in cloud computing, and Harvard have signed an agreement to underwrite research in quantum networking, a significant boost to the nascent Harvard Quantum Initiative and its new doctoral and other teaching programs (see harvardmag.com/quantum-phd-21).

The “alliance,” according to the University announcement, “provides significant funding for faculty-led research…and will build capacity for student recruitment, training, outreach, and workforce development in this key emerging technology field.” The magnitude of that funding was not disclosed, but it is clearly significant: quantum computing and networking of cloud-computing centers are of obvious technological and economic importance to AWS, other cloud companies, and their many customers. “Quantum networking is an emerging space with promise to help tackle challenges of growing importance to our world, such as secure communication and powerful quantum computing clusters,” said AWS quantum networking lead Anita Lamas-Linares in the news statement.

The three-year agreement covers faculty-led and -designed research on quantum memory, integrated photonics, and quantum materials, and will support upgrading the Center for Nanoscale Systems at Harvard—a core facility for materials fabrication, lithography, and imaging. The work is intended to advance development of a “quantum internet.” Doing so is clearly capital-intensive: the University has raised significant funding to renovate 60 Oxford Street for quantum research and education.

One assumption underlying the quantum initiative is that it can attract meaningful public and corporate support. For example, an AWS-Caltech partnership resulted in the commissioning of the AWS Center for Quantum Computing on that campus in 2021. Work at Harvard has promoted development of new hardware, software, and quantum network applications, according to Lamas-Linares, perhaps suggesting an initial phase of the new relationship in Cambridge. “These projects build upon fundamental work that has been done at Harvard labs for well over a decade…starting from theory, to experimental physics, to device engineering, to materials development,” according to a statement from Mikhail Lukin, Leverett professor of physics and HQI’s codirector.

Separately, AWS will provide an undisclosed amount of philanthropic funds to train and support graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, with a focus on “aspiring scientists and engineers from underrepresented backgrounds.”

In all, AWS’s investments seem an early endorsement of the progress that has been made, and of Harvard’s increasing capacity for quantum-scale advances in computing and communications.

—John S. Rosenberg

Intelligence, Natural and Artificial

Harvard Celebrated the launch of the Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence on September 22 with a whirlwind of performance art, presentations, and panel discussions centered on the institute’s mission: elucidating the fundamental principles that underlie human and machine intelligence. Priscilla Chan ’07 and Mark Zuckerberg ’06, LL.D. ’17 (Facebook, now Meta Platforms, cofounder, chairman, and CEO), whose Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) pledged $500 million to create the institute in December 2021, shared the reasons for their philanthropy and said they hope the new enterprise will spur cooperation among “cognitive scientists and neurobiologists who study the brain, and mathematicians, statisticians and engineers who study machine learning and AI,” in a way that hasn’t previously occurred at scale.

President Lawrence S. Bacow spoke about how far artificial intelligence (AI) has advanced since he was a freshman at MIT, and Provost Alan Garber described how students catalyze the interdisciplinary collaborations among faculty that develop the next generation of leaders in new fields. There were even prerecorded well-wishes from business leaders who have shaped the new economy—Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates ’77, LL.D. ’07; Eric Schmidt, former CEO and chairman of Google; and Andy Jassy ’90, M.B.A.’97, president and CEO of Amazon—suggesting the portent of the moment. As Jassy put it, “In the future, almost every application that any of us use will be using AI in some meaningful way.”

Moorhead professor of neurobiology Bernardo Sabatini and McKay professor of computer science and professor of statistics Sham Kakade, the institute’s co-directors, outlined its goals, which include research, with a focus on developing better algorithmic design principles; education, with the aim of training the next generation of scientists and researchers in the field; and computation. Among their goals for the next decade are to reveal some of the fundamental mechanisms of biological intelligence; and in the domain of machine learning, to overcome hurdles to the creation of systems that can learn like humans—for instance, by transferring knowledge acquired in one domain and applying it to another. For a full report on the launch symposium, see harvardmag.com/kempner-22.

—Jonathan Shaw

Concentration Churn

In light of those new programs in applied sciences, lest anyone doubt that arts and humanities are of the age that is past for today’s undergraduates, even at Fair Harvard, data from the College on concentrations in the 2011-2012 and 2021-2022 academic years tell the tale. The major humanities fields—English, classics, comparative literature, study of religion, etc.—show declines of 49 percent, 26 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent, respectively, with even greater erosion in the foreign-language programs. Engineering and applied sciences are, decisively, where the action is, with applied math, biomedical engineering, and computer science all flourishing (up 77 percent, 19 percent, and 223 percent, respectively), and allied disciplines booming as well: mathematics and statistics attracted 44 percent and 94 percent more concentrators, respectively.

There is some sloppiness in the data, as engineering degrees have been redefined, and as numbers shift year to year (especially during the pandemic), but the trend is unmistakable. The social sciences are in a middle range (economics up 7 percent, government and history down 16 percent and 19 percent), and the life sciences have generally grown some. Compared to a decade ago, College students are decisively more science- and applied science-oriented, with the change most pronounced in the latter fields. 

—John S. Rosenberg

 

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