Magazine article ASEE Prism

A New Reality for Research Universities

Magazine article ASEE Prism

A New Reality for Research Universities

Article excerpt

Toyota recently announced that it is investing $50 million to establish research centers at Stanford and MIT to work on artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous driving technology. In July, Google said it was funding a project at Carnegie Mellon to turn its campus into a living laboratory for Internet-connected sensors and gadgets. In January, Uber Technologies lured 40 researchers away from the Carnegie Mellon's National Robotics Engineering Center.

This is just the beginning. Industry is going to be poaching more and more talent from leading academic and scientific institutions because it has become a matter of survival. Change is happening so fast that businesses are not prepared for the disruption that it causes. Companies such as Toyota have been blindsided by technologies emerging from other industries and visionary firms like Google have come to realize that they can't do everything on their own.

For universities, this is good - and really bad. Like industry, they will have to adapt or perish.

The good news is that decades of investment in basic research - in fields such as computing, medicine, sensors, AI, digital manufacturing, robotics, nanomaterials, and synthetic biology - are finally paying off. Ordinarily, only a tiny proportion of basic research is turned into products. Using available data, Tom Katsouleas, provost at the University of Virginia, has estimated that there may be as little as one near-term commercialization for every $10 million invested in fundamental research. It can take many years before research discoveries are recognized for their market potential. But we are now witnessing the commercial applications of past research -and all are on exponential paths. With their convergence, amazing things are becoming possible.

When computing, telecom, and consumer electronics converge, for example, we get smartphones, smart TVs, and augmented reality systems. With computing, medicine, and sensors coming together, we have wearable medical devices such as the Apple Watch-which will transform health care. With its ResearchKit app, Apple will change the pharmaceutical industry. Uber is already disrupting the transportation industry with its GPS based cellphone apps; it now plans to replace human drivers with AI systems.

These converging technologies will cause entire industries to be wiped out and enable new trillion-dollar industries to emerge. …

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