The future of engineering
29 October 2010
Reporter spoke to a couple of the attendees of the Ideas Lab conference to find out what they learnt and why finding time to consider the future of engineering is so important.
What is your name and what is your role at Imperial?
My name is Dr Tom Ellis, and I am a Lecturer in the Department of Bioengineering. I am also a research group leader in Imperial’s Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation
What is synthetic biology and what aspects are you working on?
Synthetic biology is the engineering of biology. It is an exciting new area of research combining science and engineering to design and build new biological functions and systems, and to understand existing biological life through its rational re-design. My group work on the foundational research required to turn molecular biology into an engineering discipline.
Why did you attend the Ideas Lab?
I was hoping to meet researchers at Imperial working outside of my field and hear other people’s views on the future priorities for engineering.
How do you envisage science in 40 years time?
I imagine that science in 40 years time will be dominated by artificial intelligence. I expect future computers will be able to make their own scientific breakthroughs and will be assisting scientists every day. Our intelligence, discovery and innovation will be augmented by computers and this bank of human and machine intelligence will be accessible to any scientist. The challenges this throws up are quite big – who should be a scientist if knowledge is shared and available to all? Who claims ownership and discovery?
How do you think synthetic biology will have developed by 2050?
I hope by then we will be treating microbial biology in the same way we treat electronic engineering: as a practice that can be conducted by individuals, companies and organisations around the world with a complete infrastructure for design, simulation and fabrication.
What do you hope your research group will have achieved?
I hope that my research is part of a much quicker way to produce new biological products. Other researchers in our field have already engineered fish that can get some of their energy from sunlight, bacteria that hunt and degrade pollutants and microbes that invade cancer tissues – there is so much potential.
What did you learn from the Ideas Lab?
I was most interested in the discussions on how predicting human behaviour could really improve life and productivity. For example we talked about the possibility of having virtual assistants that could answer emails and make purchases online in your own style by monitoring how you behave. This is probably not that far away, and would save people doing a lot of what could be called ‘chores’. At the population-scale, rather than the individual-scale, better prediction of human behaviour could help society by forecasting recessions in advance and putting actions in motion to avoid them. I was surprised by this idea because monitoring of your behaviour sounds like an intrusion of privacy, but the more we talked about it the more I realised it can be of real benefit to everyone.
Why do you think it’s important to take time out to consider the science of the future?
Funding routes and the length of PhD and postdoctoral research projects force us to think in three to five years time frames but events like these encourage us to look beyond this and think how the research we are doing now can contribute towards to much bigger developments in the future.
Find out what Dr Michael Huth thought about the Ideas Lab conference.
Read the full article on The Future of Engineering, published in Reporter 225.