Bob Metcalfe's 2012 Investiture Address

Professor of Innovation and Murchison Fellow of Free Enterprise in The University of Texas at Austin's Cockrell School of Engineering

June 9, 2012

Engineering Grand Challenges

Thank you. It's an honor and pleasure to be here at Thayer on this great occasion.

Now, please, will all the engineers in Spaulding Auditorium please, on count of three, identify yourselves by raising both hands and shouting "Engineers!" — 1, 2, 3, Engineers!

Bob Metcalfe Thank you. I'm an engineer, and proud of it. There's no need to tell folks at the other investitures, no need to bring it up during tomorrow morning's commencement, just between us, we engineers make the world go round. By solving the world's problems through technological innovation, we engineers energise the virtuous circle of freedom and prosperity. And so I say to you today, with great enthusiasm: Hurray for us! Now let's commence!


Speaking of commencements, I love them — am attending four this Spring.

Because: we get what we celebrate.

The world needs to celebrate engineers. It's a good thing y'all are here today. Remember this day for the rest of your lives, especially the wisdoms of your commencement speakers.

Before getting to the meat, I'd like to run through a list of wisdoms often shared at commencements, because they bear repeating. But wait, there's more. My list includes the secret of happiness, at no extra charge.

Commencements are great occasions, but like weddings and funerals, they are not entirely to gratify the putative guests of honor. If you've ever been to a wedding, I've been to many, including Robyn's and mine 32 years ago; weddings are not really to gratify the bride and groom. They are to honor proud parents, particularly the mother of the bride.

And then funerals. Funerals are certainly not to delight the deceased.

And commencements, they're not mostly about you graduates. Commencements are to celebrate the love, dedication, and sacrifice of those who got you here. Your loved ones here today — you cannot thank them enough. And you must never stop trying. So, join me in a round of applause right now to thank them again. Clap!

Commencement Wisdom

Bob Metcalfe You already know that to get good at something, something that requires knowledge, skill, practice, persistent attention, and sustained effort, it has to be ... fun. It has to bring you the joy of mastery and a gratifying sense of accomplishment. Excellence has to be fun.

And while you are having fun, you'd better eat healthy, exercise regularly, get your sleep, use sunscreen, floss only the teeth you want to keep, and ... stay in school?

To end the conventional wisdoms, let me save you a lot of time and just flat out give you the secret of happiness. The secret was famously noted by Charles Kingsley in the 19th Century and painstakingly reconfirmed by me during the 20th:

All we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about.

If you find life boring, you are not paying attention. If you insist on being cynic, smarty pants, well, while cynics are often right, but they never get anything done, and they certainly are not, in my experience, happy.

What am I enthusiastic about? What makes me happy? A lot of wondrous things, but of special relevance today, engineering. It will make me happy now to share my enthusiasm, to use the remaining two hours of my talk ... to go over some of the ways, more than 14 of the ways, you can have fun in your enthusiastic engineering careers over the next 50 years.

The NAE 14 Engineering Grand Challenges

During 2007, the National Science Foundation, NSF, funded a study by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) to develop a list of what they called Engineering Grand Challenges for the 21st Century. NAE gathered 18 engineering geniuses for a year to come up with 14 Grand Challenges, all of them offering engineers much to be enthusiastic about.

I don't know why 18 geniuses came up with only 14 challenges — maybe they didn't have perfect attendance toward the end. Anyway, it's a great list for helping us explore how we are going to have fun saving the world in the coming decades. You can find all 14 Challenges elaborated in full, where else but on the Internet at ...

But here come 10 minutes of the 14 Grand Challenges, in no particular order, with a few comments that I cannot resist. It's not a perfect list, so to start revising, I'll add a 15th Challenge at the end — and not just to scare the hell out of you. In passing, as a special Investiture bonus, I'll venture to predict the next big gadget thing category. Some of you will engineer and all of us will soon be wearing ... after the iPod, iPhone, iPad ... the iWhat? Soon you'll know. Here we go:

Engineering Grand Challenge 1: Engineering The Tools Of Discovery

This Challenge starts off NAE telling NSF that science and engineering are not as separate as our university silos suggest. Scientists need engineered tools to gather new knowledge. Nobel Prizes often go to scientists with early access to the latest discovery tools, cobbled together by mere engineers. Many of the best scientists are sometimes engineers of their own tools. And vice versa, engineers need discoveries of science, sometimes their own, to solve ever harder problems.

2 and 3: Energy: Solar And Fusion

Bob Metcalfe Yes, let's solve energy, squanderably abundant cheap and clean energy.

As for solar and fusion energy, Earth is itself a huge natural nuclear fission reactor, whose thermalized radioactive decay has for five billion years kept our planet from becoming a permanent snowball. We can harvest the energy of Earth's natural fission reactor through what's called geothermal energy, or we can build artificial fission reactors, like the 104 30-year-old nukes now cleanly, cheaply, and reliably providing 20% of our electricity. It will be very interesting to watch y'all engineer safer, cleaner, non-proliferating, smaller, and cheaper fission reactors, or punt artificial fission and make geothermal work, or whatever.

Fusion energy is both a more promising, by a factor of a million, and a more difficult science and engineering challenge. Exasperatingly, a natural fusion reactor flies across the sky every day, taunting physicists everywhere. Today, we harvest fusion energy from Sol by means of fossil fuels, from agriculture, and for electricity, from solar thermal and photovoltaic panels. Harvesting Sol's radiated fusion energy, more cheaply than coal, is an ongoing challenge, which could hit paydirt this very decade. In coming decades, we'll see if we can, and decide if we should, build artificial fusion reactors on Earth.

4 and 5: Carbon And Nitrogen

We are putting too much carbon into Earth's atmosphere and taking too much nitrogen out. NAE challenges us to find ways to less expensively sequester CO2 from the atmosphere. I'd like to suggest y'all engineer ways, say by using abundant energy, to more profitably harvest CO2, which is after all, a great plant food.

6: Water

Millions of us die each year because we lack potable water. We urgently need to engineer cheaper ways to purify, desalinate, and distribute potable water. Abundant energy would help a lot in getting the clean water we so desperately need. We do have the oceans blue, covering 71% of Earth's surface at an average depth of 12,000 feet.

7: Urban Infrastructure

Humans are flocking to cities by the billions. Among our urban technologies that need improvement are those for sustaining the food chain and for transportation.

Take transportation. A million people die each year in car accidents. Would somebody from Thayer please engineer electric cars that drive themselves? I am sick and tired of buying cars and having to get a driver's license by standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles!

When I need a car, there should be an app for that.

8: Medicines

Bob Metcalfe Just as physics gave rise to electrical engineering in the last century, it's time for biology to give rise to what might be called bioengineering. And so it is, especially here at Dartmouth where y'all are actively engineering medicines.

As you well know, we are moving from what they call "drug discovery" to engineering personalized medicines that actually cure diseases. Time to move on from large-population trial-and-error drug experiments that offer only marginal improvements in suffering and life expectancy.

Modern medical research should involve as many engineers as biologists and doctors ... with a few good entrepreneurs for good measure.

But let's remember that while 30 years were added to our lifespans during the 20th century, only 5 of those 30 years were added by medical advances. The other 25 years were added by what's called "public health." Let's be sure to engineer some public health.

And let's start with today's foremost public health challenge, obesity, which is now reversing the longterm upward trend in life expectancy.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

We do seem to be closing in on various forms of immortality, which is controversial, but choosing to be immortal or not strikes me as a nice problem to have.

9: Reverse Engineering The Brain

We have three great reasons to figure out how the brain works: (1) for fixing the many brains that are alas broken, (2) for developing ways to make our computers more powerful by mimicking human brains, and (3) for enhancing our brains so that we can think superhumanly — I'm waiting for my Google implant. What fun it will be reverse engineering the brain, to discover what it actually means to be human. Will we transform human life this very century from carbon-based to silicon-based, or transform information technology from silicon-based to carbon-based? I can't wait to find out.

10: Health Informatics

The Internet has disrupted, in the Christensen sense, a growing series of industries, with its technologies, standards, and information infrastructure. Changed forever by the Internet, and still changing, are postal service, telegraphy, telephony, TV, books, music, shopping, photography, advertising, politics, newspapers, journalism, ... and dating. Such disruption is a good thing, unless it's happening to you. Three of the next big industries ripe for disruption are energy, education (to which I'll return), and healthcare. Let's figure out how to get healthcare on the Internet.

11 and 12: Securing Cyberspace, Nuclear Terror

Let me just say that all technologies have unintended consequences. We engineers have to remember to go back and clean up our messes. Better yet, without becoming Luddites, let's try harder to anticipate and mitigate our messes in advance.

13: Enhancing Virtual Reality

I am not sure why NAE's 18 geniuses put "enhancing virtual reality" on their list of Grand Challenges. I would rather we enhance real reality.

Which leads to my prediction of what — after the iPod, iPhone, and iPad — what the next iWhat is going to be. Well, I'm excited to tell you that, in a secret San Francisco office, I recently wore some early iWhats.

For now, I'll call them i ... i ... i ... iGlasses.

Seeing through Internet-enabled iGlasses, one could easily escape into HD virtual reality. But, I think more likely we'll enjoy enhanced real reality, seeing at night, for example, or getting timely reminders of names at parties. In a few years we'll all be wearing iGlasses in various designer colors. The interesting question is, what will be the killer app for iGlasses?

And now last, but not least, Grand Challenge #14:

14: Personalized Learning

Education is next up on the Internet's long list of disruptive innovations. I recently met the Stanford professor who put his course up on the Internet and got 100,000 people to register, of which 20,000 earned certificates of completion. That professor left Stanford to join a startup that will soon offer, as a start, all of Computer Science, to the whole world, through some variation of what we now tentatively call Internet courses.

At my alma mater, MIT, a professor put MIT's meat-and-potatoes electronic circuits course up on the Internet, free and open to all comers. He also got 100,000 students to register. MIT has now joined with Harvard in a $30M joint effort called edX to figure all this out, including eventually, I suppose, a sustainable business model.

There is a lot of engineering ahead on this innovative disruption, but our current schools, colleges, and universities, including Dartmouth, had better watch out. By just admitting selectively, building buildings, selling textbooks, giving lectures, raising tuitions, and holding commencements, our beloved universities risk ending up like Polaroid and Kodak.

Does anybody remember the instant photography giants Polaroid and Kodak? They were booming, then dominating, then irrelevant in slow motion, then all too quickly bankrupt. Why? Because they couldn't figure out how to deal with the disruption of their cameras being replaced by Internet-enabled mobile phones taking and sharing pictures without film.

Could something like that happen to MIT? Harvard, probably, but to Dartmouth?

After The Grand Challenges

Those were the National Academy's 14 Grand Challenges. You'll agree it's going to be fun meeting these challenges over your next 50 years. It will also be fun adding to this list, and finding other ways of keeping you immortals enthused for the 50 years after that, and the next 50 after that.

Just for fun, let's start revising NAE's list by adding:

Engineering Grand Challenge 15: Asteroids

Dean Joseph Helble presents the 2012 Robert Fletcher Award to Bob Metcalfe
Dean Joseph Helble presents the 2012 Robert Fletcher Award to Bob Metcalfe

Although theywere certainly before my time, some of you may remember ... dinosaurs. It was 65 million years ago that an asteroid randomly wiped out the dinosaurs. More recently, May 28 and 29, two previously unknown asteroids, affectionately known as KP24 and KT42, happened between Earth and Moon. They'll be back, at 20,000 kilometers per second.

NASA knows about thousands of asteroids large and close enough to threaten life on Earth. I'm more worried about the million asteroids NASA does not know about. If global warming has you worried, then asteroids should scare the hell out of you.

Or ... asteroids should look like the funnest engineering problem not on Earth. I think we should learn how better to detect and deflect asteroids, probably using space robots. Who wouldn't want to work on that?

Well, a startup company just formed in Seattle — backed by Internet tycoons and NASA geniuses — to engineer the mining of asteroids, which are heavy with some of our most valuable elements, ranging into trillions of dollars per asteroid. Of course capturing and mining asteroids sounds a lot harder than merely detecting and deflecting them.

The startup is called Planetary Resources and it's hiring. Wouldn't it be cool to join them? Or to at least friend them on Facebook?

Please, don't jump up and run off this second to Seattle, or anywhere else where fun engineering challenges await you. Hold on a second. You still have to get your degrees and, again and again, thank your family and friends.

But after, Big Green engineers, I urge you, enthusiastically, commence!