Science Fiction Dreams Meet Reality at NAE Frontiers of Engineering Symposium

The National Academy of Engineering brought 100 engineers from industry, universities, and federal laboratories to the Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif., this week, to meet, greet, and exchange ideas. The getting-to-know-you aspect of this annual Frontiers of Engineering Symposium was clearly a priority for the attendees, but it wouldn’t be an engineering conference without at least a few presentations to get the conversation started.

The topics of the technical sessions ranged wide, including manufacturing, biomedical engineering, building design, and machine learning. But, for me, what the sessions did best was put a definition to the amorphous phrase, “Frontier of Engineering.”

The Frontier of Engineering is where a generation’s reality slams into its science fiction icons.

Because the NAE Frontiers conferences are generation-limited—only researchers under age 45 are invited, the speakers and attendees were Generation X all—or at least most—of the way. They grew up on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," the Star Wars series, and, of course, video games of all kinds. So it was no surprise that references to all three popped up throughout the three-day conference. Just a few examples:

"Star Trek" replicator, meet additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing—aka, rapid prototyping, solid free form fabrication, and 3D printing—is here. It’s really cool, and it has endless possibilities. And it’s a lot like the "Star Trek" replicator, a device about the size of a microwave that could build spare parts, toys, uniforms, and tea—actually, recalled Hod Lipson from Cornell University, the device was used to create more cups of tea than anything else. Additive manufacturing, speakers indicated, is a lot like the replicator: It creates complex devices from a design file, on the spot. It’s now being used at Boeing to manufacture complex structures for aerospace; it’s dramatically changing surgical planning and practice and medical devices; and it’s a dream for design hobbyists who want to build their own gizmos. It also has a ways to go: One near-term goal, Lipson said, is to make an additive manufacturing system that can produce a robot, batteries included, that will walk out of the box that builds it.

Eventually, said Lipson, we will have this kind of device “printer” in every home, and we “will have a hard time explaining to our grandchildren how we lived without it.”

And, predicted Lipson, as on "Star Trek," in the home, we’ll probably use it mostly for “printing” food. In the lab, his team is printing out all sorts of shapes from dough and frying them into complex doughnuts. “We will harness America’s love for fried dough to bring them to engineering,” Lipson says.

Geordi’s VISOR, meet retinal prosthetics. On "Star Trek: The Next Generation," character Geordi La Forge was born blind, but thanks to a device that captured visible light as well as infrared and other invisible parts of the spectrum, connected to his brain through implants, he could see. We can do that, said James Weiland, from the Doheny Eye Institute at the University of Southern California. His research is building on successful designs for cochlear implants to produce retinal implants. They’re crude now, he clarified, but users can identify letters and follow lines that indicate crosswalks; future versions will increase resolution and use image processing to improve performance.

Luke Skywalker’s cybernetic hand, meet neuroprosthetics. In Star Wars: Episode V, Luke’s hand gets chopped off and is replaced by a biomechanical replica that he controls with his brain. Today, said Eric Leuthardt, from the Washington University School of Medicine, that kind of control is indeed possible; the trick is getting it to work without direct implants in the brain, or developing a type of implant that doesn’t cause scarring or inflammation, which eventually degrade the signals.

Oh, and about those video games? Right now, according to Leuthardt, people can easily play the classic video game Breakout with just their thoughts. Of course, Breakout looks incredibly simple by the standards of today's video games, but we got from there to here in 30 years or so. If neurocontrol follows the same path, he said—well, just think about it.

Follow me on Twitter @Tekla Perry.

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