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Yannis C. Yortsos Offers a "Big Picture of Science and Technology"

The Dean of the Viterbi School of Engineering addressed the San Marino Rotary Club September 16. Here are selections from his remarks.

September 23, 2010 —

Today, I wanted to take the opportunity to give you a big picture of technology and engineering, IMG 0617from the perspective of the dean of a leading engineering school, in today’s context of globalization and the rapidly changing economic landscape. There are three messages that I would like to articulate:

  • That engineering, as tools and devices, as methodologies and as way of thinking, has become a true enabler of other disciplines- and I firmly believe that it is the key to innovation, and therefore to economic prosperity.
  • That today’s engineering in the U.S. is not your father’s engineering- it relies more than ever before on the creation of new Intellectual Property. And the new face of engineering is not that of the Dilbert of the cartoons.
  • And, therefore, that strengthening the pipeline (from K-16) of students for STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and at all levels, from elementary to graduate school, is a national necessity.

Today, the world has been shaped in a fundamental way by the technology revolution of the several hundred years, but particularly of the last 50 years or so. Among a number of thrilling developments in recent decades I will mention two:

  • The integrated circuit (i.e. the electronic chip)- which has revolutionized the way we analyze, compute, discover, plan, design and execute. It has propelled an exponentially fast growth in practically all that we do, including the ability to create new technological off-springs smarter and faster than their parents (basically, just like in my family…). Indeed, new computing devices have only become possible because of the ability of their predecessors, which conceived them, to design at an ever accelerating pace. This process, which in a different version is roughly known as Moore’s law, is continuing today, although worrying clouds in the future appear to signal its potential ending.
  • Wireless communication- which has empowered everyone, everywhere and at any time with the possession of information, and perhaps knowledge, and certainly with access; and which has allowed everyone in the planet to participate in a global community (from social networks to global alliances).

I am proud to say that USC Engineering has played a pivotal role in both, but particularly the communications revolution. Through its Information Sciences Institute (which is located in Marina del Rey), and which was a pioneer of the Internet, way back in the late 70’s (no, the Internet was not invented by Al Gore…); and through Andy Viterbi’s algorithm, which has enabled the faithful transmission and reproduction of signals amidst the cacophony and chaos of signals everywhere in the ether.

Andy Viterbi, whose biography recently appeared in the IEEE Spectrum - a copy is at your tables - is a USC PhD in Electrical Engineering, he is the co-founder of Qualcomm, and a member of national academies, as well as the winner of the National Medal of Science. With his wife Erna, he named our school back in 2004. The famous Viterbi algorithm has allowed modern telephony, i-Phones, i-Pads, i-Pods, practically everything with an i- in front of it. The algorithm has been the key to the exploration of distant planet or the communication with implanted microscale devices, used in health diagnostics. In short, it has made possible a ubiquitous, global communication of high fidelity. We could not be more proud of our Viterbi association.

These two dramatic discoveries of the past half century have brought unprecedented (and unforeseen) advances in the lives of everyone on our planet: First, they have ushered in globalization, a different global labor distribution through new global supply chains, and dramatic sociopolitical changes, notably in the Asian continent; and of course, they have empowered unprecedented advances in a number of different fields, no less important of which is the dramatic increase in life expectancy.

Certainly, unintended consequences have accompanied these transformations. The empowerment of the individual across the globe has turned enterprise principles on their head, with bottom-up structures colliding or usurping old top-down models. Such asymmetries have led to new types of vulnerabilities- for example, cyber or other malicious attacks. The globally rising standard of living has all of a sudden raised issues of sustainability, great concerns over the use of fossil energy and the increasing strain on other resources. I will comment on these a little later in this talk.


We are now in the midst of a continuing revolution with deep technological and engineering roots that is transforming society. I like to call this engineering empowering society or engineering+™. It reflects a convergence of disciplines, stronger and faster than ever before. The fundamental underlying necessity for this convergence is the increase in complexity, experienced every day, and the unfolding of which calls for a systems approach. And “systems” is the quintessential definition of engineering.

Engineering and technology, (and I will use the former from now on to denote both together) have been and will continue to be a close partner of the natural sciences (e.g. physics, chemistry, biology, earth sciences). In fact, engineering was often called applied science. But IMG 0632(2)the boundaries between the two (science and engineering) have become blurred. The natural sciences need engineering to create better tools for the ever increasing probing of the very small, of the more complex and of the very distant. On its part, engineering grabs scientific findings to design new products or new processes. As Von Karman is attributed to have said “Scientists study the world as it is; engineers create the world that never has been.”

Engineering is also often simply summarized as: Design under Constraints. Traditionally, that design was of mechanical or electronic devices. However, new directions now include health, communications, systems of all kinds, even business models.

Nowhere is the convergence of disciplines more apparent than between engineering and medicine. Technology and engineering, in their broad sense, are at the core of new medical imaging, new surgical techniques, health informatics and the creation of new medicines. Biomedical engineering is the fastest growing branch of engineering.

The National Institutes of Health are now looking at disease, for example cancer, as a systems problem (which, as I mentioned before, is a key attribute of engineering), rather than as an isolated bio-molecular event. Indeed, the National Cancer Institute is now funding joint research between USC's medical and engineering schools to understand cancer as a system, from a joint medicine and engineering perspective. Pioneering work between the two schools has already resulted in the creation of artificial retina to restore eyesight and we are also working on devices to bypass damaged hippocampus tissue in the brain in order to restore memory. Earlier this year, we launched a new program between our two schools (THE@USC), which will jointly train medical students in a technology-bent curriculum, and engineering PhD students with clinical immersion and understanding. This program is now accepting its inaugural cohort of students to start in Fall 2011.

The intersection of engineering and the arts is another fertile ground, particularly in a place like Los Angeles, with its Hollywood legacy. It finds its manifestation in virtual reality, interactive games and other forms of entertainment, even in understanding performance and enhancing creativity. In a very different application it is also used for creating virtual learning experiences, through simulation and scenario building. Our Computer Science games program at USC is a blend of computer science and engineering, fine arts and the cinematic arts. A parallel effort at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies uses games to train the U.S. Army in the cultural understanding of the human terrain, in a war-like setting, for example Iraq or Afghanistan. One of our Computer Science faculty, Paul Debevec, won an Academy Award this past year for his work in Avatar and the Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It was the first ever for a computer scientist.

But I consider the natural sciences, medicine, and digital arts as close cousins of engineering and its natural extension. What I think is more remarkable, however, is the emerging convergence with the social sciences. A fundamental difference of such a convergence compared to the previous alliance with medicine and the natural sciences, is the preeminent role of human behavior in the social sciences. An obvious example of that enabling is financial engineering, where mathematical and computational techniques have been and continue to be used, alas in many instances incorrectly or without a deeper understanding, to model the behavior of financial markets. This disciplinary convergence involves bringing under one roof complex problems from the social sciences with engineering tools, devices, and, more importantly, engineering quantitative and mathematical methodologies.

The key issue in social sciences is the understanding of the collective behavior of large numbers of individuals. This is fundamentally a systems problem, which in the presence of today’s modern means of communication has become dynamic, complex and global. Therefore, the synergy between social sciences (from economics to communications, marketing, and policy) and engineering, if done well, carefully and with due consideration to the complexities and the particular circumstances involved, will produce powerful new results and will transform them profoundly. As an example,  DARPA, the Department of Defense's main research funding arm, is now sponsoring research in this very field of convergence, where computer science and information technology play a fundamental role in uncovering patterns in communication networks, and in providing specific solutions.


Engineering is empowering society by supplying existing, and creating new, tools, devices, IMG 0621methodologies and exporting ways of thinking, of innovating and of communicating. This interplay is not simply the export of tools or mechanistic devices, but rather the additional export of methodologies to solve problems and to design solutions under constraints, whether political, social, financial or environmental.

This empowering attribute could not be more aptly summarized but in the articulation by the National Academy of Engineering (the NAE) in February of 2008, of the so-called Grand Challenges for Engineering. NAE President Chuck Vest, former President of MIT, defined a ‘Grand Challenge’ as one that is “visionary, but do-able with the right influx of work and resources over the next few decades”— a challenge that, if met, would be “game-changing” and have a “transformative” effect. The Academy is a very selective club much like the Rotary- (only 60 or so are elected every year- of which half are from the industry and half from academia)! A committee of 20 came up with 14 Grand Challenges (it is a mysterious number, I must say), which are listed in your handout. They range from making solar energy economical to reverse-engineering the brain, to preventing nuclear terror. They can be summarized in four general categories/buckets of: sustainability, vulnerability, health, and the joy of living (an almost anthropomorphic categorization). Many, if not all, address important societal issues. And their solution is not going to be simply technological. It will include the combined efforts of technologists, innovators, businessmen, educators, policy makers and communicators.

I would like to take a minute here to say that our own USC Viterbi School of Engineering has been a national leader in promoting these challenges. The school co-organized along with Duke University and Olin College, the first national summit on these grand challenges in March 2009 in Raleigh, NC.

And, it will host at the USC campus next month, from October 7-8, a second such summit. This time it will be co-sponsored with Caltech. More information is available on your handout. I invite you to join us along with key speakers, including the presidents of USC, Caltech and Harvey Mudd, as well as Ali Velshi of CNN, and Matt Wald of the New York Times for a great two-day meeting. Please mark your calendars and I hope to see you all there!

Throughout history, the creation of the wealth of nations and economic prosperity has fundamentally depended on technology- whether through better methods for transportation, resource exploitation and recovery, or through the creation of new industries. Increasingly so, however, the wealth and economic well-being of the United States will depend on our ability to continue innovating technologically. The just mentioned NAE Grand Challenges provide a good road map and examples of the type of innovation needed. In fact, such innovation will likely be the only game in town. In another unintended consequence, globalization, brought on by technological advances, has shifted all routine technology to the rapidly developing countries in Asia. Today, the routine engineering, your father’s engineering, will be done there. Our challenge, nay, our only chance, is to provide new added value and to innovate- by taking advantage of the empowering nature of engineering and technology to create new devices, new processes and new industries across pretty much any discipline.

A specific vision in terms of predicting a specific future is certainly pointless. The future has always the capacity to surprise. However, opening the powers of tools, devices and methodologies to brand new problems will ensure innovation and, also, a more efficient solution of problems.

And all this will be done by a different engineering workforce, which until recently has largely been white males. Increasingly, this engineering workforce includes women and currently underrepresented sections of the population. The entire chain of innovation, from seeding new research in disruptive new technologies, to commercializing and marketing the product, to developing the talent needed for the innovation, must be continuous, dynamic and well-oiled.

Universities in the U.S., and schools of engineering in particular, are places with the moral imperative to maintain and move that chain at an accelerating pace. The good news is that in this area, we still remain the leaders worldwide. Innovation and creation of new intellectual property thrives in democratic, open, market-driven societies, where individual initiatives are encouraged, risk is rewarded, failure is just a step to success, and freedom of thought is cherished. At the Viterbi School and at USC in general, advancing innovation is recognized as an important part of our mission. Indeed, we have just partnered with the X-Prize Foundation in a course that will provide the next X-Prize; while we continuously add innovation and entrepreneurship skills to our curriculum. I should add that at the upcoming Summit we will announce the establishment of a significant endowment to support engineering student entrepreneurship.

The new US engineer will be asked to lead and to innovate. I also have good news in this area, as well, at least from my own school. The new face of USC engineering is that of very bright and multi-talented kids from all over the United States, more than one-third of whom are women. These kids are just a pleasure to have and interact with. While this is not necessarily the same bright picture across the entire nation (where the percentage of women in engineering is only 18%), I am optimistic that steadily, the realization is emerging that our entire K-12 STEM base must be strengthened so that we can see nationwide the same picture as we see at USC and at other leading engineering schools. This will allow us continue being at the forefront of technological innovation, and to be able to solve the daunting challenges, such as the NAE Grand Challenges. This is the only sure bet for economic growth and for our well-being.

I went to a meeting a few years ago where a famous Nobel laureate was asked to explain to what he attributed his success. His answer was: By being around smart people.

It is our responsibility to create the pipeline, the infrastructure and the resources needed, to indeed create such talented pools of smart people.

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