Engineering in an unpredictable world

15 Oct 2019

IOM3 were recently invited to attend the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) Global Grand Challenges Summit 2019. IOM3 Strategic Advisors Dr Simon Hogg and Sophie Parsons report back on what was an inspiring and thought‐provoking event.

The two key questions set out by this year’s summit were ‘will artificial intelligence (AI) and other transformational technologies change humanity for the better?’ and ‘can we sustain 10 billion people.’

Inspired by the US National Academy of Engineering 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering, the event was the second in a series of summits and brought together the RAEng, US National Academy of Engineering and Chinese National Academy of Engineering. Additionally, there were accompanying satellite events in Vietnam, Uganda, India, Thailand, Kenya and Mexico making it a genuinely global event.

For the attending students, this was a culmination of an intense week of activities. Around 300 students were allocated in cross‐cultural and cross‐disciplinary international teams to participate in a collaboration lab to propose and develop solutions to the grand challenges. Highlighted during the event was the need for global collaboration, multidisciplinary approaches and a systems thinking approach. Engineers of the future must be curious, creative problem‐solvers who understand engineering challenges in the context of a wider global mind‐set, and who have the agility to adapt quickly to change. Key to enabling this is good mentorship to foster future engineering minds.

The first day of the summit focused on AI and its implications for engineering. We heard from Siemens, Lockheed Martin, Blue Origin, the Toyota Research Institute, the creator of the precursor to Amazon’s Alexa, and Princess Anne. As an unpublicised speaker at the conference, Princess Anne introduced its key themes, and drew attention to the need to coordinate global response in the face of these unprecedented challenges. She highlighted the importance of building international, interdisciplinary teams, and the role of networks and making personal connections with people across the world in pushing forward the engineering for the future agenda.

Professor Juergen Maier, CEO, Siemens UK, introduced the role of AI in improving many different industrial processes, making the case for AI creating more jobs than it will remove. AI is crucial in improving industrial energy efficiency, with movement towards more de‐centralised systems and on‐site power generation. The ability to use AI in order to understand and manage energy usage and balance load on the power grid is key.

Subsequent sessions focused on some of the ethical implications of AI, the potential for it to create an uneven distribution of power, and how citizens, governments and industry might protect against more unethical or nefarious uses of big data and AI. Professor Dame Wendy Hall, Regius Professor of Computer Science, University of Southampton, UK, highlighted the need for Universities to keep up with the pace of development in this area.

What was made clear from the panel discussions is that the technology industry is keen to have a robust regulation framework in place – but this can’t be just picking and choosing from existing frameworks. During a lunch‐time session Dr Jack Stilgoe, Senior Lecturer, University College London, UK, hosted a session on autonomous vehicles (AVs). He made clear the importance of two‐way communication on technology innovations – learning from previous mistakes, for example, GMO in Europe developers must engage the public and wider community, particularly with something as transformational as AVs. The day concluded by hearing from African entrepreneurs supported by the Academy’s international programmes.

The second day focused on increasing resilience, future cities, and future wellbeing. The day began with presentations from the four winning student collaboration lab teams, with each team giving a short pitch for their solution. The winning team was ‘EmPads’, which proposed to use recycled clothing waste to provide sanitary pads for around $0.01 in rural India.

This was followed by a keynote address given by Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, UK, highlighted key technologies in 2050 and beyond to be Biotechnology, AI, and Space technology. Dr Amrit Chandan (CEO, Aceleron) discussed repurposing Li battery packs, and their work designing batteries for disassembly and recycling. The panel brought attention to the lack of coherent strategy in pushing low‐carbon technology forward as holding innovation back. The future cities session was dominated by AI and circular economy themes. There were differences in opinion about the scale best to implement more circular systems – should it be at the city or regional/global level? This included the role of city farms and using AI to improve urban planning. Christine Schindler (CEO, PathSpot) discussed the role of AI in creating medical technologies with low resources. The speakers in this session identified that technology developers must be agile, and happy to fail and learn – the initial product doesn’t have to be perfect. The day ended with a very inspirational talk from Dean Kamen (President DEKA Research and Founder, FIRST). Dean created a technology competition for students in a ‘Robot‐wars’ Olympics style format, which has engaged schools, and students from 190 countries across the world including a team of refugees from Syria. The First competition has seen a huge increase in its female and BAME graduates go on to study STEM subjects at University, and like American sports, sees scouts from some of the most prestigious Institutions attend its events.

There was an incredible line‐up of speakers, but what was most exciting about the event was the enthusiasm, aptitude and passion for science and engineering from the students attending and competing. The winner of America’s top young scientist, 13 year old Gitanjali Rao, gave us one of the best quotes from the summit which was ‘innovation is building, failing, and learning’.

The finalists of the student collaboration lab competition (who had only a couple of days to develop their invention) pitched solutions to digestion disorder detection, speeding up discharge from hospital to free up hospital beds, incentivising consumer recycling, and ending period poverty in India. Their ingenuity and sense of social responsibility was admirable and inspiring. Recordings from the conference are available on‐demand through the RAEng website at