The Big 10 with Jeff D'Alessio: Oct. 29, 2017

The Big 10 with Jeff D'Alessio: Oct. 29, 2017

Picking up where we left off last week, we asked 10 esteemed faculty members at the UI to gaze into their crystal balls and predict the game-changing innovation that could happen in their fields sometime in the next 20 years.

On a scientific breakthrough


Recently-named 2017 Packard Fellow; professor, Materials Science and Engineering Professor

"In the next 20 years, it could be possible to build next-generation technologies where every atom has been selected and precisely positioned in order to achieve designer properties.

"In both industry and academic labs, our brains' incredible abilities to recognize and process images are still central in the way we understand and design new materials. My lab uses incredibly sophisticated instruments, such as electron microscopes costing $3 million or more, to magnify matter by 10 million times so that we can see the atomic arrangements inside. Yet, understanding those atomic arrangements is still largely a human endeavor.

"Instead, imagine a version of Google image search or automatic facial recognition — but to search for the one atom out of a million that has gone awry in a defective computer chip, or to scan through a batch of synthetic crystals to look for so-far undiscovered phases of matter that might be made into more efficient solar cells."

On depression


Director, Neuroscience Program

"What will be possible in the realm of brain science: We will be able to quickly identify and eliminate depression.

"What won't be possible: to thrive without the usual hours of sleep."

On taxes


R.C. Evans Endowed Chair in Business

"I think the one innovation in tax over the next 20 years likely to have the most impact on people is the introduction of automated tax return filing.

"We already see the start of this, through IBM Watson's partnership with H&R Block. I think we'll see more machine learning and artificial intelligence in the tax and accounting world over the next several years, just as pundits are predicting an influx of self-driving cars.

"Until recently, information-oriented professions — like accounting, auditing and tax work — have defied attempts at automation because they required handling lots of unstructured data, interacting with people and making complex judgments. But the world is changing. Most of that unstructured data that accountants wrestle with is now in electronic format, and artificial intelligence is maturing to the point where it can handle both the unstructured data and the kinds of complex judgments that accounting professionals make.

"As artificial intelligence continues to develop, I think we'll see fewer accountants and tax return preparers and more automated processes."

On learning languages


Professor, Educational Psychology

"An age-old question is why kids are so good, fast and relatively error-free when acquiring their native language or languages, in bi- or multi-lingual environments. Yet adults are relatively bad at learning new languages, despite our more mature cognitive capacities.

"It is possible that within the next couple of decades, advances in linguistic theory, neurocognitive basic and applied research, and artificial intelligence will converge on effective methods for adults to learn foreign languages at a very high level within a few years — similar to the time-frame of kids learning their first language. Perhaps this will be accomplished with sophisticated technological support, either external to the brain or via implanted tech, I don't know.

"But if we keep developing machine-learning techniques and could combine those with neuro-implants on a micro- or nano-scale, somehow, it's possible. Or at least, it's not impossible."

On trips to Mars


Visiting Professor, CU Aerospace President

"The evolution of 'nuclear thermal' in-space propulsion could happen in the next 20 years.

"With the current impetus to send people to Mars, I view nuclear thermal propulsion as the most practical way to do this in an expedited fashion compared to standard chemical propulsion.

"Nuclear thermal propulsion will enable realistic trip times to Mars that are on the order of three to four months rather than approximately six to nine months with chemical rockets. This is an extremely important reduction in travel time because of the dangerous exposure of the human body to radiation during interplanetary travel."

On river research


Professor, Geography and Geographic Information Science

"My research focuses on rivers — how they flow and change the landscape around them by eroding their banks and depositing sediment within their channels and on adjacent floodplains. It also explores the influence of humans on river systems, particularly through activities related to farming and urbanization.

"Over the course of my career I have been amazed at the advances in technology that have taken place to allow us to investigate processes within rivers. We can now measure flow in three dimensions across the entire width of large rivers like the Mississippi in a matter of minutes. We can see through the water to map the bottom of the river in incredible detail and determine how the bottom is moving as water flows over it.

"I always joke with my students that soon we will be able to sit in the office and fly a drone remotely over the river and collect all the data we need with a single sensor mounted on it. That day may be coming soon, but it would mean we would no longer have fun doing field work."

On 3-D printing


Interim Director, School of Architecture

"Twenty years from now, you may decide to have your house printed rather than constructed. Already, many experiments — including in our school's digital fabrication lab — have been conducted that use gantries or robots to distribute fast-setting concrete or polymers to construct furniture, walls, even small buildings.

"Not only buildings, but our vast infrastructure will be printed rapidly and at less expense — bridges, disaster relief housing, levees to hold back rising water levels; all will be printed rapidly and at less expense than using traditional construction methods."

On help for the disabled


Assistant Professor, Kinesiology and Community Health

"In the next 20 years, the progression of mainstream technology will significantly diminish the need for disability-specific assistive technology and enhance the quality of life and participation of individuals with disabilities.

"Currently, individuals with disabilities often have difficulty accessing assistive technology due to high costs and limited availability.

"However, the development of technology to improve the lives of able-bodied individuals will also benefit disabled individuals. For example, the use of voice commands on smartphones not only enhances the safety of an able-bodied individual to send a text message while in the car, it also allows an individual with a disability who has limited hand function to be able to text, send e-mails and navigate through the phone without the need for any expensive, adaptive equipment."

On the human brain


Head, Department of Sociology

"For me as a sociologist, it is the relationship between ourselves, our social lives and the electronic gadgets that have become an integral part of our existence.

"Already, there is evidence that our interface with just the gadgets we have now — smartphones, tablets, computers — is changing our social interaction patterns, may change how our brains work, and definitely affect the information we have access to and where it comes from.

"Are we ready for this and understand it? And where will this leave some of the things that make human existence meaningful? Spontaneity? The unexpected? The surprising? Meaningful and purposeful work? Love?

"I doubt that our future will look like the Jetsons, though it will be exciting and very unsettling."

On driverless cars


Associate Professor, Engineering

"Step inside a future driverless car arriving at a busy street corner with hundreds of objects identified in front as pedestrians, road signs and vehicles. In order to safely navigate the turn, it has to predict future behaviors of all these agents and negotiate its way forward. This is a very challenging problem.

"While there are major innovations happening in sensing and recognition technologies, currently there is no solution to the above problem at a scale that is necessary for making self-driving vehicles safe in urban environments.

"In 20 years, we will be able to solve this problem in real time (with) safe, driverless cars, trucks and delivery robots. This will also enable more flexible industrial robotic systems that work closely and safely around human operators.

"Other applications include, smarter medical devices, such as implantable cardiovascular defibrillators and insulin pumps, that will provide targeted therapy more reliably based on more precise estimation of the patient's physiological state. There could be a blossoming of, yet unimaginable, interactive public sculptures.

Sections (2):News, Local