Monday, March 25, 2013

The Only Thing Stopping Us Is Ourselves!

By Keith McDowell

Once upon a time, the Greek philosopher Socrates opined the aphorism “Know Thyself,” a credo that centuries later became the core principle of the so-called “liberal” education – a learning process founded on the notion that a well-chosen sampling of the great ideas, literature, art, and history of humankind coupled with critical analysis would produce a well-educated citizen, capable of independent and reasoned thoughts.

Like many in my post World War II generation – a generation that promoted civil rights and challenged the American war-making machine in Vietnam, I greatly benefited from the “liberal” education provided to me by my alma mater, Wake Forest University. Whether in the Honors Program or through the many campus and community activities of that era, we were a generation of college students engaged in understanding who we were as human beings and using that knowledge to create a better society. Personal and intellectual integrity as well as being true to one’s self were the hallmarks of the Wake Forest experience. It was never about the politics of the left or the right.

Half a century later, the educational process has in many ways been converted into a multi-year conveyor belt of data accumulation and training with the student posing as a customer expecting to receive appropriate credentials for a job – no matter their individual performance – and with industry expecting a “trained” workforce. Parents seem to want cloned automata of themselves with no room for individualism or independent thought. And we’ve overlaid the entire process with excessive external accountability and testing to ensure that predetermined metrics are being met, whether those metrics are driven by a political agenda, by the musings of some powerbroker, or whether they even have any basis in a factual reality.

And on top of this stressed educational system, we have the slow recovery from an economic crisis leaving many of our youth living with their parents with no job or in jobs far below their abilities.

The net result is predictable. We have produced a large cohort of apathetic students moving along the conveyor belt toward careers often chosen by others or picked for reasons having little to do with their individual skill set or desires. How large that cohort has become over the past half century is debatable, but they exist and in large numbers. Is this the future of our educational system or can we do something about it? Is there no room for innovation focused on the student as a person?

Dr. Richard A. Cherwitz, a professor at The University of Texas Austin in the Department of Communication Studies, Division of Rhetoric and Writing, has answered that question in the affirmative. Beginning in 1995, Cherwitz created the Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) consortium as a “cross-disciplinary initiative designed to leverage knowledge for social good by educating citizen-scholars,” quoting from a recent article in the magazine Ujima. According to a paper by H. L. Goodall, “IE is not a program, nor a compartmentalized academic unit or institute; it is an intellectual platform and educational philosophy for instigating learning across disciplinary boundaries and generating collaborations between the academy and society.”

In essence, IE serves as an incubator permitting students to engage as entrepreneurs to find their own intellectual sweet spot and what they are passionate about. As Cherwitz recently stated in an email of 21 February 2013, universities should produce scholars in a setting where “ entrepreneurial thinking and principles are at the core of what transpires in classrooms, laboratories and studios, empowering us to learn and then leverage our knowledge for social good – whether in academic, business, political or social settings.” I couldn’t agree more. According to Cherwitz, IE replaces my conveyor-belt motif of “apprenticeship-certification-entitlement” with one of  self “discovery-ownership-accountability.”

In the IE process, student participants negotiate a “contract” that can expose them to graduate work using graduate student mentors, expose them to work outside of their chosen area of study, or involve them in external internships as some of the options available. As Cherwitz stated in an email of 16 March 2013, IE students “use their knowledge and expertise to tackle real problems facing the community.”

A surprising and non-targeted consequence of the IE initiative has been an increase in diversity as measured by the number of participants who are the first in their family to attend college, are economically disadvantaged, or are an underrepresented minority. Is this due to a native survival instinct from this group or to the fact that other students have been programmed onto the conveyor belt? Many people from my generation have speculated that our “intellectual entrepreneurial spirit” arose from being a member of the emergent “middle class” of the 1950s and often the first to attend college.

My hat is off to Professor Cherwitz and the IE initiative at UT-Austin. One only has to read the many testimonials from IE graduates and people who work with and hire them to understand how truly marvelous and innovative this initiative is and how necessary it is for universities to engage in the mindset of entrepreneurial thinking.

The world is not filled with mythical dragons waiting to burn us should we take a step forward nor black holes to suck us in should we advance outside our comfort zones. Instead, the only thing stopping us from passionately pursuing our intellectual depths and our ability to contribute in a positive manner to society as “tomorrow’s leaders” is ourselves.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Toys Not Included!

By Keith McDowell

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad I was born with nine lives. I used one of them up this past week organizing my federal income tax records for H&R Block while simultaneously coming to terms with the family budget. And, of course, just at the moment of maximum psychological stress, one of my home fire alarms started that piercing beep guaranteed to annoy while reminding one to replace the battery. Bad things always come in threes – or so say the true believers.

Not to worry! Like every modern household, our home comes complete with a drawer in the butler’s pantry filled with a vast array of battery packs including batteries for my advanced hearing aides, quadruple A batteries for their remote controller – a vanishing breed of batteries, and, yes, 9-volt batteries for the fire alarms. We store the flashlights in another location.

Flashlight: A metal tube used to store dead batteries

And being a conscientious homeowner, I’m committed to replacing all my fire alarm, 9-volt batteries at the same time. So what idiot decided that said fire alarms must be placed in the most inaccessible locations requiring the use of stepstools and aluminum extension ladders to reach them? My 92-year-old father once broke his ankle at my age climbing down such a ladder.

And what about all those toys that are supposed to come with said batteries – not counting the Energizer Bunny? Are they no longer included? As we all know, he who dies with the most toys dies the happiest. Does my 5-year-old car count?

The remote control for that car recently started acting up by refusing to lock the car when the appropriate button was pushed. A random sampling of about five frustrating pushes was needed to get the job done. Like any good scientist – meaning lazy person, I first opened the controller, carefully took it apart, and cleaned the metal contacts, hoping against hope that the battery wasn’t the problem. Who really wants to get into their car and pay the gas bill to drive to one’s local Radio Shack to make sure you get the proper replacement battery? The battery won this round.

And then we have all those wireless gizmos, ergo toys! I just replaced my old iMac with a brand new one complete with wireless Magic Mouse and keyboard. You’ve really got to watch your finger action on the Magic Mouse or you’ll wind up in the Netherlands of your open window with no clue as to how to return to where you were. And, of course, its battery will have to be replaced on a regular basis.

The wireless keyboard is especially efficient with respect to size and design. It took me a few minutes to realize how clever the metal tube is that is used to prop up the keyboard at an angle from the top. First, you have to figure out that the right end of the tube is in fact a button that turns the keyboard on. Second, you learn that the tube is actually the location of the needed batteries. And, no, it doesn’t come with a bulb at the end allowing one to use it as a flashlight during the inevitable power outages in the hot summer months in Texas. How did they miss that feature – not to mention it being a storage container for dead batteries?

But the left end of the tube does come with a retrograde coin groove used to unscrew the cap enclosing the batteries. If only modern humankind carried coins around anymore! I must also admit that a certain amount of manual dexterity is needed to reseat the cap in order to screw it back on, assuming the coin hasn’t rolled away in the meantime.

Don’t get me wrong! I love all those gadgets that improve the quality of my life, even if dealing with a multitude of batteries and their replacement is the price paid. And therein lies our story. Exactly how well are we doing as a nation and a society when it comes to battery innovation?

Does it make sense that the modern soldier on the battlefield must be supplied with seventeen different batteries as I was informed a few years ago? That’s a lot of weight and baggage to carry around, especially in the extremely hot conditions of the Middle East. MIT created the Institute For Soldier Nanotechnology to deal with just such issues. And how about the Boeing 787 Dreamliner issue with the Lithium-ion batteries? Is that an example of an innovation too far? I won’t be buying a ticket to fly on that airplane any time soon.

Surprisingly, many pundits and technical writers believe that the United States has not sufficiently invested in battery research and needed innovations, even though Indiana is building a new Battery Innovation Center focusing on advanced battery technology using public-private partnerships, and Argonne National Laboratory has an Energy Innovation Hub targeted to batteries and energy storage, to name a few countervailing examples.

Conventional wisdom posits that we are focused too much on the commercial product and related profit at the expense of battery development. Batteries are viewed as a commodity with a low profit margin fueling a demand for “cheap, underperforming batteries” as opposed to innovating “cost-competitive, high-performing ones.” Furthermore, Ellyne Phneah argues that for battery manufacturers there is a “lack of incentives from a coal perspective” and that “customers are also not hankering for improvements.” With respect to her latter point, I guess she doesn’t live in the same world that I do!

A case in point occurred recently with the so-called “Tesla-Broder Debate” and the notion of “decarbonizing transportation” using batteries. Matthew Steep has provided an excellent analysis of that debate and the case for and against electric vehicles (EV), principally automobiles, although similar arguments hold for autonomous electric buses. My summary of the issues surrounding the use of EVs is as follows:

  • There is an initial sunk cost investment problem with building the EV battery-charging infrastructure.
  • Our culture must change from a “his and her” two-car family to a “local versus extended trip” two-car family. In other words, one EV and one hybrid or conventional hydrocarbon-fueled car must become the norm.
  • The cost and reliability of an EV must be addressed and satisfied for consumers.
  • The USA needs advanced transportation systems and a transportation network including highway infrastructure based on where and how we move about as citizens and the changes we need to make in our culture of doing just that.

In simple terms for the specific issue of battery innovation, especially at it relates to EVs, we need a holistic approach based on power management across the board and not just single cell innovations. The same is true in other sectors including solar photovoltaic panels.

But is all this push for new battery innovation just wishful thinking or does Mother Nature still rule the day? I vote for Mother Nature and the science of thermodynamics. There are theoretical limits on what can be achieved as described in an interesting article by Kurt Zenz House and a graduate student, Alex Johnson, which focuses on energy density.

Furthermore, can we really speed up the discovery and innovation process through investment of additional monies coupled to effective and efficient R&D management? Well, yes and no. Certainly such practices are a pre-condition to accelerating the process, but there is never a guarantee of success in a timely manner. It’s not magic. The history of the battery is replete with starts and stops and accidental discoveries beginning with the Baghdad battery, linked capacitors, the voltaic pile, the invention of “half-cells” in the Daniell cell, the use of porous media to separate compartments, rechargeable batteries including the all-important lead-acid battery in our cars, dry cells and then the alkaline battery, the replacement of liquids with gels, and now the lithium-ion battery.

Where our global society and especially America will end up when it comes to batteries, their use, and new innovations, is hard to predict, but I’m sure of one thing. I love my toys! 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Academic Universe

By Keith McDowell

Located in the shadow of the historic Alamo and permeated by the multicultural significance of those who fought and died there for their independence, the River Walk in San Antonio is both a place to enjoy the allure of a beautiful city and its excellent cuisine and a place to ponder questions best left to such settings. During the past week, as a guest of The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), I had just such an opportunity while serving as a member of their External Review Committee (ERC), an operation designed to review periodically the performance of UTSA centers and institutes.

Composed of a very talented and personable group of individuals, ERC held serious discussions about the place and role of centers and institutes in the microcosm of UTSA and, more broadly, the slowly changing universe of academe in general. As always in such discussions, two important questions emerged that are in need of an answer. First, exactly what is the nature of the modern academic universe? And, second, is that universe optimally structured and managed in order to carry out the assigned mission?

Let’s begin with the mission of universities. There are three components: teaching, research, and service. Viewed traditionally as siloed or stove-piped activities, each of these three components over time have grown more complex and heavily integrated to the point that a Venn diagram of their overlap looks similar to the image shown above. Indeed, the service component is now typically referred to as “engagement” rather than service.

Based on this model of three overlapping components that encompass the mission, it is possible to define the nature of the modern academic universe through a prescriptive listing of specific “buzzwords” or phrases associated with each segment of the Venn diagram. For example, the following list would make up that part of the academic universe assigned purely to the teaching function.

Teaching Segment

·      Active/Passive/Discovery/Group/Individual learning styles
·      Technology in the classroom
·      Online education
·      Student as customer
·      Education versus training
·      Experiential learning

Although partial and not complete, this list displays the flavor of the current status of teaching in the academic universe. Similar partial lists for the other segments are as follows:

Teaching-Research Segment

·      Research experience for students as a stimulus and vehicle for learning
·      Student as lab employee

Research Segment

·      Search for new knowledge – basic research
·      Tenure and promotion – peer review
·      Grantsmanship and funding
·      Convergence and transdisciplinary teaming approach replacing individual PI
·      Complexity
·      Grand challenges
·      Research development
·      Research compliance

Research-Engagement Segment

·      Consultant
·      Sabbatical leave
·      Industry partnerships and sponsored research
·      Proof of concept
·      Intellectual property and patents
·      Translational R&D

Engagement Segment

·      Professional service
·      Extension service – traditional for land-grant universities
·      Technology commercialization
·      Startup companies and university incubators
·      Innovation centers and communities
·      Public-private partnerships
·      Entrepreneurs
·      Business plan competitions

Engagement-Teaching Segment

·      Internships
·      Semester abroad
·      Community service
·      Student as innovator and entrepreneur

At the center of all this segmented and detailed activity is the modern research university where the teaching, research, and engagement components of the mission merge to form a holistic enterprise that serves the greater good of our nation. And therein lies our second question: are universities optimally structured and managed in order to carry out this holistic mission? Are centers and institutes the answer?

Quite frankly, I don’t believe anyone knows the answer as to what would constitute the optimal organizational chart. And just about everything has been tried when it comes to parsing discipline lines versus project lines. It’s the age-old conundrum of project management set in the context of the academic universe.

Should we break down the “hegemony of discipline lines” as described by James Duderstadt or should we institute “matrix management” as practiced at our national laboratories? Certainly President Michael Crow is performing an interesting experiment at Arizona State University as he recasts and restructures the traditional departments at that university with an eye toward educating students and engaging the greater Phoenix community in a user-driven research environment tailored to put technology commercialization on steroids. Should UTSA and other emergent research universities adopt such a model?

I think not! But it is imperative that we all address the evolution of the academic universe and understand that we must adapt and change as globalization takes hold and civilization becomes a highly networked and interconnected system. The traditional university of our forebears is not a sustainable enterprise in the Twenty-first Century. Transdisciplinary and translational research and education embedded in a fully formed and adaptive innovation ecosystem are the key to our future.

Friday, March 1, 2013

If I Only Had a Brain!

By Keith McDowell

Ah, that morning cup of coffee that jumpstarts our mind and body in preparation for another day of mindless bureaucracy, tedious work, and endless social networking, both planned and unexpected. It’s the elixir of life that unlocks the innovative potential in each of us, only to be crushed under the weight of our daily duties and obligations.

But wait! Maybe your favorite brew from Starbucks is really part of a secret government project designed to infect our brains with wireless nanobots through the ingestion of coffee. And that Gen-6 wireless network we’re all waiting for, it comes with a carrier wave linked to the nanobots that forces us to buy Krispy Kreme donuts along with our coffee.

Mind control – science fiction or science fact?

Perhaps neither or maybe a mixture of both, depending on your tolerance for conspiracy theories or the inevitable domination of technology in our lives, especially as it relates to the health and wellbeing of our bodies. One thing is certain. The Obama Administration appears poised to propose that our Nation take on a multi-billion dollar, large-scale science and technology project similar in scope to the Manhattan Project, the Man-on-the-Moon project, and the Human Genome Project. It’s called the Brain Activity Map Project or BAM.

Proposed by Alivisatos, Chun, Church, Greenspan, Roukes and Yuste in a very readable and well-written paper entitled “The Brain Activity Map Project and the Challenge of Functional Connectomics,” published in and available from the journal Neuron, BAM’s purpose is “to record every action potential from every neuron within a circuit” in order to obtain “the dynamical mapping of the ‘functional connections.’” Hmm, okay, so what exactly does that mean?

In principle, the end game for BAM is equivalent to the entire reductionist history of how scientists came to understand the behavior of matter in the form of a gas, a liquid, or a solid at the macroscale all the way down to the level of atoms and molecules. That story required several centuries to develop and is replete with notions of complexity, connectivity, and emergent properties – topics that I’ve reviewed in previous posts. The expectation is that BAM will reveal a similar story for our brain.

In simple terms, our brain at the micro-level is composed of some 100 billion neurons that are connected in a complicated circuit that changes over time (that change is known as plasticity of the brain). In the aggregate, these neurons through their individual actions produce at the macro-level functional behavior such as cognitive reasoning and consciousness as emergent properties. As scientists, we want to know how that all works. Indeed, understanding consciousness and what that entails is for me the greatest challenge for the Twenty-first century.

So is any of this possible or is BAM a science boondoggle? At the whole-brain or macro-level, brain research has undergone a major transformation over the past decade or two. Using technologies such as EEG, CT, fMRI, PET, and MET, neuroscientists are engaged in a massive exercise to map the macro-activity of the brain. Instead of nanobots, human subjects often ingest chemical markers to enhance the signal similar to those barium cocktails many of us have swallowed for the ever popular GI series x-rays. And they expect you to hold it in while you trot with bare feet on the cold tile floor to the nearest bathroom!

Texas in particular is well positioned to carry out such research. Take, for example, the Center for Brain Health at UT Dallas headed by Dr. Sandra Chapman or the enormous investment in imaging facilities at the UT Southwestern Medical Center. Working with local industry such as Texas Instruments, Metroplex universities, medical centers and hospitals have forged multiple public-private partnerships tailored both to pursue such research and to generate downstream commercial products, especially in the broader area of the human-machine interface. Every science and technology prognosticator that I know believes that the human-machine interface, and specifically, the brain-machine interface, will be the technology story for this century.

But let’s return to BAM and the technological issue of whether it is currently possible to actually map the individual and collective activity of a large number of neurons, whether in elementary lifeforms possessing minimal neuronal activity or in human beings. Realistically, the answer is no, but we are on the brink of being able to do so due to the “bnice” convergence of the bio, nano, info, cogno, and eco areas of science. It’s going to happen within the next decade or two whether BAM drives it or not. Whether by smart wireless nanobots that attach themselves non-invasively to neurons or by some other process not yet identified, it’s going to happen. To think otherwise is to deny the emergence of chemical markers such as the barium cocktail.

There are issues with funding BAM. Will it be just a zero-sum game with funds being diverted from other equally deserving, but small-scale projects, or a truly new investment? What precisely is the goal of BAM, since some believe that it is not nearly as well defined as sequencing the human genome, reaching the moon, or producing the atomic bomb? Will health disparities arise? Will there be a brain enhancement divide similar to the digital divide? And, of course, is mind control by the government the ultimate motive for federal support of BAM?

Personally, I’m not particularly bothered by these issues since they are similar in nature to those that arise from any major research project. As for mind control, I predict that will only become a potential issue long after we’ve all been converted into the Borg via human-machine interfaces and computers have morphed into self-aware cyclons, able to leap past human beings in a single bound.

The potential for BAM as a component of the greater human-machine story of the Twenty-first century is enormous. The spin-off in innovations and commercial products to improve or repair our sight, hearing, and smell will define global competition in this century much like information technology did for the Twentieth century, not to mention the impact on many diseases such as Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia and the contributions to artificial intelligence and computational neuroscience. Any nation or any industry not planning for that eventuality will be left behind. I support the BAM concept and the need for federal funding to accelerate its emergence but, first, let’s bring together a collection of our leading scientists and engineers along with appropriate ethicists to define further the parameters and the goal of the project.

Mercifully, some of us will be spared from such new-age invasions via mind control or nanobot monitoring of our daily routine – or as the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz famously opined: “if I only had a brain.”