Author: Tomás Díaz de la Rubia

The Next Giant Leap is a Quantum Leap

In Douglas Adams’ book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Deep Thought was a city-sized computer created by a pan-dimensional super-intelligent race of beings that was tasked with coming up with the Answer to The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.  After seven and a half million years of calculation, the rather disappointing answer to this vast “question” was…42.  Having checked the answer thoroughly, and being certain that it was correct, Deep Thought tells the crestfallen recipients of the answer “I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question was.”

The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything is a bit esoteric, and as Adams’ book intimates, no computer, no matter how long it operates for, will ever come up with an answer to such an existential question. But, what if you could calculate the answer to a more “mundane,” yet important question that you cannot answer today, and do it in just a fraction of the time?  What if you could encrypt communications in such an unbreakable manner that you would never have to worry about computer security ever again? What if you could interrogate the deepest mysteries of quantum mechanics to design new materials and processes to provide infinite fusion energy to the planet? What if you could design new drugs to cure diseases for which we have no permanent answers today? What if you could answer those intractable questions and somehow know what is currently unknowable?

Quantum physics. Quantum information. Quantum computer.  The word “quantum” stirs up all kinds of descriptors – fast, small, huge, powerful, nano, uncertain, entangled, invisible, discrete — some more useful than others.  Just what is a quantum computer, quantum information, or, for that matter, quantum science?  Why are we hearing so much more about it now?  Isn’t it just the purview of dorky, bespectacled scientists huddled around expensive machinery in dark, underground labs?  The answer to the last question is a resounding NO.  Quantum science is experiencing a surge of interest as researchers, students, and industry leaders across the globe race to build a truly usable quantum computer, a machine that will be able to process unimaginable amounts of data at exponentially faster rates than today, transfer and store information with advanced cryptography, and facilitate new discoveries and myriad other applications.

Quantum theory has been around since the turn of the 19th century, ushered in by the names we all remember from chemistry and physics class — Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger, amongst others. Modern quantum mechanics attempts to describe the physical world at the atomic and subatomic level and how the physical systems at that level behave. The goal of quantum computing is to leverage the bizarre quantum mechanical rules of physics at the subatomic level to solve problems much faster than a conventional computer.

A “bit” of information in a traditional computer is either a one or a zero, on or off.  Each bit can only exist in one state at a time.  A quantum bit, or “qubit,” can be both a one and a zero at the same time, due to the quantum character of “superposition.” This effectively doubles the computing power of one traditional bit.  Two qubits together can represent four scenarios at the same time, three qubits represent eight scenarios, and so on. The computing power thus grows exponentially with the number of qubits.  The other feature of quantum mechanics that can be exploited is “entanglement,” what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.”  Entanglement is a phenomenon that shows that particles can be linked together, and the effects of manipulation of one particle are shown in the other, no matter the distance between them.  Spooky, maybe.  Exploitable?  Definitely.  Who will be capitalizing on this and how it will be done has become a matter of national importance.

On September 24, in Washington, D.C., the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy hosted a summit on Quantum Information Science. Participants included representatives from industry, academia, government agencies, and foundations. The event coincided with the unveiling of the national strategic overview for quantum science released by the National Science and Technology Council. OSTP and the Office of Management and Budget identified in their Research and Development Memo that quantum science is a key priority area of investment for the administration and federal agencies. Whilst the government focus will be on supporting much needed basic research, the private sector and academia need to tightly integrate basic research and engineering to create practical quantum computers and other quantum information systems.

I had the opportunity to participate in the summit representing Purdue University and applaud the initiative that the administration, the federal agencies, Congress, and the private sector are demonstrating in this critical area. Quantum Information Science will no doubt become a defining technology for the future of humankind, and a strong, early, and coordinated multi-sector focus on these technologies is essential for the U.S. to sustain its economic and national security leadership.

The National Science Foundation, the DOE Office of Science, NIST and the DOD are focused on enabling research and development in Quantum Information Science, and the new strategic programs they intend to focus on and fund in the future. In addition, leaders of various technology giants such as IBM, Microsoft, Google, Intel, Lockheed, and others are developing the technologies to build the quantum computers and systems of the future, including very interesting and effective partnerships with universities such as Purdue. Public-private partnerships will need to provide test beds and benchmarking mechanisms for new QIS technologies as they are developed.

As a prime example of such a partnership, Purdue University and Microsoft Corp. signed a five-year agreement to develop a sturdy and scalable quantum computer. The team, assembled by Microsoft, works at Discovery Park’s Birck Nanotechnology Center on developing a topological quantum computer that is especially robust against decoherence, and therefore is theoretically more stable and less error-prone. The Purdue group, led by physics professor Michael Manfra, grows and studies ultra-pure semiconductors and hybrid systems of semiconductors and superconductors that may form the physical platform upon which a quantum computer is built.  Microsoft employees are embedded in the Purdue research team, and collaboration exists between Purdue, Microsoft, and experimental research sites located in universities here and abroad.

Purdue has other points of light to share in the Quantum Information arena.  As light and matter are so sensitive to disturbance, it would be virtually impossible for a hacker to do their work undetected in a quantum system, and now we are one step closer to unhackable communication thanks to the work of the research team of Vlad Shalaev, a distinguished professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Shalaev’s pre-eminent nanophotonics team has created a new technique that increases the secret bit rate of photons to allow for sending much larger pieces of information on a single photon than has been previously demonstrated. More information, faster and safer.

Other Purdue researchers have received Federal grants for their work in Quantum science. Both the National Science Foundation and the Office of Science at the Department of Energy are supporting Quantum Information Science and, as detailed in the hyperlinked news release, Purdue faculty from the colleges of Engineering and Science have been funded to work on topics ranging from photon entanglement and development of photonics chips to spin-based quantum control, to the application of quantum information science to high energy physics and the development of new quantum computing algorithms for materials discovery.

The importance of Quantum Information Science—computing, communications, sensors, etc.—cannot be stressed enough, and we cannot afford to fall behind in this important science, technology, and engineering race. The few examples above are representative of the wide range of work ongoing at Purdue in this area. Many other universities across the nation have similar or even larger efforts already underway, and at Purdue, we need to focus and coordinate across the entire campus to provide a well-coordinated and effective platform from which to continuously increase the impact of our work in this important space.  I am optimistic that following on this important White House summit, momentum will continue to grow and that the collective creativity and innovation spirit of all of the public and private efforts already underway and those new ones that will be created going forward, will be integrated and harnessed to create, very soon, the practical and commercial Quantum Information Systems that will define the future of competitiveness of the United States in everything, from commerce, to science, to defense, and many other sectors.  Here at Purdue University, we are committed to driving this vision forward, and building on our collective strengths we will work to make the Quantum revolution a reality.




The New Future of Warfare

The dust lay thick upon the ruins of bombed-out buildings. Small groups of soldiers, leaden with their cargo of weaponry, bent low and scurried like beetles between the wrecked pillars and remains of shops and houses. Intelligence had indicated that enemy troops were planning a counterattack, but so far, all was quiet across the heat-shimmered landscape.  The allied soldiers gazed intently out at the far hills and closed their weary, dust-caked eyes against the glare coming off the sand. Suddenly, the men were aware of a low humming sound, like thousands of angry bees, coming from the northeast.  Getting louder, this sound was felt, more than heard, and the buzzing was intensifying with each passing second. The men looked up as a dark, undulating cloud approached, and found a swarm of hundreds of drones, dropped from a distant unmanned aircraft, heading to their precise location in a well-coordinated group, each turn and dip a nuanced dance in close collaboration with their nearest neighbors…

Although it seems like a scene from a science fiction movie, the technology already exists to create weapons that can attack targets without human intervention, according to defense analyst and former U.S. Army Ranger Paul Scharre.  In his book Army of None, Scharre explores the future of battlefield technology utilizing autonomous weapons and artificial intelligence, or A.I.

The prevalence of this technology is pervasive and A.I. as a transformational technology shows virtually unlimited potential across a broad spectrum of industries.  In healthcare, for instance, robot-assisted surgery allows doctors to perform complex procedures with fewer complications than surgeons operating alone, and A.I.-driven technologies show great promise in aiding clinical diagnosis and automating workflow and administrative tasks, with the benefit of potentially saving billions in healthcare dollars.  In a different area, we are all aware of the emergence of autonomous vehicles and the steady march toward driverless cars being a ubiquitous sight on American roadways. We trust that all this technology will be safe and ultimately in the best interest of the public.

Warfare, however, is a different animal.

In his book, Paul Scharre asks, “Should machines be allowed to make life-and-death decisions in war? Should it be legal? Is it right?”  It is with these questions in mind and in light of the advancing A.I. arms race with Russia and China that the Pentagon has announced the creation of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), which will have oversight of most of the A.I. efforts of U.S. service and defense agencies.  The timeliness of this venture cannot be underestimated; as Robert Latiff states in his book Future War, “Battles of the future will not necessarily be fought on battlefields as we know them, but in cities, in ungoverned areas, in cyberspace, and in the realm of the electromagnetic spectrum.  Even outer space will be a contested environment.” Automated warfare has become a “not if, but when” scenario.

In the fictional account above, it is the enemy combatant that, in a “strategic surprise,” uses advanced A.I.-based autonomous robots to attack the presumably victorious U.S. troops and their allies. Only a few years ago, we may have dismissed such a scenario — an enemy of the U.S. having more and better advanced technology for use in the battlefield — as utterly unrealistic. Today, however, few would question such a possibility. Technology development is global, and accelerating worldwide. China, for example, has announced that it will overtake the U.S. within a few years and will dominate the global A.I. Market by 2030. Given the pace and scale of investment the Chinese government is making in this (and other advanced technology spaces such as quantum information systems), such a scenario is patently feasible.

But, one may ask, why is this important in a fully globalized world? Those groups and nations that innovate most effectively and dominate the A.I. technology landscape will not only control commercial markets, but will also hold a very significant advantage in future warfare. In many respects, the threat of general A.I.-based weapons to national security is perhaps as existential a threat to the future national security of the United States and its allies as nuclear weapons were at the end of World War II.

Fortunately, the U.S. government and Congress are rising to the challenge. Anticipating these trends and challenges, the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy announced, in a recent memo, that the nation’s top four research and development priorities would encompass defense, A.I., autonomy, and quantum information systems. This directly feeds into the job of the aforementioned JAIC, which is to establish a repository of standards, tools, data, technology, processes, and expertise for the Department of Defense, as well as coordinate with other government agencies, industry, U.S. allies, and academia.  It is this last piece of the puzzle that I believe is in fact extremely important, and which Purdue University and other top academic institutions in the U.S. are uniquely positioned to provide.

It cannot be incumbent upon any one area to provide all the answers, so Purdue University’s Discovery Park has positioned itself as a paragon of collaborative, cutting-edge research which extends into the A.I. arena by the integration of several cross-cutting departments.  The Institute for Global Security and Defense Innovation (i-GDSI) is already answering JAIC needs for advanced A.I. research by delving into areas such as biomorphic robots, automatic target recognition for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), and autonomous exploration and localization of targets for aerial drones. i-GSDI recognized the need to converge core AI technologies with mission applications and designed the investments through an ‘AI+ Rapid Innovation’ internal RFP. ‘AI+’ motivates this very important aspect of converging technologies and operational imperatives — exactly what the JAIC is charged to do across the Department of Defense mission space. Complementary to the mission of the JAIC, the Purdue Policy Research Institute (PPRI) is actively investigating the ethical, legal, and social impacts of connected and autonomous vehicles (CATV). Some of the topics being researched include privacy and security, workforce disruption, insurance and liability, and economic impact. PPRI is also starting to investigate the question of ethics, technology and the future of war and security.

The bench is already strong for mission-inspired AI research. Purdue University is a key player in the C-BRIC (Center for Brain-Inspired Computing) project, forging ahead on “AI+” mentality by combining neuromorphic computing architectures with autonomous systems applications. The Integrative Data Science Initiative (IDSI) at Purdue transforms data into useable information by taking advantage of the proliferation of low-cost data storage and sensors.  Data science is used by all of the nation’s security agencies and no doubt will be integral to the functioning of the JAIC and its mission. The opportunities for Purdue and Discovery Park to enter into a partnership with the JAIC are vast and span a wide range of disciplines and research areas.  In short, we are primed to play a vital role in the future of the nation’s service and defense agencies and must be relentless in pursuing the opportunities available to us.

It has become apparent that the U.S. is no longer guaranteed top dog status on the dance card that is the future of war.  In order to maintain military superiority the focus must shift from traditional weapons of war to advanced systems that rely on A.I.-based weaponry.  The stakes are just too high and the prize too great to for the U.S. to be left behind.  All the more reason to call upon Purdue University and its inestimable capacity to weave together academia, research, and industry for the greater good. We’re stepping up to secure our place in the future of our country, and there’s much more to come!

Innovate today for a sustainable tomorrow

Today our planet sustains more human life at a given time than ever before. In the last 200 years, our population has grown from 1 billion to 7.6 billion and by 2050 the global population is estimated to reach new staggering heights, just short of 10 billion. Our society will need to change and adapt to accommodate increased urbanization and a growing middle class, an aging population and a rising demand for food, water and energy.

To address this growth, in January 2016, the United Nations announced a new effort, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which is an appeal to all nations to tackle this global grand challenge. The SDGs are “a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity” by meeting various targets and indicators by 2030.

Of the 17 goals laid out by the UN, eight are closely tied to water, food and land. It is at this nexus that the heart of this grand challenge lies and our strategic theme on global sustainability is focused on. Today, many countries struggle with reliable access to clean water. Our aging infrastructure and energy grid are not optimized to allow for the coming population boom. Increased demands for energy, water and land resources are further straining the global food production system.

Can the future demands for food, fuel, clean water, biodiversity, climate change mitigation and poverty reduction be reconciled?

This is precisely the question that one of our Big Idea Challenge winning teams seeks to answer. Tom Hertel and his team have set their sights on tackling the food, energy, water, and environment nexus in their proposal, Managing the Global Commons: Sustainable Agriculture and Use of the World’s Land and Water Resources in the 21st Century. Hertel and his team posit that the sustainable development challenge is a particularly wicked problem, as sustainability is fundamentally a local concept, yet is driven by global forces. Pursuit of the SDGs will also have global consequences and analysis of these complex issues requires a holistic approach.

Hertel’s team aims to develop an interdisciplinary applied research consortium, which will analyze impact scenarios and explore policy alternatives that promote responsible public and private investment; sustainable management of critical, shared natural resources; and collective action toward meeting the SDGs. The framework Hertel’s team proposes is seamless, transparent, flexible and replicable. The on-campus resources and members of Hertel’s team are just part of why Purdue is situated to be a leader in open-source, global assessment of the SDGs related to food, land and water. Our unique combination of strengths in agriculture, computer science, engineering, hydrology, climate and global economic analysis position Purdue at the forefront of taking on these grand challenges.

Sustainable development and use of any nation’s land and water resources requires an understanding of the complex environmental, social and economic drivers that must be harnessed to maintain the availability of future food, water and energy resources with minimal negative effects. With its core strengths in STEM, advanced instrumentation, social and behavioral sciences, under its global sustainability strategic theme, Discovery Park is making connections abroad to help solve these pressing sustainability issues.

This spring, Discovery Park signed an MOU with the Universidad Nacional de San Agustin (UNSA) in Arequipa, Peru. A team of Purdue representatives visited the university to discuss how they could collaboratively tackle the biggest land, water, food, infrastructure and technological challenges facing Peru and Latin America today. The team met with UNSA leadership, faculty and students over the course of four days and exchanged information, experiences and conducted a needs assessment, which will serve as the foundation for a collaborative institutional partnership between Purdue and UNSA.

The Purdue team is working with UNSA to become a point of reference in Latin America for interdisciplinary research. The UNSA Nexus Institute will focus on four intersecting strategic themes: watershed management, environment, agriculture and soil quality. The new research hub will enable the sustainable use of Arequipa’s water, soil, plant and animal resources through the construction of state-of-the-art instrumentation monitoring and experimentation stations, the use of simulation modeling and collaboration with Purdue researchers.

Several Purdue faculty and Discovery Park researchers on the Purdue Team including: Tim Filley, director of the Center for the Environment; Indrajeet Chauby, department head of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences; and Daniel Leon-Salas, associate professor in the School of Engineering Technology in the Purdue Polytechnic Institute, have been a critical part of the UNSA partnership and developing the projects that will drive the Nexus Institute. The joint goal of Purdue and UNSA faculty is to ensure long-lasting positive impact on our communities across all socio-economic levels and mutual knowledge exchange and collaboration.

The response from our faculty and their collaborators to get involved with and contribute to the UNSA partnership and Big Idea Challenge to address these grand challenges has been humbling. Though perhaps more importantly, the efforts of our researchers to tackle the biggest sustainability challenges facing our world today transcends these projects and are part of a much broader, integrated vision, to work across disciplinary boundaries which makes up Discovery Park’s global sustainability strategic theme.

Through the work of a number of our centers—the Center for the Environment, Purdue Climate Change Research Center and Center for Global Food Security, to name a few—our faculty are creating solutions to the problems at the heart of the global sustainability challenge. Their work is critical to Discovery Park’s vision to advance energy and resource innovation, deepen our understanding of the science of climate and resilience and develop new methods and practices to alleviate uncertainty regarding food supply and malnutrition.

The solutions to the SDGs are undoubtedly complex and will require not only understanding of these intricacies of the global sustainability nexus, but innovation as well. At Purdue, we are proud of the strides our researchers are making, which boldly confront these complex and evolving global challenges.

When Technology, Social Science Converge, Smart Policies Emerge

Ten billion people. Megacities. Massive increases in food production. Double, even triple energy demand. Impacts of climate change and the need for access to clean water. Potential pandemics. We face many challenges to sustain our planet’s quality of life, today and for decades to come. Daunting? Exceedingly so. The future of society hangs in the balance.

Rising to meet these challenges: a focused convergence of technological experts and social scientists.


Tapping Technology

From nanotechnology to synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, quantum computing and robotics, technology is advancing exponentially.  As the cost of many technologies decreases, global access to their benefits increases faster than we ever envisioned. Technology, then, promises to help us tackle and solve grand challenges.

Today we speak of a future where everything is “smart” and “precise.” Precision agriculture and medicine and smart transportation, cities and manufacturing are a sampling of the current rhetoric about the future of everything. In this future, technology augments human capacity, presenting yet another challenge: fewer people will be needed in the workplace.


Heeding Societal Implications

As technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics replace humans on the job, what is the future of work?

In 1810, about 95 percent of the U.S. population worked in agriculture. Today, only about 2 percent do. In those 200 years, we transformed the nature of work, found new jobs and trained our growing population. However, exponential technology begets exponential change, and the McKinsey Global Institute predicts by 2035, just 18 years from now, about 45 percent of today’s jobs will be performed by machines. To ameliorate this transition, some advocate for a universal basic income to replace work-related income. In my opinion, the issues are broader than income support and need a fuller consideration. We must ask: What are the ethical, legal and societal implications of such a movement?

Solving these global challenges calls for addressing societal issues through deep and rigorous research. Technology and the social sciences together must inform new, “smart” policies to help us progress.


Transdisciplinary Work at Purdue Policy Research Institute

While definitive answers are yet to be determined, faculty at Purdue University’s Discovery Park are seeking solutions rooted in transdisciplinary research and education. True solutions, with positive social impact, require working across and beyond traditional boundaries that often separate humanists and social scientists from natural scientists, engineers and technologists. At Discovery Park, these disciplines converge to address global challenges.

One example is the Purdue Policy Research Institute, led by S. Laurel Weldon, distinguished professor of political science, which works across traditional boundaries to better understand how the convergence of technology and social sciences can yield well-informed policy and a better understanding of our changing world.

The power of this approach is illustrated in the Mellon Foundation-funded partnership between Purdue Libraries and the Institute. Purdue researchers are taking a unique approach in their research, developing and integrating innovative models of scholarly communication by embedding publishing professionals, library faculty and policy experts in the research and communication process. The approach is also unique in involving humanists and social scientists at the core of efforts to understand and find solutions to grand challenges.

This grant four interdisciplinary teams who are tackling issues such as sustainability in U.S. agriculture, big data ethics, climate change governance and the effectiveness of science-policy interaction, and decision support tools for flood risk mitigation.


Autonomous Systems

The Institute is also undertaking research—initially through a fellowship program—in autonomous systems. While technology enabling autonomous vehicles is developing quickly, the ethical, legal and societal implications of these future transportation and mobility systems are not yet thoroughly understood. PPRI aims to catalyze the discussions, and ultimately the research, to fill this gap, again, by involving scholars from multiple disciplines and stakeholders in the research process right from the start.

Similarly, unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, are growing in popularity and for a variety of purposes. Like many technologies, they are proliferating at a greater pace than regulations to ensure safety and security without unduly restricting growth in technology and industry. The Institute has created the Drone Regulatory Research Initiative, a public/private, interdisciplinary partnership, to deepen understanding of these issues and develop fresh approaches and alternative solutions.

This project brings together engineers, aviation technology experts, social scientists, agricultural scientists and others. In 2016-2017, an interdisciplinary group of honors students worked with the Institute staff to develop a brief outlining the main uses and policy issues, and a policy brief series will run through this academic year. The Institute has also developed partnerships with Airmap and Pierce Aerospace, participates in the University Aviation Association for education and policy analysis subcommittee, and contributes to federal regulations and policy implementation of drones.


Net-Zero Energy Housing

Yet another area is the importance of policy supporting sustainable, accessible-to-all and affordable housing. The Institute is working with Purdue political science professor Leigh Raymond, former director of the Center for the Environment, on net-zero energy housing, to employ “smart” technologies to develop housing returning as much energy to the grid as it takes away. Raymond, who will be a PPRI Faculty Fellow this academic year, is leading the project, which, in partnership with the State of Indiana’s Energy Systems Network and Move Forward Program, will develop both technological solutions and a policy framework to make net-zero feasible. When technology and social policy integrate to address grand challenges, it can help us solve seemingly intractable situations.


Gender Equality

Weldon’s own research focuses on gender equality and public policy, a grand challenge area necessitating transdisciplinary research. This year, the Institute plans to further develop work on women’s human rights and the connection to science and technology issues. A major part is understanding how social norms, including attitudes about gender, affect the ways we use or do not use science and technology to their greatest effect.

For example, technology can help or hinder women’s access to markets and economic empowerment. The Internet, for example, can facilitate opportunity for women while also being a source of online violence and harassment. Cell phones and cashless banking make it possible for women in the developing world to work and access funds without exposing themselves to sexual assault and harassment as they travel to distant financial institutions. However, women are disproportionately disadvantaged by the emphasis on cell phones in much of the developed world. The U.S. Agency for International Development estimates women in low-to-middle income countries are 20 percent less likely to have a mobile phone, a gap meaning some 300 million women in the developing world lack access to phones.  Weldon will make a presentation on this subject for the Dawn or Doom series next month, and will take part in the “goalkeepers” events organized in New York City next month to focus attention on the Sustainable Development Goals and the progress that has been made on women’s human rights.


These are a few ways technologists and social scientists are partnering to address holistically some grand challenges so tomorrow’s megacities, energy and water demands and income opportunities benefit all. Look for many more convergence stories to emerge from Purdue’s Discovery Park.

Ideas to Impact: A core value of Discovery Park and Purdue University

The United States’ entrepreneurial spirit and substantial funding from venture capital firms are huge competitive advantages and key differentiators for the country. We lead the world in VC investments as a percentage of GDP and have been more efficient in converting early-stage investments into late-stage ventures than any other country in the world. As a result, the U.S. remains the center for “disruptive innovation.”[1]

Why is this important, you might ask? As the National Venture Capital Association states, “Venture capital backed companies generate more sales, pay more taxes, generate more exports and invest more in research and development (R&D) than other public companies, when adjusting for size.”

In general, regions and nations with developed innovation ecosystems are characterized by high levels of public spending on top-tier universities, business R&D spending, venture capital investments, information and communication technology investments and tertiary education expenditures.[1] All these factors and variables are correlated with actions taken by both government and businesses. Thus, the onus of creating a highly developed innovation ecosystem should be borne by both business and government.

Among all of these factors, the U.S. has a key differentiator and competitive advantage: the strength and quality of its research universities. All of the regional innovation clusters in the U.S. have grown around major research universities: Silicon Valley around Stanford and Berkeley; Boston around Harvard and MIT; North Carolina around UNC, NC State and Duke; Austin and Houston around the University of Texas, and so on. These universities have two things in common: a) they are all among the top research universities in the world; and b) none of them are in the midwest.

But the world is starting to take note of Purdue’s Innovation and Entrepreneurial Ecosystem.

A few years ago, then new President Mitch Daniels, observed that Purdue’s new discoveries and technologies, while numerous, were not having the kind of local and global market and social impact that one would expect from a top-tier university.  Not enough patents were being filed, not enough licenses to develop new market innovations were being granted and most importantly, perhaps, very few new startup companies were being created in the local area. President Daniels believed then, as he does now, that even in a small midwest town like West Lafayette, Indiana, things could be different. He put a team in place at the Purdue Research Foundation that over the next few years would dramatically alter the status quo. Purdue made deliberate choices to create resources and remove barriers to empower innovators and entrepreneurs to move their ideas forward and to impact markets and society.

And a lot has happened over the last five years.

Just a few days ago, the National Academy of Inventors announced that Purdue now ranks #12 among the Top 100 universities in the world in terms of U.S. patents granted. This is up from 36 a few years ago, and puts us ahead of Harvard, Penn, Illinois, Northwestern and many other top institutions.

Within just the past few weeks, the Milken Institute report, “Concept of Commercialization: The Best Universities for Technology Transfer” ranked Purdue No. 1 in the Midwest and No. 1 nationally among public institutions without a medical school at creating startups and moving technologies to the marketplace. In addition, Discovery Park’s Burton D. Morgan Center for Entrepreneurship was selected as one of 35 centers featured in the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business Entrepreneurial Spotlight Challenge. The Challenge highlights academic centers that develop cutting-edge business innovations through student learning. The Burton D. Morgan Center, in partnership with the Krannert School of Business and the Purdue Polytechnic Institute, provides essential programming related to education and the application of entrepreneurship principles.

This recent recognition comes on the heels of the Association of Public Land Grant Universities honoring Purdue University with its Innovation Award this past November.

At the heart of these accolades is an innovation ecosystem that knows how to take ideas to impact.

One of the key resources created was the Purdue Foundry at the Purdue Research Foundation.  Located in Discovery Park’s Burton Morgan Center for Entrepreneurship, the Foundry has aligned resources across campus to lower barriers and empower innovators and entrepreneurs so they can realize the true potential for their inventions. The resources range from programs designed to help entrepreneurs articulate their value proposition and validate their ideas with market research, coaching, social networks and seed funding.  A key process called “Firestarter” guides innovators and entrepreneurs through 10 weeks of ideation and market discovery resulting in a commercialization strategy.  Entrepreneurs in residence then lend their experience and expertise to the program’s innovators and entrepreneurs as they execute their strategy.

Since the inception of the Purdue Foundry in 2013, Purdue has enjoyed record numbers of startups based on Purdue technology and a huge influx of additional startups into the Purdue ecosystem. Ninety-six startups have been created and we expect to see that number eclipse the 100 mark in the next six months, positioning Purdue University as an elite creator of startup companies among universities throughout the world. Interestingly, most of these companies are in areas distinct from the traditional software and app development that characterizes so many of Silicon Valley’s startups. Instead, the Purdue ecosystem is populated with companies focused on new technologies for agriculture, energy, drugs, aerospace, manufacturing and other fields of endeavor of great relevance to companies in the midwest and to society at large.

How many of these companies will go on to raise large amounts of capital and create new markets remains, of course, uncertain, but Discovery Park is proud to be part of this robust innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem to help ensure that the solutions to global challenges that our faculty and students develop every day have an ever-increasing impact on our rapidly evolving global society.

[1] Findings from the 2015 Deloitte report, Advanced Technologies Initiative: Manufacturing & Innovation, authored by Craig Giffi, Joann Michalik, Michelle Drew Rodriguez, Tomás Díaz de la Rubia, Bharath Gangula, Jeffery Carbeck and Mark Cotteleer.

Driving Toward an Autonomous Future

I arrived at my office ready to engage in the rest of the day’s activities. On my one hour commute from my house on the beach, I had been able to participate in our weekly board meeting with partners from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. The Virtual Reality system in the Connected and Autonomous Transportation Vehicle (CATV) that had picked me up at my doorstep that morning had worked, as always, flawlessly and the global partners meeting in our secure virtual conference room had gone off without a hitch. I even had 15 minutes left over to enjoy a cup of coffee while watching the news and catching up on the day’s upcoming events.

How far, or how near, is this future? Not a day goes by when we do not read something in the press about progress in autonomous cars, virtual reality, artificial intelligence or a host of other digital technologies. Companies all over the world are innovating in these spaces at a fast and furious pace. However, and despite all the progress we read about, a myriad of technical, policy, legal, regulatory and even ethical challenges remain that must be overcome for a future such as this to become reality. In fact, I would argue that the ultimate, integrated system of systems solution appears distant.

CATVs are not about traditional automotive technology; they are about wireless communication, smart cities and smart infrastructure, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, cybersecurity, 3D mapping, big data, functional sensors, electric batteries, 3D printing and other advanced technologies that have little to do with the traditional focus of the automotive industry. As a result, the job market of the future for students that graduate from universities like Purdue will be with new and different companies that integrate software, hardware, infrastructure, and autonomy systems and sell completely new products and systems into new, yet to be fully understood markets.

Leading universities around the U.S. and the world are making a strong, strategic push to be at the forefront of the development of these new technologies. State and federal research agencies are starting to develop programs that increasingly focus research funding and policy studies into these spaces. At Purdue’s Discovery Park, we are launching a new initiative focused on research, development, testing and evaluation of technological systems and human factors for the CAT future. Building on our long and illustrious history of excellence in transportation research, we are partnering with the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, the Indiana Department of Transportation, the Indiana Governor’s Office, Deloitte Consulting, the Transportation Development Group and many private sector companies to explore the feasibility and opportunity to develop a state-of-the-art CAT testing and R&D facility next to the Purdue campus.

The idea is that such a facility would attract all the leading global suppliers of CAT technologies not just to test their technologies and system solutions in a simulated but well controlled urban and rural environment, but also to partner with Purdue faculty and students in developing next generation technologies and systems. Moreover, a facility such as this would serve as a magnet for federal and state resources to perform research on advanced sensors, AI, big data and analytics, communication, cybersecurity, safety, urban and landscape design, policy and regulation, ethics and other related topics.

This grand vision is compelling, but we are not the only ones thinking this way. Therefore, we need to lean on the tremendous interest of our faculty and students to develop a coherent strategic roadmap that will identify our competitive advantages, and will tell us where to play and how to win. To do this, we can build from a foundation of excellence.

Faculty at Purdue have been, and continue to be, involved in federal and state programs that focus on the future of transportation. Prof. Srini Peeta in the School of Civil Engineering has been a leader in the development of integrated and sustainable transportation solutions through his leadership of the NEXTRANS Center, a U.S. Department of Transportation center in operation since 2007. NEXTRANS’s Driving Simulator Laboratory is a quasi-living laboratory for mobility and safety research, interactive learning and outreach that develops behavioral and operational models and assesses impacts to address current and emerging needs. A new center, also supported by the U.S. DOT, and led at Purdue by Prof. Peeta in partnership with the University of Michigan and other Midwest universities, CCAT, will explore the full picture of how communities can best transition to connected and automated vehicles.

Prof. Greg Shaver in the School of Mechanical Engineering has partnered with Cummins and Peloton, a California Start Up, to explore the future of connected and autonomous class-8 trucks via a new grant from the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E). Prof. Darcy Bullock, also of the School of Civil Engineering is the longtime leader of the State of Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) Joint Transportation Research Program which facilitates collaboration between INDOT, higher education institutions and industry to implement innovations that result in continuous improvement in the planning, design, construction, operation, management and economic efficiency of the Indiana transportation infrastructure.

Similarly, Prof. Andrew Tarko, a world leader in transportation safety studies and in civil engineering, leads the INDOT-funded Center for Road Safety, which seeks to provide data and knowledge for a changing automotive transportation system, to foster and coordinate transportation research in both technical and policy areas.  Prof. Richard Voyles, in the Purdue Polytechnic Institute, works with his students to develop 1/8th scale autonomous cars for testing behavior and performance in extreme environments.

In addition to these and other ongoing automotive and transportation research efforts, Purdue has exceptional capabilities through its faculty in the colleges of Science, Engineering, Agriculture, Liberal Arts, Health and Human Sciences and the Purdue Polytechnic Institute related to control systems, cybersecurity, AI and machine learning, landscape architecture, consumer psychology, policy, robotics and many other topics, all of which are related and fundamental to progress toward an autonomous future.

By weaving our strengths together into a tightly knit and coherent transdisciplinary effort, and creating the public and private partnerships necessary for success, I believe that when we sit in an autonomous vehicle fifteen or twenty years from now on the way to a new destination, we will be able to look back with pride at the role that Purdue University played in leading and enabling the success of the massive societal transformation that autonomy represents.

Out-Innovating Our Adversaries

Since the inception of the digital age, the United States has been the unchallenged global leader in computing technology, but with little public attention, our advantage has been eclipsed. We are now engulfed in a computing technology race that is as portentous as any military conflict we have ever faced before.

TOP500, the organization that monitors and ranks the world’s supercomputers, reported last summer that China has developed two different computer systems that are now the two fastest on the planet. Just 15 years ago, China had none of the top 500 supercomputers in the world, but today, it has more than any other nation, including the United States. China’s new Sunway TaihuLight achieves speeds that are five times faster than the fastest supercomputer in the United States — and it achieves those speeds with Chinese-made chips.

Supercomputers are used to simulate and study everything from the paths of hurricanes to the genetic origins of man and are critical to future advances in healthcare, the development alternative energy resources and national security. While China’s latest advance does not yet fundamentally change the balance of power, the impacts are clearly visible on the horizon and should be a wake-up call to policymakers.

It is no longer science fiction to imagine an adversary’s use of the first, large-scale practical quantum computer to decrypt previously unbreakable encryption keys that would blind us to enemy military movements while our own would be entirely visible to the enemy. While such a practical quantum computer does not exist today, China is investing billions in their development.

The race is on.

We can no longer rely on decades of military superiority or the so-called technology “offsets” like nuclear weapons, and stealth technology and global positioning satellites. While we may hold a technological lead, it is tenuous: the other runners are advancing on us, clearly visible in our peripheral vision.

The challenge before us is clear. If we are to stay ahead of the ever-growing wave of global technological innovation, we must out-invent, out-discover and out-innovate our adversaries — and we must do so on a constant, daily basis.

There is no third offset. There is only a continuous offset, the keys to which are speed and effectiveness in translating basic research, discoveries and technological advances into affordable operational products and systems that move quickly into actual, practical use.  Our singular mission can be described in three words: rapid, affordable innovation.

To accomplish this mission, we have launched the Institute for Global Security and Defense Innovation (i-GSDI), where our researchers from across campus will converge all of the relevant academic disciplines, including the social and behavioral sciences, to ensure the university’s focus and commitment to national security and defense innovation. With the launch of i-GSDI, Purdue will be a leading innovator for the nation’s defense and security community. The Institute will provide integrated, world-class scientific, engineering, policy, economic and social science problem solving capabilities and solutions.

The Institute was launched in conjunction of the Global Security and Defense Symposium on Dec 1, 2016, where speakers highlighted the critical role of research universities in global security. Throughout the course of seven keynotes and four panels, the notion of convergent thinking across technology, policy, the social sciences took center stage as a necessary approach to a world of increasing, and increasingly complex, challenges.

The Institute is already assembling faculty and student experts and thought leaders for workshops and integration strategy sessions in key areas of autonomy and hypersonic flight technology, with others to follow shortly after.

This convergence is not confined to campus. On the contrary, and by necessity, i-GSDI is also leading strategic partnerships with critical organizations, including the Naval Surface Warfare Center-Crane Division, Sandia National Laboratories, the Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC), and the Air Force Life Cycle management Center. Each of these partners has recognized that Purdue brings critical, complimentary expertise that both broaden and deepen their respective missions.

Longstanding partnership areas with NSWC Crane, such as trusted microelectronics and power/energy storage, are growing at the same time as new areas like model-based systems engineering (MBSE) analytics and hypersonics are emerging, altogether making the relationship truly strategic for both sides.

Similarly, i-GSDI is developing a deep understanding of the needs of the AF Global Strike Command in areas central to our nation’s nuclear deterrent, such as Nuclear Command, Control and Communications. In support of this mission, the Institute is leading a new relationship with Louisiana Tech University, a key local supporter of AF Global Strike, in order that the two universities can maximize impact on the Command’s mission needs.

Purdue is proud to be one of five universities in the Sandia Academic Alliance Program. The i-GSDI has taken the lead in identifying and connecting critical research needs with combinations of Sandia staff and Purdue faculty. These efforts have already produced numerous research efforts and products, and again are drawn much more clarity to the Purdue ecosystem on the critical technologies needed for a “continuous offset”, including advanced energetic materials, hypersonic systems and novel propulsion concepts, next-generation computing and cyber security, to name a few.

The opportunity for Purdue to contribute to our nation’s security and well-being continues to grow. Faculty teams are converging and responding to grand-challenge-scale proposal solicitations from DOD, DHS, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and others in areas such as homeland security, employing Internet of Things technologies on the battlefield, energetic materials, etc. With sustained support from the government, the private sector and venture capital, universities like Purdue that embrace this commitment to developing innovative, convergent technologies will help ensure our continued lead in defense technology — and the security of our nation.

Our Big Idea

It started with a brainstorming session. We wanted to find new ways to impact some of the most wicked global challenges society faces today, and change the world for the better in the process. We understood the power of convergence, and believed that an approach that coupled research in traditionally siloed STEM disciplines with novel digital technologies and data-based approaches, could provide new insights to confront and tackle many of these grand challenges, particularly when augmented by research and insights from the social sciences and the humanities.

In an effort to capitalize on this idea, and catalyze the type of transdisciplinary research that would bring truly wholistic approaches to solving wicked social problems, we launched a new program: The Discovery Park Big Idea Challenge. Our goal was to harness the strengths of Purdue University, and to provide resources to transdisciplinary teams of Purdue faculty and students pursuing new, bold and innovative ideas with the potential for transformative impact on society.

We issued the call for proposals in October of 2016, and the response from across the university was nothing short of phenomenal. Discovery Park received 46 proposals from more than 230 faculty, representing all 10 colleges and 45 departments. Of those 46 proposals, 16 were selected to advance to a final round. Those teams presented the value proposition of their Big Idea to a panel of judges, which included senior Purdue faculty and other external leaders from industry and academia.

While we were very fortunate to receive many outstanding proposals and compelling presentations, at the end of the deliberation, the frontrunners emerged. The seven winning teams will position Discovery Park, and by extension Purdue, as a leader in generating new solutions to global grand challenges in the areas of sustainability, health and security.


Photo of Catherine HillRevolutionizing Control of Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases
PI: Catherine Hill, professor of entomology and vector biology, Department of Entomology

Overview: New and reemerging mosquito-borne diseases such as Zika, malaria and dengue are on the rise as a result of unprecedented human population growth, habitat destruction and climate change. Scientists are seeking to develop a robust arsenal of weapons to combat these diseases. Hill’s team aims to meet this challenge by developing new control technologies based on non-toxic and non-lethal pesticides that suppress pathogen transmission by mosquitoes. Ultimately, they intend to create and commercialize compounds that disrupt disease transmission from mosquito to human without killing the insect and while preserving biodiversity.


Photo of Leigh RaymondAffordable Net Zero Housing and Transportation Solutions
PI: Leigh Raymond, professor of political science and director of the Center for the Environment in Discovery Park

Overview: Current housing and transportation options create environmental and social challenges and, in particular, impose high costs on low-income families. Drawing on expertise from multiple departments and colleges, Raymond and his team aim to transform the affordable housing sector so that onsite renewable energy and smart home and transportation technologies are the rule rather than the exception.


Phot of Dave EbertHarnessing Technology and Information Fusion to Enable Resilient and Sustainable Food-Water Balance under Evolving Environmental Conditions
PI: David S. Ebert, the Silicon Valley Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and director of VACCINE (Visual Analytics for Command, Control and Interoperability Environments)

Overview: By the year 2030, food production must be increased by 70 percent in order to feed a larger world population. Today, almost 80 percent of the world’s fresh water withdrawals from rivers, lakes and aquifers go to agriculture. Ebert and his collaborators will develop a human-computer collaborative decision-making system for sustainable agriculture that takes into account the complex relationships between real-world data, the socio-political environment and on-the-ground practices. The system will provide planners and policy- and decision-makers with more accurate information than previously possible, helping growers to optimize crop yields and minimize use of water and other resources.


Phot of Tom HertelManaging the Global Commons: Sustainable Agriculture and Use of World’s Land and Water Resources
PI: Thomas Hertel, Distinguished Professor of Agricultural Economics

Overview: The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) are focused on ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. Meeting that goal will require reconciling future demands for food, energy, clean water, biodiversity, climate change mitigation and poverty reduction. Examining the possibility of win-win outcomes, Hertel and his team will establish an applied research consortium to analyze scenarios and explore policy alternatives that promote responsible public and private investment; sustainable management of critical, shared natural resources; and collective action toward meeting the UN’s SDG.


Photo of Yongchen Photonics Science and Technologies for Security and Healthcare Applications
PI: Yong P. Chen, professor of physics and astronomy and of electrical and computer engineering and director of the Purdue Quantum Center

Overview: Approximately 50 million people in the U.S. alone become ill because of contamination by foodborne pathogens and other agents every year. Conventional and standard bacterial detection methods may take up to several hours or even a few days to yield an answer, and are inadequate to solve this problem. Building upon Purdue’s expertise in photonic science and engineering, and collaborations between multiple disciplines and stakeholders, Chen and his team intend to develop photonics-based food pathogen sensors that bridge the gap between university-scale research and real-world deployment, offering enhanced performance at lower cost.


Photo fo Nate HartmanRealizing Next-Generation Smart Manufacturing
PI: Nathan Hartman, the Dauch Family Endowed Professor and Associate Head, Department of Computer Graphics Technology, and director of Purdue’s Product Lifecycle Management Center of Excellence

Overview: The digital revolution ― driven by the rapid emergence of new technologies such as 3D printing, the Internet of Things (IOT), autonomous systems, robotics and others ― is changing the way humans live, work and play. In particular, it is transforming manufacturing, which is experiencing a fourth industrial revolution. Exploring approaches to digitalization throughout manufacturing, Hartman’s team will engage with stakeholders, create roadmaps and develop a cohesive, multidisciplinary approach to next-generation manufacturing aimed at creating a new competitive edge for U.S. manufacturers, and at training the next generation of talent that will carry this revolution forward.


Photo of Dongyan XuTowards Cyber-Physical Vetting of Critical Infrastructures
PI: Dongyan Xu, professor of computer science and interim director of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS)

Overview: Critical cyber-enabled infrastructures, such as those in civil, energy, manufacturing and defense domains, are increasingly the target of cyber or physical attacks that pose significant threats to organizational and national security. However, no strong defenses currently exist that span both the cyber and physical domains. Xu and his team aim to develop an integrated framework for vetting a cyber-physical infrastructure system from both the cyber and the physical perspectives simultaneously. The outcome is expected to provide a new set of models, methods and tools for defending a wide range of cyber-physical infrastructures such as dams, nuclear facilities, IOT systems and others.


These winning teams will receive funding for up to two years, based on the scope, milestones and budget laid out in the proposals submitted. While this funding alone will not be sufficient to truly tackle and solve a challenge of the magnitude and scope presented by these teams, it will help nurture ideas and create opportunities for new and significant external funding—both public and private– that will position these teams and the university as leaders in their areas of endeavor. The teams will chart new pathways to discoveries, innovations and social and policy solutions, while training the next generation of future leaders and interdisciplinary talent.

Because we received a number of exemplary proposals, we also plan to work with the teams that did not obtain funding in this first round to help them identify other partner organizations and mechanisms for achieving their research goals.

We are thrilled to be able to work with these teams, and invite you to follow this blog for updates to their progress and for more information about the transformative work happening at Purdue University and Discovery Park.

A word from the Chief Scientist

We are in the early dawn of a fourth industrial revolution. To explore the societal implications, and the opportunities that this revolution opens for Purdue, I want to start by borrowing the words of Cathy Engelbert, CEO of Deloitte LLP, who recently wrote:

 “The first three [industrial revolutions] unlocked the power of steam, electricity, and information technology, and in the process reshaped the way we live and work. Now we see the convergence of the physical, the digital, and the biological— a fusion revolution—and the implications will be no less sweeping.”

Engelbert suggests that as analytics, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, blockchain, robotics, quantum computing, and 3D printing all rapidly advance, nearly every facet of the human experience will be dramatically altered.

In fact, I would go even further, and argue that the convergence of these and other technologies will impact not only where we live and how we move, but how we protect the environment, how we prevent and cure disease, how we feed the world, how we educate future generations, and how we work.

Convergence is already affecting critical fields such as the health sciences. In a recent report authored by three MIT leaders titled, Convergence: The Future of Health, the authors argue that, “convergence is already showing dramatic progress toward more powerful imaging technologies; nanotechnology for diagnostics and drug delivery; ‘silencing’ cancer genes; re-growing injured body parts, and unraveling the complexity of diseases.” They also caution that despite tremendous progress, “delivering on the full promise of Convergence is hindered by federal research funding practices that often reflect a classical, disciplinary-based structure. This structure harkens back to a time when life science, physical sciences, and engineering were viewed as separate activities…”

However, that threat to progress resides not only with Federal funding agencies locked into models rooted in the past, it also lies within universities vested in the same classical, discipline-based, siloed academic models that have changed little over time. As traditional models of education and research get disrupted, embracing the concepts and power of convergence will be key to making universities truly relevant to society in the future.

At Purdue we are very fortunate. We already have a number of interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate programs. In addition, President Martin Jischke’s vision that created Discovery Park about 15 years ago, provides us with a foundation to lead from the front in the fusion revolution.  At Discovery Park–the place where disciplines converge to solve global challenges–we are focused on a series of initiatives that aim to position Purdue as a global leader in the development of the scientific basis, the engineering and technology solutions, the understanding of the social and policy dynamics, and the future talent that will make this fusion revolution a benefit to all of humanity.

In this blog, I will provide you with a glimpse into the various initiatives that faculty across campus are catalyzing here at Discovery Park to realize this vision of convergence. Our strategic themes capitalize on the core competencies of Purdue in the STEM disciplines, in nanotechnology and advanced instrumentation, big data, entrepreneurship, the social sciences, and understanding complex systems.

By 2050, the global population is expected to reach 9.6 billion. Global megatrends indicate that our planet will need to produce 70% more food by 2030, serve a  40-60% increased demand for energy resources by 2050, and have the infrastructure, technological and dynamic policy solutions to house, protect, and sustain our planet and its people.  Within that framework, Discovery Park seeks to advance research across, and at the intersection of, three main thematic areas:

  • Global Health
    • From innovative new treatment methods to game-changing healthcare delivery systems, Purdue scientists and researchers at Discovery Park are advancing efforts aimed at improving the health of people across the globe.
  • Global Sustainability
    • A global population explosion and the subsequent need for more food, the rise of the middle class and the growth of urban areas – these are global challenges shaping our future and guiding the research in Discovery Park.
  • Global Security
    • Convergence of knowledge is a central tenet of Purdue’s impact on the nation’s defense and security community. Our goal is to provide integrated, world-class scientific, engineering, policy, economic and social science problem-solving capabilities and solutions.

I look forward to sharing our initiatives and the impact that our teams are having in these areas. I invite all of our readers to follow this blog for updates and for information on how you can take part and engage in the exciting things happening at Discovery Park.

Tomás Díaz de la Rubia
Chief Scientist and Executive Director
Discovery Park