Meet the Future

NYU-Poly's Faculty Discuss the Past Year and What's to Come in Engineering.

We may not have a crystal ball, but we have what may be the next best thing: the collective wisdom of accomplished faculty members in every cutting-edge field from mechanical and civil engineering to gaming and computer science to wireless technologies and mechatronics. Below, one group of esteemed professors looks back on the accomplishments of the recent past and predicts the state of the world—and of engineering—20 years hence. The picture they paint isn’t always rosy, but it’s always fascinating. One point on which they all agree: engineers will be instrumental in ensuring that we meet any challenges we might be facing two decades from now.

Vikram Kapila
Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Director of the Mechatronics Laboratory

Over the past year, our lab has been engaged in the design and development of interfaces for intuitive human-robot interaction through mobile apps for robotics and automation. My graduate students have made tremendous progress in producing highly intuitive apps for Apple devices (iPod, iPhone, and iPad) and Google Android devices that allow users to command, control, and monitor robotic manipulators, mobile robots, and other laboratory apparatus through a variety of inputs (touch, gesture, tilt, drawing, speech, etc.) and outputs (digital readouts, plots, animations, videos, etc.). Our mobile apps for robotics have been envisioned to engage students in laboratory activities, assist people with physical or cognitive disabilities to interact with things like robotic toys and wheelchairs, and help realize the vision of robots becoming commonplace in our society.

We expect that our various research projects on intuitive human-robot interaction will produce significant research results and potential for commercialization activities. On the K-12 STEM education side, over the past decade we have conducted a diverse set of education, training, and outreach activities for K-12 students and teachers. Our recent education research has demonstrated that robotics-based hands-on learning activities can enhance student learning in science and math classrooms.

Starting in summer 2013, we expect to build on our prior efforts to engage K-12 STEM teachers in robotics and entrepreneurship activities so that they can engage, inform, and prepare their students for industry-relevant engineering and technology studies and careers. We anticipate that this approach will serve as a catalyst for a cultural change that will transform students from mere consumers of technology to creators of novel technological products.

Generally, I feel comfortable stating that in 20 years, we will be using our mobile devices not just to perform social networking or consume various media but to interact with physical artifacts such as robots, cars, and appliances.

I am hopeful that in 20 years, engineering topics (e.g., additive manufacturing, robotics, bio-engineering, etc.) will become commonplace in high schools, and students will graduate without having developed negative stereotypes of engineers. For the first time in the U.S., K-12 science education is expected to integrate and address standards related to engineering. This inclusion of engineering in K-12 science standards will allow students to appreciate the real-world context of their classroom learning of science.

Katherine Isbister
Associate Professor of Computer Science and Research Director of the Game Innovation Lab

It is exciting to me to see the incredible shift in the everyday device landscape among consumers--smart phone and tablet sales are steadily overtaking full-scale computers. For someone like me, who researches ways to make interaction with technology more intuitive, natural, social, enjoyable—having access to the person using the device, through touch and movement and cameras, is a tremendous benefit. This means the innovations we are able to make in the lab have a greater chance of reaching a broad audience and making a difference in their everyday lives.

Most of my projects right now are investigating ways to make interacting with technology more socially and emotionally expressive and comfortable--for example, finding ways to repurpose surveillance cameras as a public utility for interaction, and exploring the relationship between fashion and interface to allow people to express a far wider range of their own sentiments and social identity than is normally possible with consumer technology. I see these projects as breaking ground for a new possibility space for everyday technology use that gets us away from desks and keyboards and more engaged with one another and our own physical surroundings.

Over the next 20 years, I see us moving more and more away from seeing technologies (and ourselves) in a 'machine' metaphor, and instead I see engineering and in particular interaction with technology moving more towards a biological and 'natural' metaphor. We will expect technologies we use to adapt to our senses, our emotions, and our ways of socializing with one another. I believe engineers will find ways to make technologies far more graceful in their support of human beings. We may reject some of the most inhumane aspects of the current technological landscape--the overly rapid pace that technology pushes upon us, the ergonomically awkward interface to the computer--and instead find ways to build technology that augments and enhances our work and play more adeptly.


Maurizio Porfiri
Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering

I consider myself a theoretical mechanician with an interest in applications across complex systems, nonlinear dynamics, biological groups, and advanced materials. Given the breadth of these interests, it is very challenging to elect the most exciting development over the past year, but I think I’ve determined a good candidate: the work of Professor Giorgio Parisi and his coworkers on the STARFLAG project in Italy (which started a couple of years ago and is continually developing). This work has demonstrated that neighbor selection in starling flocks is not due to the relative distance between the group members, as it was believed for a long while, but rather that animals identify only a fixed set of neighbors and use them as a reference in their decision making. This finding posits that the emergence of collective behavior in biological groups is controlled by how individuals perceive their surroundings and how they can identify their group members, so even if a starling sees many other starlings close by, it will interact with only a subset of them, selected on the basis of their perceptual limitation.

I believe that our research on the interactions between animals and robots may have a significant impact in both science and engineering by enabling new conservation and protection methods for social animals, along with hypothesis-driven research in animal behavior. Our work focuses on fish although the methodologies and theoretical tools we are developing can be adapted to other social animal systems, such as starlings. We are trying to understand the visual and pressure cues that a bio-inspired robot should elicit to regulate the behavior of live fish, for example attracting or repelling them. Because fish will not talk for a while, our robots can be used to infiltrate a school and inform us about how the decision process takes place in the group. By preprogramming selected behaviors in these robots, we can test a spectrum of hypotheses on animal behavior, including the foundations of models of group behavior. In addition, in case of natural disasters or heavy pollution, our robots can come in quite handy in guiding animals away from danger.

We are continuously witnessing a shift of engineering research towards more basic scientific questions, whereby methods developed for the analysis and design of man-made devices are transitioned to explain natural phenomena. I expect this trend to grow further over the next few years and eventually lead to a new conception of the role of engineering research—especially my general field of mechanics. The mathematical rigor of mechanics will continue to aid the understanding of nature and, I believe, at the same time will feed on it, leading to the development of novel branches of mechanics resting upon science.

Shivendra S. Panwar
Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Director of the Center for Advanced Technology in Telecommunications (CATT) and Faculty Member of NYU WIRELESS

There have been many exciting engineering developments in the last year, and there will be many more in the future. Much of what we do is driven by consumers and the explosive growth in smart phones and other mobile devices. Traffic is doubling every year or two because these are VERY data-hungry devices, and carriers are having a hard time keeping up. So, what’s the solution? Should they build more cell towers? Increase capacity? Buy spectrum? They’re trying but it’s very expensive and there are factors like air rights and landlords to consider.

Soon, half of all cellular traffic will be video—people watching Netflix or YouTube . . . Those activities take about 100 times more power than a voice call. Handling all that traffic is going to be an enormous challenge that we’ll have to address.

So, you can see we need new ideas. One thing we’re working on is called millimeter waves—they’re very tiny and on a relatively un-crowded part of the spectrum. Right now, you could use them only within, say, a single room. Maybe, though, as cells get smaller, it will become more practical and, within three to five years, will be a viable solution.

In the shorter term: if you make cells very small, you can reuse spectrum and thus increase capacity, but then they’re susceptible to a lot of interference. So how do you manage that? One way might be with cooperative communication. In other words, devices will help one another. I like this analogy: Say you’re at a crowded party. Your spouse is across the room. You want to leave, so you yell, “Let’s go home.” He or she hears only the word “let’s.” Luckily, another person at the party hears the word “home,” and because he’s closer to your spouse, he says, “It’s something about home.” So now your spouse has “let’s” and “home” and is able to guess the missing word and realize you want to go home. So we’re working on having devices act as intermediaries like that.]
We very much need to get to a place where the range of cells is extended, less power is needed, and interference is dealt with.

There will be a time when a car driving down a roadway will be able to access small cells within the buildings it’s passing. This will divert traffic away from what we call the macro base stations. The question in that case will be how quickly the transfer from small cell to small cell can be to make this possible.

As far as engineering in general, I’m excited about green technology. Smart grids and power systems are going to be very important. The field of bioengineering—the interface between the human body and technology—is also fascinating, and they’re making huge strides. There’s a professor here (Jonathan Viventi) at Poly studying technologies that may ultimately help detect and prevent seizures, for example.

Speaking more as a layperson, I’m worried about the engineering challenges posed by global climate change. I don’t think you can talk about 20 years; I think it will be much sooner that we see some catastrophic event, much worse than Sandy, which will change everything. Engineers will be at the forefront of dealing with that when it occurs.

Nasir Memon
Professor of Computer Science and Engineering and Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Security and Privacy (CRISSP)

There has been such a surge in the use of mobile devices. They’ve changed how we work and live. I’m not sure all the changes have been for the better though. At CRISSP we’ve been doing studies on trust, risk, and perception and how that affects behavior on-line. Are you the type of person, for example, who will fall repeatedly for a phishing scam? If we assess your personality, we might be able to predict that. We did one study that showed that neurotic people will respond to a fake ad if it purports to be for a limited-time offer. They’re afraid of missing out, so they don’t take the time to make a wise decision. Multitasking also makes it more likely that you won’t be paying enough attention to on-line decision making. This type of information is useful to know so that we can better help users learn to be more security minded and aware of their privacy.

More and more of our lives are going to involve technology. We shop on-line, date on-line, bank on-line . . . much of our lives is basically conducted on-line. And there are malicious people out there who will take advantage of that. We are going to have to be increasingly focused on security.

When engineers design something, reliability has always been a major factor: the bridge has to hold up, the airplane has to get to its destination. We’ve done a great job there. But on 9/11, that very reliable plane had a flimsy door separating the cockpit from the passenger section. We hadn’t been focused enough on security, and that’s going to be more and more of a concern going forward. Think of it this way: if you constantly stay in your house, you’re going to be exposed to fewer dangers than if you travel all over the world, simply because you’ll be exposed to many more people and places. Using the Internet is the equivalent of traveling all over—you’re exposed to millions of people and places and some of them might pose dangers.

Before we spent so much of our time in cyberspace, we watched out for each other; we had the “village”—our neighbors—making sure we behaved well and didn’t violate the social contract. We’re going to have to do it another way now.

Engineers are going to have to work with security in mind. It will be just as important as reliability. And as we do at CRISSP, they’re going to have to take an interdisciplinary approach. Keeping us secure is going to involve not just engineers but policy makers, psychologists, ethicists, law enforcement people and many others.


Masoud Ghandehari
Professor of Civil and Urban Engineering

For the past year, I’ve been working on acquiring data across the multiple domains of our urban systems. If you think of the observations of the 19th-century explorer John Wesley Powell in his book titled Seeing Things Whole, his work is very relevant in the current movement of holistic observations and data acquisition. We have a lot of disparate pieces of information—information about the natural system, our environment; the constructed system, our infrastructure; and the human system, the people. These systems are interdependent in a way that is often the source of cascading breakdowns. Hurricane Sandy is a good example of this. We are beginning to understand the significance of seeing the big picture by acquiring data (for example on air quality, water quality, health, mobility, energy use, etc.) and analyzing it at higher temporal and special resolutions. NYU is taking the lead in this area. The new Center for Urban Science and Progress is a good example, and that’s only one of many multidisciplinary initiatives at the University.
NYU-Poly is doing a great job in the area of urban systems, and that’s a critical field. Our students will make a difference. Technology has been something of a double-edged sword for the health of the planet, but they want to use it for good. They are motivating the faculty to teach in new ways, and they welcome the challenges of being a contribution to the world, enhancing the quality of life for millions—and there are so many areas where civil and environmental engineers can really make a difference. The world population is exploding, particularly in areas that lack the infrastructure and resources to sustain it; this is a major problem. Our students will address how those people will have their fundamental needs met. As a faculty member, this is a real motivation for me.