It’s hard to imagine what Blount College’s first scholars in 1794 would say about the university’s current research efforts in areas like artificial intelligence, driverless cars, advanced materials manufacturing, and big data. But many of the programs and courses upon which our innovation efforts rely have been a foundation of education at the institution from the very beginning.
Now, 225 years later, these programs and courses have grown into colleges and partnerships that are helping position the university as a leader in advanced research.
Artificial intelligence (AI) and smart technology seem poised to enter into several aspects of life in the not-so-distant future, with things like health care, energy production and distribution, and even home devices like Siri and Alexa already benefiting from the impact of AI.
UT is helping lead this wave of innovation thanks to some of the top researchers in the country, including Lynne Parker, assistant director of artificial intelligence in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Parker is an alumna and former professor who is maintaining her ties to the Min H. Kao Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science while serving the United States as a top expert on artificial intelligence.
She has already played a role in shaping the path forward for AI on a national scale by overseeing interagency science and technology policy coordination efforts in AI. She’ll also look at ways the federal government can work effectively with academia and industry, “forming partnerships that help advance the technology and the science so that everyone in the nation can benefit from it,” according to a White House press release.
Parker will make occasional visits to UT to continue research with her graduate students and discuss strategic research opportunities. “AI is a topic of intense national and international attention, and the world is looking to the United States to provide leadership,” Parker said upon taking the role. “The opportunity to help lead the nation in an area that has such national and international importance, and which has been the focus of my career, is a once-in-a-lifetime privilege.”
UT researchers are helping move other things from the realm of science fiction into mainstream occurrence and acceptance. Take driverless cars, for example.
Professors Asad Khattak and Lee Han, from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, are part of a team that includes UT Chattanooga and the UT Space Institute that is developing better ways of evolving and testing connected and automated vehicles, an important stepping stone to a driverless future.
Their work will allow cars to communicate with other vehicles and collect information along a route, which will allow them to make decisions like when to start applying the vehicle’s brakes—whether because a car in front suddenly slows or because a traffic signal tells it that it is about to move from green to yellow.
“When vehicles can talk to other surrounding vehicles, drivers will better understand the actions of vehicles in front and experience smoother flow of traffic and fewer collisions,” Khattak said. “Right now, all I can do is guess the speed of the car in front of me and guess how strongly it’s braking.”
CREATING NEW MATERIALS
Advanced materials and advanced manufacturing, though perhaps not as flashy as AI or autonomous cars, are perhaps even more important, providing the backbone of the economy of the future, and UT is primed to be a national leader.
Through the UT-led Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI), partnerships with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and other national labs, initiatives with leading universities around the world, and having some of the top researchers in this field of burgeoning importance, UT has become a hub of the new industrial revolution. UT’s experts are leaders in creating new materials and methods of construction, impacting transportation, national security, and industry in general.
The Haslam College of Business, the College of Architecture and Design, the UT Institute of Agriculture, and the UT Space Institute all currently have projects related to advanced materials or advanced manufacturing, in addition to the robust research on both areas in the Tickle College of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences.
Agricultural systems are increasingly expected to meet societal needs that extend far beyond the challenge of feeding an estimated 10 billion people by the year 2050, and to do so sustainably. UT’s Center for Renewable Carbon brings together a multidisciplinary team of scientists studying biomass—a resource available from agricultural residue, new purposely grown crops, and forest resources—and its components to meet those needs.
“CRC’s researchers collaborate with the skilled scientists and engineers at UT, ORNL, and many other institutions and industries involved in expanding our nation’s bioeconomy,” said Timothy Rials, associate dean of the UT Institute of Agriculture, associate director of agricultural research, and CRC director.
“Lithium ion batteries, new materials that aid in removing mercury and oil contamination from our water supply, advanced adhesives for structural wood composites, and improved siding products that make homes more affordable and energy efficient are but a few of the ways our research is making an impact.”
Rials also stressed the importance that biomass holds as a renewable alternative to petroleum, noting that it can be used as a replacement not only for fuel but also for products such as plastics that rely on petrochemicals as a main component.
The driver and influencer of many decisions related to UT’s success in these areas is data analytics, an area of rapidly growing importance globally. High-speed computing and the gathering and interpretation of big data help calculate outcomes and best practices thousands of times faster than would be possible through traditional methods or simple trial and error. Big data and supercomputing are vital to areas in which error is simply not an option, such as medicine and nuclear safety.
As a sign of its importance, the jointly run UT-ORNL Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education added a data science and engineering doctorate in 2017, the first such degree in the country offered in conjunction with a national laboratory.
“Big data will help solve some of the key issues facing our world, whether in business, health care, engineering, or security.”
“Big data will help solve some of the key issues facing our world, whether in business, health care, engineering, or security,” said Haslam College of Business Heath Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor Russell Zaretzki, who is also the graduate director of the Data Science and Engineering program. “Our program not only brings together top minds to help face these challenges but is preparing students to be the next generation of leaders in this important field.”
On the computing side, John Fisher Distinguished Professor Mark Dean, Distinguished Professor Jack Dongarra, and Dongarra Professor Michela Taufer form a formidable trio helping to push the boundaries of computer science. Dean is an IBM Fellow and co-inventor of its first personal computer, Dongarra compiles the annual list of the world’s fastest computers and was recently named a fellow of the Royal Society, and Taufer is currently serving as president of HPC19m, the world’s foremost computing conference. Taufer is also a leading figure in the next wave of computing—edge computing, which involves placing high-performance computers at the edge of where they are needed, in contrast to the more centralized cloud computing.
Just as the Torchbearer’s light leads the way for others, UT is leading the way to help make a better tomorrow for all.