The age of living machines: A biology-based energy technology revolution

So good afternoon. And welcome to this MIT
Energy Initiative colloquium. We take advantage of our very
distinguished board each year to bring one of
our board members in front of the community to
talk about the topics that are relevant and
interesting to the MIT community around energy. And a number of factors
came together this year to get Susan Hockfield
here at the podium. First of all, she's
agreed to join the external
advisory board, which is extraordinarily appropriate. Because she started it. So she can see what
she put in motion. And it's great to have her
on board in that capacity. But secondly, she
just published a book, on The Age of Living
Machines, which looks at some really interesting
convergences that have affected energy and other areas.

And she's going to
talk about that. She, as I think
the audience knows, was our 16th president at MIT. She served from 2004 to 2012. And in her inaugural
address, she announced, among other
things, two major initiatives. One was convergence of life
sciences, physical sciences, and engineering. And the other was energy. And I think maybe the
first of those two was not so much a surprise
to people on campus. Because she's a neuroscientist
and this is her field. But energy was. And I can recall talking
to Susan about how this priority came to be. And she told the
story of meeting with lots of
faculty and students on campus prior to
her inauguration, and hearing this recurring
theme that the thing we ought to focus on at MIT was energy.

And the way she went
about it, I think, was transformational here
in charging us at MITei with linking across
all of MIT schools and not thinking about
this as a science problem, or an engineering
problem, or a business problem, but thinking about
it very holistically. So she had, I think, a profound
influence on, certainly, shaping MITei as the creator
of MITei, but also, I think, affecting the campus
and the way we look at problems more broadly. She also helped shape national
policy during her tenure. She was appointed by
President Obama in 2011 to co-chair the steering
committee for the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership. So not only the early stage
research that a place like MIT does.

But she was also
heavily involved in how you get that
manufactured at scale and get that out into
the marketplace, which is of course critical
if we're to succeed in meeting the energy challenge
and addressing climate change successfully. She also served as a member of
the Congressional Commission to Evaluate the Department of
Energy laboratories in 2015. As you know, that's a major part
of the DOE spending on research goes to the National Labs, so
a very, very important role.

She's been involved in lots
of professional organizations. I will take all of her
time if I list those. Maybe one I'll mention is that
she's been recently president and chair of the
American Association for the Advancement of Science. And so she continues to do
profound service to the science community and also
to society at large. So it's a real
pleasure to introduce Susan to talk about some aspects
of her book, The Age of Living Machines. Susan. Thank you, Bob.

Well, there are few
things that give me more pleasure than
having been invited to give this colloquium. And I'm not allowed to have any
favorite children, of course. But the Energy Initiative lies
very near and dear to my heart. It was framed up, as Bob
said, in the course of my wandering the campus
and talking to everyone I could possibly persuade to
have a conversation with me– when you're the new president,
that's not such a hard thing to persuade people to do– and asking what
MIT's opportunities and responsibilities were
for the next decade or two. And I was astonished that there
was a unanimous call for MIT to do more to develop
sustainable energy equation for the world. And you know, in a
campus where there are a lot of different
people pursuing a lot of different things from
a lot of different perspectives, that kind of unanimity, let's
just say, never happens. And so there was a real
call from our community to engage in energy. And happily, Bob along
with Ernie Moniz, is willing to step up and
lead this activity that has blossomed in ways that
I could never have imagined.

So I can't tell you what a
privilege it is to be here and to speak with you tonight. My book, which many
of you have picked up, is about more than energy. But energy does factor
into it quite profoundly. I was charged as
president, as I looked across the frontier of
discovery and innovation, to kind of set a course for
where the university would need to be in, let's
just say, 50 years. And I don't know
about all of you. But my crystal ball gets
pretty fuzzy five years out. And so I would kind
of peer and peer.

And I couldn't
really see very much. And then I had this idea
that if I could understand the future we're
living in today, I might be able to figure out
how we got where we are today, and through that imagine
how we get to the future we would be living in in another
several decades, 50 years or so. So that was kind of
the approach I took. And when we think about the
future we're living in today– and I'm looking at this monitor. And I happen to have
one of these here. And I don't know if any
of you has one of these. But the digital
technologies that really underpin almost
everything we do today are a product of a convergence.

And it's the convergence
of physics with engineering that happened at the
beginning of the 20th century. And that has transformed
our lives more profoundly than any set of technologies. The story I'm going to tell
you about, a convergence, is happening today. A new convergence
is happening today between biology and
engineering, convergence 2.0, and how that's bringing forward
a set of technologies that will transform the 21st century,
I believe, as profoundly as the convergence of
physics with engineering transformed the 20th century. So before we start
talking about the future, I have to talk about today,
which I have to tell you, through many lenses
looks a little bit bleak. So we can look at
estimates of where we're going to be by 2050. And most of the numbers
I'll be using today come from various
reports out of the UN. But we are anticipating
that by 2050, there will be close to 10 billion
people living on the planet.

And providing those
10 billion people with the energy, the food, the
water, the health, and health care that we all need is
going to stress and strain us beyond where we are today. Now if you think about
where we are today in terms of sustainable energy– I mean, this audience, I
don't need to tell you. We're already not
doing such a good job. And it is anticipating
that the energy demands of the population that will
be on the planet in 2050 will be double what
those demands are today. In terms of clean water,
we are nowhere near providing clean water
for all the people around the planet who require
clean water for simple things, for eating, and
cooking, and washing. Food security is a
terrible problem. And I'm going to get into
details about that later.

And I'm not going to talk
about it so much today. But the whole issue
of health care access, and efficiency, and
accuracy, and cost remains an enormous challenge. So the future kind of
looks kind of dismal. But you all will
probably know the name of Thomas Robert
Malthus, who articulated a similar problem in 1798. He wrote a treatise about
the principles of population in which he made the
observation that population growth at the time was
outpacing the growth in agricultural productivity. That doesn't sound like
such a happy situation. And he was an
amazing demographer. He looked at birth and death
records across Western Europe and in the UK. And he saw that over
history, this problem had happened again and again.

What happens? Population grows. And it grows faster
than agriculture. This is always going
to end in tears. And it does. There's war. There's pestilence. There's famine. Population would
get reduced back to an appropriate level for
the agricultural productivity. And then the cycle
would begin again. And so his treatise in 1798
was sending a warning cry, the end is near. And you know, he
could have been right. But he was wrong. At that time, he was wrong. And he was wrong because there
were new technologies that were changing the game around
agricultural productivity. Two that I would mention– the first is four
field crop rotation. So farmers in Britain
were figuring out how to produce more food
on the land they had by using those lands
more efficiently. And the second
magnificent technology was actually discovered by
those sea faring explorers who I read about in fourth grade. I don't know what grade
you all read about them or learned about them– those daring people
were sailing the oceans, looking for, as I read in
my social studies book, gold, jewels, tobacco,
all these exotic things that they were bringing back. But you know the other thing
they discovered while they were on their voyages were a
number of islands, islands all over the seas that
were uninhabited by people but densely inhabited by birds.

In fact, many of these islands,
you couldn't even see the land. Because there were just
piles of bird guano. Now some of you may be
chemical engineers or chemists. And you will recognize
that in bird guano is one of the most essential
elements for increasing food productivity– nitrogen. So there was a thriving
trade in bird poop. I didn't read about that
when I was in fourth grade. But that may have been
the most important product that these seafarers
brought home. And that addition to the
British farming methods caused agricultural
growth to blossom. And population growth followed. Of course, when
there was more food, there were more people born. And one of the ways
I think about it is that growth in population
around the beginning of the early 19th
century provided the people that were needed
for the Industrial Revolution.

So Malthus was
wrong at that time. We are now at the point
of Malthusian dilemma. And I would assert that
we will get our way, solve our way, out of
this Malthusian dilemma the same way, by innovation. And I think there are
many routes to innovation. And I'm going to
describe one of them that I think, is
really important. So let's go back historically
and think about the future we're living in today. Where did these digital
technologies come from? So here I'm illustrating two
of the important people who made our iPhones possible. On the left is Michael Faraday,
who was one of the world's best experimenters, discovers
about the principles the forces of electromagnetism. He did just extraordinary
experiments. But he was understanding
the behavior of electricity and the behavior of magnetism. He had no idea what
gave rise to it. He was a discoverer of
the basic principles of the forces of nature. It wasn't until J. J.
Thompson, in 1897, discovered the electron and other people
in his cadre who discovered the components of the
physical world, that gave rise to the electric magnetic forces
that Faraday had studied.

So in a sense, by the discovery
of the electron, the proton, subatomic particles,
physicists provided the world with a parts list. Now engineers love parts lists. And those engineers picked
up the physics parts list and turned them
into electronics, radios, televisions. So the electronics
revolution was born. There was not an electronics
industry in 1900. Now for this audience I
probably don't need to say it. But I think it's so
important for us to remember. Neither Faraday, nor Thompson,
nor any of the people who were doing these studies
about the physical nature of our world, were doing
it to build a television. They were doing it
because they were simply curious about the way
things in the world worked. Now, while many of
you in the room, like I, have gotten enormous
joy from studying the way things work, there are always doubters. This story may be apocryphal. But it's so great. I have to tell it. And this is a conversation,
presumably between William Gladstone, who is
Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary of the Treasurer– and he asked Faraday, what the
heck is the use of these toys you were playing with? And Faraday is reported
to have replied, I have no idea what the use
of these things might be.

But someday, sir,
you will tax it. Indeed. So this kind of fundamental
discovery, basic exploration, gives rise to understanding
about how the universe works, in this case, the parts list
of physics that gets turned into new technologies, new
technologies and new industries that have provided
enormous economic growth. This is the route to
bettering our world and growing our economy. And as all of you know who
have been in the trenches in the lab, the process
is insanely inefficient. But there is no better route
to discovery that we know. So this convergence of
physics with engineering developed a pace. And I love talking
to MIT audiences. Because I can really
drill down on the MIT specific points of the story. But one of my
favorite descriptions of the power of using
a physics parts list was an essay by
Carl Taylor Compton that was in Nature in 1937. And he described
the magnificence of the discovery
of the electron. He said well, there are a
lot of celebrations going on about various anniversaries. Why aren't we celebrating the
anniversary of the electron? Come on, guys.

This has been so important. I'm not going to read this. Hopefully all of
you can read it. No, there is something
I have to say, that within one generation,
the discovery of the electron transformed this stagnant
science of physics, a descriptive
science of chemistry, and a sterile science of
astronomy– oh my goodness, this is so insulting– into dynamically
developing sciences fraught with
intellectual adventure. Oh, and even beyond– this is just so great– with
interrelated interpretations of practical values. And by practical values,
he meant just what I've been talking about,
electronic technology that produced part of an industry
that really transformed the economy of
the United States. Fabulous. Remember the date. 1936, he gave this lecture. The paper was published in 1937.

This was a Carl Taylor Compton
that few of us would recognize. Because we recognized
the Carl Taylor Compton who participated in
the technological magnificence of World War II. So this convergence,
convergence 1.0, was coming along, but
a little sleepily. There's no powerful accelerant
to technology development than a war. World War II arrived. And another MIT
figure, Vannevar Bush, who had been Dean
of Engineering, was recruited to lead the
development of science and technology for World War II. In 1940, the Allies
were nowhere in terms of developing the technologies
needed to confront the military force of Germany.

But Vannevar Bush put together
an amazing effort in the United States– and others countries
participated as well– that ended up winning the war. If you think about the
things that came out of the war, radar, sonar, the
foundational material for GPS, foundational discoveries for the
internet, supersonic transport, you know, all of the
kind of air, flight, that we take for
granted today, all came out of this
incredible investment, enormous financial investment,
enormous intellectual investment in
winning World War II.

So as the war was drawing to
an end, FDR turned to Bush and said, what have we learned? And Bush wrote one of the most
amazing treatises in response to FDR's question, Science,
the Endless Frontier. Many of you will have read all
of it or at least some of it. It is breathtakingly prescient. He lays out the blueprint
for the second half of the 20th century in America. And it is the G. I. Bill. And it is community colleges. And it is mortgages
for returning G. I.s. And it is importantly
an exhortation to continue the
kind of investments in fundamental science that
produced the technologies that won World War II.

He's saying don't pull back. Remember, at the end
of a war, every nation has more than expended its
budget, is deeply in debt. The people who
have fought the war are coming back home,
looking for jobs. But the economy collapses. Because what government is going
to continue to shell out money when they are bankrupt. So Bush suggested that
if we didn't actually do the natural thing, which
is to close up our pocketbooks and stop spending money,
but instead continuing to invest to grow the economy– It was a totally
antithetical approach to a nation that had
just come out of the war. So what he wrote to FDR is
that the lessons learned in the wartime
application of science can be profitably
applied in peace. So among the things that he
recommended was that research, dollars, be spent to continue
this incredible foray into basic discovery.

Because he knew
those discoveries would one day be taxable. But he said, well, how are
we going to spend the money? So we're not going to
set up separate research institutes, which was,
frankly, the German model. He said what we're
going to do is we're going to
invest these research dollars in our universities
and change what our universities did,
turn them to purely institutions of education
and to engines of research. So we have him to thank for the
research university in America. Who is going to decide
where the money should go? So Bush said, we're not going
to have a person who decides it. We're going to do
it by peer review. Because the people on
the frontier of a field are in the best positions
to understand what should be invested
in for the future. Anyway, it's brilliant.

It was fantastic, a great way to
head off in the postwar period. Except FDR died. And his successors were not
as enthusiastic about the Bush plan as FDR had been. So things were coming
along a little bit slowly. And then there was a shock
to our system, Sputnik. All of a sudden, the Russians
were out ahead of us. And Kennedy picked up
the call by setting out the ambition, the
national ambition, to send a human to the moon
and bring that human back. It was a startling ambition. Because when he announced
this in the early 1960s, we didn't have any of
the technologies that would be needed. So this is a quotation
from a speech he gave at Rice University.

And it's been used a lot
during this year of celebration of the 50th anniversary of the
first men to walk on the moon. But I just love it. We choose to go to the
moon in this decade and do the other things,
not because they're easy, but because they are hard,
and because that goal will serve to organize and measure
the best of our energies and skills. And indeed, it did.

Any of you who have seen the
Draper exhibition of the lunar landing will recognize
all of the components that made it possible for us to
get to the moon and back. So I am a huge fan now
of shared ambition. It's what the Energy
Initiative did for this campus. And the race to the moon
was a national ambition for our country. And it reached beyond the
people who actually participated in building the technologies. It reached down to kids. And people often ask
me where I came from. How did I come to have
the career that I had? And I simply say, I grew up
under the shadow of Sputnik. This is a picture of me
with my three sisters. And let's just say
my older sister was more brilliant and
more adept at some things. My next younger sister
was a marvelous artist. But somehow, I got this bug. I understood this thing
about a national ambition of what science and technology
could do for the world and what we could
do as individuals.

I include this with
some, actually, significant embarrassment. I don't know how my
mother found this. This was a little
illustrated essay that I did when I
was in second grade. And I thought I was writing
the story about someone else. And in retrospect, I was
writing my own autobiography. And for those of you who are
close enough to the screen, let's just say my spelling
was never very good. The drawing was just
not very good either. My younger sister
was a great artist. In any case, the point
is simply to tell you that this national
ambition swept a lot of us along into doing things that
we would never have imagined doing were it not for
that great goal post that President
Kennedy had set out. Now for me, also reflecting
on my career as a scientist, it's this last bit that
I just find so curious. Because I say maybe
you will figure out how to go to the moon.

But it would be fun. And this underscores
the fantastic paradox that we enjoy here in
a research university, that you do something that gives
you enormous joy and pleasure yourself. But these are things that also
make life better for others. So the products of
the convergence 1.0, the convergence of
physics with engineering, are all of these modern
miracles that frankly we can't imagine life without them. So where was
biology at the time? Just about nowhere. Biology was a boring
descriptive science, not even good enough for Compton
to mention in his litany of how boring science was. But biology was about to change. So starting in the
late 40s and 50s, the revolution, the first
revolution in modern biology, molecular biology, took form. And there was a small
army of investigators– many of them were
physicists by training– who began to decode the
parts list of biology. So molecular biology
reduced all of biology into a single discipline.

And I know from where
we sit today, it's hard to imagine the world
before we understand that DNA encodes for life. Now I went to college
from 1969 to 1973. And even then, microbiology
was separate from botany, was separate from
animal behavior, was separate from biochemistry. This is all different things. And molecular biology united
all of the biological fields into one. They all operate by the same
rules, by the same parts list. Here I'm illustrating
Francis Crick, Jim Watson, Rosalind Franklin, and
Maurice Wilkins, together who discovered that DNA was
the heritable substance. The paper that Watson and
Crick published in 1953 describing the structure of
DNA is Nature one page long. Changed history. And in the end, there's
this throwaway line that basically says
it has not escaped our notice that the structure
of this molecule that we have described here would allow
for self replication, meaning that DNA not only
is this beautiful molecule.

But because it can come
apart and replicate itself, this is the secret of life. The products of the
molecular biology revolution just can't be described
sufficiently powerfully, identifying particular genes
for diseases and then ways to target those
genes with drugs. The one example I'll
offer is the drug Herceptin that was
produced by Genentech was approved by the FDA in 1998. And it had been 15 years between
the discovery of the HER2 gene by Bob Weinberg and the
production of this drug, which is a lifesaver. Because women who have a
variant of breast cancer that has the HER2 mutation– up until the development
of Herceptin, it was a death sentence. Just one example of
the incredible power of molecular biology. But molecular biology was
not enough by itself for one by one, going through genes. Kind of slow, not enough
to study populations. But genomics changed
that dramatically. So the bottom line here,
the kind of crooked line that goes down
very, very rapidly, is the cost of sequencing
a genome, one way simply to measure progress. This is a technology progress. It's also a science progress. But the first genome took 10
years and cost $100 million to sequence.

And today, you can get
your genome sequence at a reasonable
level of resolution for well less than $1,000
in less than half a day. This is all because
of technology. Let me also be sure that I
remember to say at this point that it is not that the
convergence of physics with engineering and the
products of that convergence are going away. They will continue to underpin
all of the technologies that are being developed. And the greatest
example, I think, is the power of genomics
today, which is powered by computational advances. Just for fun I like to compete
the reduced costs of sequencing the genome with Moore's law. Moore's law is
awesome, the doubling of transistors on a
chip every two years. But you know, go from
40 million transistors on a chip in about 2002
to 18 billion in 2016. That's good
progress, just not as fast as the reduction in cost
of sequencing a human genome.

OK, so this gave us a
parts list for biology. When I arrived at
MIT, Tom Magnanti was then the dean
of engineering. And I met with him,
of course, early on. And his first
message reminded me. He said, remember the
School of Engineering at MIT is the largest
and most important school, nearly 400 faculty. I said, yep, got
that Tom, got that. But then a second thing
just knocked me over.

He said, and 1/3 of
those almost 400 faculty are now using biological
parts in their work. And I said, OK, you mean
like biomedical engineering? And he said, well, like
biomedical engineering and a host of other things. And for me at that
moment, the door opened about this convergence
of biology with engineering. Engineers love a parts list. And the parts list from biology
has been enormously productive in the hands of engineers. So I'm just going to
give you three examples. And the examples are off
in the energy domain. Because you are all aware
of this incredible nexus between energy, food, and
water, all interdependent. And if we don't
get them all right, we're not going to find our way
out of this Malthusian dilemma. And I'm going to give
you an example from each of these areas of a
convergence technology that is changing the game
or could potentially change the game for all of them.

So the first thing I'm going
to talk about is energy. And the picture
is Angie Belcher. And she is holding up– she's holding an abalone
shell, one of these things. So Angie went to college
at UC Santa Barbara in graduate school. And she loved walking the beach. I kind of say, who doesn't
love walking the beach? But I confess that Angie
walked to the beach with a greater purpose than
the way I walk the beach. She walked the beach
because she fell in love with the abalone shell for
a very important reason.

She said this is an
amazing technology. It's lightweight. It's strong. The abalone uses
simply the materials in the ocean in which they
live to build this shell. And when the abalone
dies, the shell disintegrates into
its component parts, providing the parts
for the next abalone to be able to build its shell. And Angie says,
if the abalone can build the technology it
needs without contaminating its world, why can't we? And what Angie has spent
most of her career on is using the tools of biology
to build new kinds of things. And one of the kinds of things
that she's built is batteries. On the right hand side,
that funny looking thing that runs across above
the car is an illustration of a virus called M13. Viruses, thanks to the work
of those early molecular biologists, have
become great tools for biological methodologies.

So Angie said, we've got
this lab stream of virus M13 that's really good at
finding organic materials. Viruses are great at binding
into, let's just say, the respiratory
epithelium of your lung and giving you a cold. That's what viruses do. Viruses don't generally
bind inorganic materials. But Angie said, I wonder
if we could get viruses, if she could persuade viruses,
to bind to inorganic materials. And she began to
evolve the M13 virus in ways that would
make it possible that the virus would bind to
the materials of batteries.

She succeeded. And she has built
anodes and cathodes out of viruses that
organize battery components. She then puts these virus
enabled anodes and cathodes into coin cell containers. So inside this abalone shell
are her virus enabled batteries. They look like any old
batteries that you'd buy to replace the
batteries in your remote. Now I've got to
just remind you all that our energy
challenge is enormous. I told you.

The energy demand is
going to double by 2050. And the way out of this
is alternative energies. I love solar. I love wind. Who doesn't? Just great. But sometimes, the
sun doesn't shine. And sometimes, the
wind doesn't blow. And so energy storage is
the rate limiting technology for alternative energies. Everyone who's part of the
Energy Initiative knows that. It was one of the first energy
lessons I learned at MIT. And people think
that, well, great. We'll just build
more battery plants. And that's actually not
a great solution today.

Because battery manufacturing
is unsustainable, requires an enormous input of
energy, very, very high heat. And there are a lot
of toxic byproducts. One of the magnificent
things about the M13 made batteries is that they're
made at room temperature and without toxic byproducts. The batteries
Angie has persuaded viruses to make have the same
charge density and recycling capabilities as state of the
art lithium ion batteries. Sounds pretty darn good. I came back from
one of these talks. And someone had asked a
question about batteries. I don't remember what
the question was. But I do remember
Angie's answer when I ran into her in the hallway. She said oh, we're not using
lithium in our batteries anymore. And we're not using cobalt. And
she tell me what they're using. I'm not going to tell you. But I thought, this
is just incredible. So to be able to make batteries
that have the same charge density of state of the art
lithium ion batteries that are made much more
sustainably is going to be one of the
solutions to our energy dilemma. Simply waving your hands
and saying solar and wind– that's not going
to get us there.

It's going to be
part of the problem. What we really need is
better energy storage. And happily, there are a lot
of energy storage technologies under development at MIT. So that's the energy story. The next story story
is about water. So 70% of the Earth's
surface is covered by water. Something like 3% of
it is fresh water. Only 1% of that is
available for us to use. And you know, Cape Town, South
Africa had a water crisis. It seems to me every few months,
we hear about another place in the world that should have
plenty of fresh water that doesn't. This is a very, very
serious problem. We've been using the same
methods for water purification for thousands of years. There's a drawing
in a tomb in Egypt that shows water
filtration through sand. Filtration distillation–
that's what we got. And they're just
not good enough.

So the question is
how are we going to provide more clean water? We've got tons, gallons, more
than we need, of ocean water. But we need to be
able to desalinate it. So this is one of these
amazing stories of science, full of serendipity, and
unpredictable twists and turns. What's shown on the left– and I apologize, because I
can't point to everyone– is a cell membrane. The cell membrane is kind
of the lollipop structures with the two legs. And embedded in that membrane
is a cross section of a channel.

So the membranes
in all of our cells allow particular materials
to move in and out of a cell through these channels that
basically look like barrels without a top or a bottom. And they're highly specific. People had assumed,
once they understood that there were channels that
moved things across the cell membrane, that there would
be a channel for water. And it was searched
for 20 or 30 years. And no one could find it. And we say OK, that's great. Water doesn't have a channel. Crosses membranes
through diffusion. A reasonable idea. And then Peter Agre, who is a
hematologist at Johns Hopkins, was in search of a red blood
cell protein, the Rh protein.

The Rh protein causes a problem
that actually, we figured out how to fix, which is that
if a mother's red blood cell protein, Rh protein, does not
match her fetus's red blood cell, Rh protein, the
mother's immune system can raise a reaction and
actually damage or kill the fetus. We now know how to
mitigate that problem. But we didn't know what
the Rh protein was. So Peter, a hematologist,
said oh, that's a good problem for me.

I will find the Rh protein. Purified red blood cells. Got their membranes. Went through the standard
protein purification things. Got the single band on the
gel that we all dream of. Made an antibody to it and
discovered it was a mistake. He got the wrong protein. Well, what do you do? So most of us say, OK well. I'll go back and do it
again, and again, and again. And something about this
protein intrigued Peter. So he just couldn't let it go. Crazy, crazy. A colleague of his suggested
that maybe this protein was the water channel. And Peter said, wait, there
isn't a water channel. But somehow he
continued to pursue it. And indeed, it was
the water channel that he had stumbled upon. He named it aquaporin– I just love that
name, the water pour– and has kind of launched
a cottage industry studying this water channel. Most aquaporin molecules–
all of our cells have aquaporin proteins
in them and the membranes. All plants, all living
things, use aquaporin. There are variants of it. But most aquaporin channels are
absolutely specific for water.

They don't let anything else
go into or out of the cell but water. He did incredibly beautiful
characterisations. He won the Nobel Prize
in chemistry for it. I mean, it was a
phenomenal discovery. And as he published
the descriptions of it, there was a biophysicist
entrepreneur in Chicago at the time, named Peter
Holme Jensen, who was reading the Structure paper about this. And he had a crazy thought. He said, huh, if our
cells can purify water with this aquaporin
protein, maybe we could build water
filters out of it. Huh, a little bit of
a scaling problem. In any case, in
writing this book, I went to visit Peter Holme
Jensen at his company, Aquaporin A/S,
outside of Copenhagen. And indeed, they have
built water filters using the aquaporin protein. They've relied on the
biopharmaceutical industry's methodology for growing
up lots of organisms that make lots of proteins. The problems are a little
different for the aquaporin protein than for, say, you know,
any of the biological drugs that you might take.

But it's an absolutely
fascinating process. So what's illustrated
in the middle is a cross section of a
membrane sphere that includes aquaporin proteins in it. And they came up with
this very cute thing that it's very hard
to flatten a membrane, so they just use these spheres. And at the top
right in the middle there are red and
light blue things that represent dirty water.

The water goes through
one side of the sphere. Comes out the other. And at the bottom is pure water. There is an example
of, actually, a photograph of one of
the Aquaporin filters that's been packaged. And in homes in
Asia, they're now marketing Aquaporin
filtration devices. Highly efficient,
very, very effective. Their dream, their ambition,
is to scale up this technology to provide water filtration for
all kinds of commercial use. An amazing convergence story. The third story is about food. The food challenge is
really quite daunting. For the book, I went out and
visited the Danforth Plant Science Center outside St.
Lewis, where they're inventing new ways to make better food. The director of the
Danforth told me that if we use our current
agricultural technologies to meet the demands,
the food demands by 2050 is going to require
new farmland that's equal to the landmass of South
America and Africa combined.

I don't know where we're
going to find that land mass. It's just not clear to me
that all of South America would actually be amenable
to becoming our new farmland. So we need better plants. We need better plants
that are more efficient, that are more effective. We need better ways of
getting food to market. Now I'd be happy
to talk about GMO. GMOs have been
enormously impactful. And we can talk
perhaps in the Q&A about the debate about GMOs. But if we think about
how we've already improved crop productivity,
at the beginning of the 20th century,
we were producing 50 bushels of corn an acre.

It's now 150 bushels
of corn an acre. We have incredibly
increased productivity. And we've got to do
better than that. Now it's one thing if there
is a particular gene that might want to add or take
out, or a particular chemical that you want to
add or subtract. You know, that doesn't
begin to explore the treasure trove
of possibilities that exist in nature. Now, humans have been
exploiting that treasure trove of food possibility
for thousands of years by selecting the plants that
are most likely to produce good food, growing them,
and each year selecting better and better variance. So we've moved along. But it's a little bit slow. And it's really hard to do. So if you really want
to tap into the treasure trove of variance
that is the treasure trove of different phenotypes,
what a plant actually looks like, you've
got to really amplify how many plants you can assay.

And that's what's going
on at the Danforth. On the left side shows
you one way they have of computationally
following a plant. So at the end of
the day, in order to find the crops that you want
to explore nature's treasure trove, you've got to be able
to follow thousands of plants from seed through product. And that is a very
complicated task.

So the left shows an example
of how at the Danforth Center, they're using
computational methods to follow the development
of plants in a greenhouse. That's one problem. But a greenhouse
isn't good enough. And on the right is an
example of a new kind of way of monitoring plants over
the history, again, from seed to product of thousands of
different plants in the field. And this is a big
collaboration that the Danforth has with a number of other
agricultural centers. And it promises to
be able to identify the kind of plants that
will be able to produce the kind of crops we need. So I've talked about
the convergence. It is very hard to do. Innovator's dilemma. On our campus, you know
our School of Engineering being separate from
the School of Science has worked pretty well. Why don't we just
continue doing that? Well, we can't
continue doing that. Because there's no
conversation between them. And there are challenges. Because engineers and biologists
speak different languages.

They have different approaches. They define problems
differently. So you have to
architect collaboration. And one of the ways at MIT that
we've architected collaboration is through the
Energy Initiative. And I'm I just do a
little bit of a high five to the Energy Initiative. Because it's just been
enormously successful. It was launched in 2006
to be cross disciplinary. And I have to tell
you, you can read all of these fantastic
statistics about the Energy Initiative. But I will confess. Are there any graduate
students in the room today? Great.

And so it was the
graduate students at MIT that really led the way. The student-organized Energy
Club was inspiring, I'm like, hey, Bob, where do we get the
ideas about how to organize cross disciplinary
groups to study energy. It was from our students. Some of our very, very best
ideas come from our students. But the idea was that if
you're getting an MBA at Sloan or a PhD in
mechanical engineering and you want to be an
energy professional, that is not enough. You need to know
about energy from many different perspectives. And the student self-organized
themselves to actually share information and knowledge. And that's what the Energy
Initiative has done for MIT. And it has been more
successful than I could ever have imagined. Different ways of
measuring success– of course, the
money that has been raised to be deployed
for energy studies. When I left the presidency,
a quarter of the MIT faculty had participated in
research sponsored by the Energy Initiative.

There are very few things
that you could say, at MIT, a quarter
of the faculty do, besides complain about parking. And a number of probably
more than 60 energy startups have come out of the
Energy Initiative also, really making an impact. Another way the Energy
Initiative has made an impact is through this incredible
series of very, very deeply analytic studies talking about
what it would take to a future where solar energy works better,
where the electric grid works better. And these are admirable
for coming out of a academic
institution and yet being incredibly collaborative,
people participating across disciplines. And I can share a story
of someone reflecting on MIT's ability to do
this from another school where it just is not possible. Hugely productive. Now, we've talked about
some of the challenges of the 21st century. How are we going
to meet the needs of 10 billion– let's hope, 10
billion more wealthy people? And it has to start with
investments in basic research. It is the seed corn, the raw
material, for innovation.

Robert Solow, one of
our great economists, won the Nobel Prize for making
the observation that over 50% of US economic growth
after World War II was attributable to technology. Very important. We all in this room
may believe it. There are always
those who doubt it. I told you the
story about Faraday contesting against the
Chancellor of the Exchequer. This is another great story. This is Ernest Rutherford,
the father of nuclear physics. If anyone in the
world should have imagined what nuclear
power might be, it should have been Rutherford. And yet, in 1933,
he says, anyone who thinks that there
might be useful coming out of these things is nutty. But in less than 20 years,
the first nuclear power plant started up again. Basic research, by its nature
inefficient– the only route to discovery. But that means
you've got to invest. And the red line here shows
what federally funded research has done over the time
since around 1950. There was a peak in the
mid 1960s when we reached expenditures of 2% of GDP.

We've now fallen off to
about 0.7% and 0.8% of GDP, in terms of federal
funds, that are going into fundamental research. What I also show here, that our
total research and development expenditures as a
nation have held steady. Because industry has
contributed more than it has in the past
to this equation. However, those
industry funds don't go to fundamental research. They actually go to development. And they will have
very little to develop if we haven't put some
federal dollars into the seed corn, which is the
fundamental discovery. Now, in the second half
of the 20th century, the United States played this
game basically on our own. The countries in Europe that
might have competed with us were investing
all of their money in rebuilding their countries.

But the scene is
very different now. In here, I show the
expenditures, again, as percent of GDP of
a number of countries that want to be very much
like the United States. They want to be the economic
engine for their own countries and for the world. There are already
South Korea, Japan, and Germany that
are over-spending what the United States does. But that purple line that creeps
up from 1991 at less than 1% to getting close to where
we are today is China. And I anticipate
whether it's next week or next month, China will
surpass us in their commitment to funding the seed corn for
an innovation-based economy.

I guess we should be happy that
these great new innovations will come from
somewhere in the world. But I think the United
States possesses a magic mix of qualities that
make us a really great place to actually invent the future. So what do we need to
do to kind of, you know, get this economic
engine back on track? We need to have sustained
federal investments in basic research. You can't have year
to year variations or you start up an experiment
and close them down. These experiments take many
years, decades in some cases. One of the things that has
been a challenge in thinking about the convergence is
how things are funded. So the kinds of projects
that I describe, these of biology
with engineering, don't really fit into
some easy funding source.

The NIH funds biomedical
and biological research. The NSF funds computational
and engineering research. DOE has funded a lot
of physics research. It is very hard to get
funding to cross disciplines until you've actually
already done the work. And so that's not good. Once in a while,
as a nation, we've gotten together to
do a cross agency kind of collaborative
funding effort. The Brain Project right
now is one of those. The Human Genome Project– great example. NIH and the DOE
collaborating or competing. I don't know what
you want to call it. In any case, both of
them put money in. So we do it episodically. But we need to figure
out how to make those investments a regular
part of our funding budget. I'm very worried about our
investments in tough tech. So the kinds of technologies
I've described today don't get developed
in 18 months.

It takes years,
decades in some cases, to scale up from
a science project into a product for
the marketplace. And right now we don't privilege
in any way very long term investments. And I think we need to think
very hard about how we persuade people to put their money
and their investments in places that are going to take
a long time to actually produce the products that will
get us to a better future. And of course, being
at MIT, point number four almost goes unsaid. We're pretty darn good at the
academy Industry collaboration. And the Energy
Initiative, in my mind, is one of the signal
triumphs of bringing industry into our conversation
so that we can actually understand the problems from
the perspective of industry and understand from the
perspective industry how interesting ideas can
get into the marketplace.

I think we can probably
continue to make that better. But this is not common
across our country. So in closing, I
just want to say that I am certain that the
technologies that will get us out of the Malthusian
dilemma this time will come from many,
many different sources. But one particular theme that
just became kind of the calling card, essentially,
of my presidency is this convergence between
biology and engineering, putting the biology
parts list to work. When I visited Aquaporin,
Peter Holme Jensen said something that just
kind of knocked me sideways. He said, you know, we could
bust our brains trying to design a new water filter.

Why don't we just
use nature's genius? And that's indeed what all
of these technologies do. They use nature's genius,
things that nature has already solved and figured
out how to use, nature's solutions to build
the technologies that we need without ruining our world. So I'm also a big fan
of national ambitions. And I think that if we could
just choose any of these– I would choose energy
if it were up to me– can we develop the technologies
to build a better energy future? I think we can.

So with that, I'll close
with a picture of the book. And thank you very,
very much for coming. That's it. [INAUDIBLE] So thank you very much. That was fantastic. We have some time
for some questions. So think about your questions. And we're going to have– hold up your hands. And we'll have some
mics to come around the room for the questions. While we're waiting
to do that, I was intrigued by your
statement about the parts list that we have.

And part of your book
you didn't tell about was in the introduction about
the young Susan Hockfield, who was forever taking apart
things at home and putting them back together with extra
parts on the floor. I don't know how
many of you remember doing that as a young kid. So I'm interested
in that experience and not just the discovery of
mechanism– so like Aquaporin, for example, or this
way to assemble batters. But how do you bring that
together with your experience, for example, with Obama's
commission with manufacturing? Because as you've
alluded many times here, a challenge in energy, and in
food, and in water is scale. So how do we build
this up fast enough to meet the demands of this
10 billion person population that we're going to have? Yeah. So many, many different
themes in there. As a kid, like I'm
sure many of you, I was really curious
about the world around me. And the way to understand
things was just to take them apart and see– I didn't– putting them together
was not that big on my list.

And again, so you all know,
actually my real background– my PhD is in anatomy, just kind
of following the same thing. I just understand things
by taking them apart. And Bob and I talked about this. Unfortunately, the way education
still is structured today, I had no exposure
to engineering. My father was an
electrical engineer. And I watched him fix
everything around the house.

But it didn't mix. I didn't relate that to his
education in engineering. And it wasn't until I was Dean
of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Yale and I had
oversight of the engineering departments that I
actually saw engineering up close and personal. And I remember talking to the
Chairman of the Mechanical Engineering
Department, Mitch Smoke and him telling me
what they were doing, and this realization. And I said, Mitch, I could
have been an engineer. I didn't know. And I think it's a problem. Because it's hard to
teach theoretical physics. We do teach theoretical
physics to everyone at MIT. But for fourth
and fifth graders? I think it's probably easier
to teach them engineering and more ready. And you never meet a
five or six-year-old who hasn't invented something.

And so I think we
are missing out on a lot of the
opportunity for kids, the way we insist that you
learn theory before practice. I think you learn practice
and learn the theory from the practice. This other question
about how we accelerate the translation of
basic discoveries into the marketplace,
there are two parts. The first is a
mentor of mine used to ask me how many
people I had in the lab as I was just building the lab. And I would see
him every summer. And one summer, I said I
had 10 people in the lab.

And he said, oh that's great. Now something will
always be working. On a good day, that's the
yield in the lab, is 10%. And so you've got to
put a lot of stuff– you got to get a
lot of opportunities in order to yield. And so this is the
important thing of funding fundamental research,
the answer for which you don't know. So that's the first part of it. But the next part that really
does scare me is the scale up. I was on the board of GE and– sorry, just a quick story. When I first arrived
at MIT in 2005, Ely Sachs came, one of the
inventors of 3D printing. And he brought me this beautiful
little model of building 10 that he had 3D printed.

Plastic, of course. Beautiful. And then, of course, I couldn't
go anywhere with someone showing me a plastic trinket
that their 3D printer had made. And I thought, OK,
plastic trinkets are cool. I'm not sure they're going to
solve our industrial problems. And then I went to
the GE research lab. And I was shown a 3D
printed metal piece. And it looked like
the dog's breakfast. And I just thought to
myself, how is this ever going to become anything? But the GE research lab
actually had a commitment to moving this
kind of technology up the development path. And of course, now they're
building jet engines with 3D printed fuel nozzles. And many of the parts
are 3D metal printed. So that piece is
really important. And I worry that all
of our incentives are misaligned for the early
stage and then a late stage.

And what company
can survive today when racing to the bottom
line of squeezing out every last straight
dollar in the equation? It's a very inefficient process. So I worry about that. And I think as a nation, we
don't have industrial policy. I hate that. We've always had industrial
policy in one way or another. We've got to figure out
where we want to go. Yeah. Questions? We have one here. Produce a chart that shows how
productive basic research is to the economy. Why is it such a hard sell? Why can't we get more money
than we're currently getting? Well, that's a
really good question. And I think one of the things
that has been a constant– as the composition
of Congress changes from one side to
the other, Congress has actually been pretty
receptive in funding research, pretty receptive.

But I think there is always
the inefficiency problem. And as we increasingly demand
greater and greater efficiency, the patience for fundamental
research is lost. And so another story is
that not a week went by, when I was president,
when there wasn't someone in my office from another
country saying we understand the American miracle
of the second half of the 20th century. And we want to do the same. And we understand that
having a school like MIT is a critical component of it. And will you help us
build our institution? And MIT has done a lot of
helping other countries build an institution like MIT. But when you saw those
graphs of other countries that are investing more of their
GDP than we are in research, it's a national ambition. And South Korea has
declared they're going to be the battery
capital of the world. Industrial policy. They may well be. But there's no reason why
the United States couldn't be the battery
capital of the world if we were willing to
invest that kind of funds over a long period. It's not where
the enthusiasm is.

I was out in Michigan
last week, up in Saginaw near
Midlands and Flint, a place where GM
used to build cars. And I mean, we're not
building cars there. But couldn't we be building one
of these modern technologies? And it's not something somehow
that the United States is still enthusiastic about, is
building our industrial base. So one of the examples you
had– the Danforth labs, for example– was really
interesting, I thought, because of some of
the technologies that are being applied there
beyond biology or engineering.

So some really interesting
image processing technology, new sensor technologies,
drones, mechanization. How do you see that combining
with biology, life sciences, and traditional engineering? Is that going to be a key
to our accelerating here? Well, I think so. And I think one of
the places where there remains some enthusiasm
in the United States is around biomedicine. And I didn't give a biomedicine
example for this audience. But it's another kind of
touch point for concern. Because we're spending
18% of GDP on health care. And that number is going to
go up the way we're currently heading. And figuring out how to do that,
provide the health and health care that our nation needs at
a price that doesn't rob us of everything else that we need,
is going to be really an issue. But I think that these
technologies will offer a lot of possibilities. And one example that I
give is early diagnosis. So we spend a lot of
money long after a disease has progressed to
the point where it's almost impossible to treat
and trying to bring people back from the brink, where
early diagnosis would make that a much less expensive
and a much more effective– a less expensive
problem, and you could get more
effective treatments.

And the wonders
of nanotechnology are providing new ways to
actually diagnose and treat disease early. And so I think
that could happen. But again, again there is
this industrial problem, which is how do you scale up? It's very expensive. And it's very, very long term. So I think we need a different
economic model to better reward people who have the patience,
the financial patience, to stay the course. So we've seen
convergence 1.0, 2.0. What do you think is next? You know, my crystal
ball is really fuzzy. I'd love to hear
what people think that convergence 3.0 may be. So again, I want to
underscore that I think that the excitement
around computation, AI, machine learning, whichever
phase that I think is going to continue
to be important. But it's going to
be important as it's built into other disciplines. And I'm very excited about the
possibilities of the Schwarzman College of Computing.

Because at least
in theory, it will provide the kind of very, very
advanced kind of computational know how that we need
to actually solve the biological and chemical
problems that face us. So I've got a lot of
optimism around that. And MIT is particularly
good at providing cross disciplinary
opportunities. It wasn't that there wasn't
energy work going on before we started the Energy Initiative. Just that people were hanging
in there doing their energy experiments in their bottom
drawer or their back closet. Because there wasn't funding. And frankly, there were people
working across disciplines, walking a little footpaths. And one of the things
the Energy Initiative did was turn those footpaths
into superhighways to make it a lot easier for
people to find one another, and frankly, providing the kind
of funding that is not readily available by normal means
to actually do experiments and do projects that were
outside of the common themes. And the power of philanthropy
cannot be overstated. Because it's allowed
us to do things that we could never have done
if we were relying simply on standard federal
funding mechanisms.

So we need both. We need the full assortment
of support mechanisms. Absolutely right. So thank you very
much for a great talk. And I urge you to read the
book if you haven't already. Susan, as you probably
got the sense here, is a great storyteller. And the way she tells
these different chapters and different applications
of biology and engineering is just fascinating. Because it's done around
people, and people's lives, and how they go about
meeting big challenges. Bob, I really can't
thank you enough, and with Ernie, that's a
start for pulling together this extraordinary,
extraordinary effort and commitment for MIT to make
a real difference in inventing a sustainable energy
future and developing the technologies that are
necessary to get there.

So thank you. Thank you for your vision.

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