The Age of Living Machines: How Biology Will Build the Next Technology Revolution
- Hi, everyone. It is an absolute pleasure and delight and honor for me to invite you all to this evening's wonderful lecture as part of our Distinguished Speaker Series. And our speaker today is Professor Susan Hockfield whom many of you from the Yale community might remember.
And she will be talking to us about her new book titled "The Age of Living Machines: How Biology Will Build the Next Technology Revolution". Before I turn over to our dean of faculty, Tamar Gendler, to give a more formal introduction to Susan, I just wanted to share a few things. First, I wanted to give some bookkeeping notices that I request you all to mute your audio and your video because we are recording the proceedings and you will have an opportunity to interact with Susan and ask questions through the chat and we'll keep the chat open and we'll read out your questions to Susan at the end of her talk. So I also want, at this point, to thank Richard and Barbara Franke who are joining us from warm and balmy Arizona for their generosity and support of the Franke Program and Yale more, generally, which allows us to do lots of innovative across disciplinary programming. And I think at this point, the only thing I want to say is that I have a personal fond recollection of Susan because by the time I joined Yale as a junior faculty, she was the provost and it was just wonderful to have someone warm and understanding and absolutely brilliant and supportive to be in the leadership.
So Tamar, I would like to turn it over to you now to formally introduce Susan. - Thank you so much. Thank you, Priya, thank you to the Frankes who are here with us today.
Welcome, President Salovey who is also present at today's Franke Lecture. I'm Tamar Gendler, I'm dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences here at Yale and it is hard to think of somebody who epitomizes the values of the Franke Program more completely than Susan Hockfield. The Franke Program is devoted to bringing together multiple perspectives, in particular, the humanities and the sciences to think about the most profound questions that the world brings to us. And Susan Hockfield has made a career, both intellectually and pragmatically in her leadership as a scholar and in her leadership as an academic university citizen of bringing together things that other people didn't notice the connections. In some ways, this is no surprise.
After earning a BA in biology from the University of Rochester and a PhD from Georgetown School of Medicine, Susan Hockfield joined Yale in 1985 after a post at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory of James Watson. Yes, that James Watson. The Watson of Crick and Watson. And this experience of having been present at moments of origination, present at moments of discovery, present at moments where unexpected insight led to genuine change is characteristic of her time as an academic and as a university leader. She joined Yale, as I said, in 1985. She was tenured in 1991, the same year I note that she was married in our very own Battell Chapel and became a full professor three years later in the Department of Neurobiology.
As a scholar, she excelled but perhaps, even more striking was her capacity for university leadership. She was appointed dean of Yale's Graduate School in 1998 and stayed in that role for four years till 2002 when she took on the role as Yale provost. And sadly, for us, but happily for academia, served in that role for two short years before she was taken by our neighbor to the North Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she served as a visionary and transformative president of MIT from 2004 to 2012. As I've said already what is characteristic and distinctive and exciting about Susan Hockfield's work is the way in which it involves bringing things together.
People, organizations, ideas. At MIT, she had the idea that one could use as a locus of organization, the convergence of engineering and the life sciences and through that insight, brought the world things like the David Koch Institute For Integrative Cancer Research and the Ragon Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and Mass General Hospital. That is she broke down the boundaries between the biological and the engineering sciences.
She broke down the boundaries between institutions in Cambridge. She broke down the boundaries between the private sector and the public sector. For example, catalyzing the development of the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke, which brought together five universities, two private companies and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Exemplary for our own ambitions in planetary science are the ways that she developed at MIT on multidisciplinary institute-wide center around energy which brought the MIT Energy Initiative to bring together individuals from almost every academic department at the university to think about technologies and policies for a sustainable energy future. That practical ability to bring things together is combined with an intellectual ability to bring things together, which all of us are here to hear evidence of and her new book, "The Age of Living Machines", which serves as a beautiful background for her and should serve as a beautiful background for your own bedside table in the coming weeks is an extraordinary exploration of how biology will build the next technology revolution. And with that introduction, I suspect you have no longer any interest at all in hearing from anyone but the extraordinary Susan Hockfield.
Welcome home. We are thrilled to have you. - Thank you so much, Priya and Tamar for both the invitation and both of your overly generous and insightful introductions.
As Priya has just mentioned, I have a long history at Yale and immense fondness for this great university and for its people. It is an indescribable privilege to join one of Yale's great conversations here in the Franke Program in Science and Technology. I offered very special thanks and very special fondness to Rich and Barbara Franke. Great to see you who have done so much for Yale and who played such important roles when Rick Levin recruited me to his leadership team as dean of the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. And, of course, you all know that that team came to include President Peter Salovey and Rick's leadership team is well-known for producing leaders, not just for Yale, but for other institutions and MIT did take advantage of it in recruiting me.
But I have to say, I can never thank Rick sufficiently for changing the direction of my career. I was on a path to understanding how the brain assembles itself over the course of human development. He recruited me into a new path that he had confidence I would find as interesting and as challenging and that was to understand how people can assemble to accomplish more than anyone can accomplish on their own, which has been a great challenge and great joy for me. And for me, the thesis of this lecture series is central to how I think and work as Tamar has described and this is the cross-disciplinary conversations catalyze new insights, they amplify ideas and their impact and they're, just frankly, a lot of fun to participate in. That thesis of facilitating cross-disciplinary conversations is really the furniture of the mind, if you will, that was fostered during my 20 years at Yale.
So with that short preamble, I'm gonna start sharing my slides so we can get started on today's topic. Now, I have to say I'm gonna do this with some little bit of technological challenge but. So, following the theme of cross-disciplinary conversations, today, I'm gonna share some thoughts on our shared possible future. I'm gonna talk about today part of the story that I've captured for general audiences. This is important in my book. The book is not for a scientist or engineer, it's for just plain old people who wanna understand what the future holds for us.
What is our very probable technology future? So, I, obviously, have had the amazing privilege of leading one of the world's great universities and as MIT's president, MIT is just a little bit of an unusual place, but I had a breathtaking perspective of the science and technology frontier. It's a frontier of ideas, of discoveries, of applications and much, much more. On the future, I saw was, frankly, astonishing. And today, I'm gonna share with you a glimpse of that very probable technology future. And I wanna say at the outset that while I'm optimistic about that future, those of you who know me knows that I tend to be crazily optimistic, I would say at this outset, we have to all agree that the future looks a bit bleak.
So today, I'm gonna share both my optimism and also my caution because, I think, both of them really do need our attention. So just to give you a sense of some of the daunting challenges that we face, the planet's current population of about 7 1/2 billion people is projected to grow to about 10 billion people by 2050. And the demands of those 20 billion people will be unprecedented. And let me just call out just a few of them. We think about healthcare. I mentioned here access, accuracy and cost.
We spend, in the United States, about 18% of GDP on our healthcare provisions. And while we do some amazing things, frankly, we don't get good enough results from that 18% of GDP. We need to do better in many dimensions.
We need to be able to provide high quality healthcare to the poor and the rich alike. Energy is a hugely challenging problem. We already do not produce the energy we need and use sustainably. And it's pretty addicted that by 2050, there will be a doubling of demand. We simply have to figure out how to provide the energy that the world's population needs without ruining the planet.
In terms of water and food, we don't, today, produce enough of either clean water or nutritious and healthy food that is enough for our current population. And think of this, that if we were simply to use today's agricultural technologies, to feed 10 billion people what require additional farmland equal to the landmass of South America and Africa. Clearly, that is not gonna happen. So we need to develop technologies that are gonna produce the food and the water that 10 billion people will need. Now, of course, if we don't meet the demands of 10 billion people in these ways and others, we can anticipate chaos. And this problem of a growing populations rapidly increasing demand on the planet's sources is not new.
We have heard the story before. Many of you know so of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus who in 1798, wrote a fascinating treatise. He called it "An Essay on the Principle of Population". He did a brilliant demographic study.
He was a great demographer. And he looked at Britain and Europe and he made the observation that at that time, at the end of the 18th century, the rate of population growth was faster than the rate of increase in agricultural productivity. And I can tell you, don't need to know any higher math to understand that this is a recipe for catastrophe. Malthus did a demographic study over history and he showed that there had been cycles of population rise and fall. And the periods of population rise always ended in tears.
War, famine, pestilence. And this problem of rising population faster than rising resources has come to be known as a Malthusian dilemma. So, Malthus in 1798 was sounding a warning cry. Watch out, the end is near, we're about to enter another one of these catastrophic periods.
But guess what? At that time, he was wrong. There was not catastrophe over the horizon and he was wrong because new technologies averted the predicted disaster. What were the new technologies? Among them were the application of four-field crop rotation by farmers in Britain, thereby, increasing the productivity of their crops. And a marvelous new technology that was one of the most important products of those seafaring explorers who were going across the seas around the world. And while, when I read about them when I was in fourth grade, they were in search of gold and tobacco and spices and jewels and all kinds of exciting things.
But actually, they came upon something that was even more important in commerce and that was islands that were inhabited only by birds and were essentially huge reservoirs, enormous piles of guano, bird poo. Well, guano is an excellent fertilizer and they're developed a very robust trade in fertilizer, I will call it for this group to be nice about it, around the world that really accelerated the rate of crop productivity. And contrary to Malthus's prediction, people in Britain didn't starve. They became well-fed and actually, population grew. And what I often reflect on is it was just in time for the workforce that was needed for the industrial revolution.
Now, today, we are facing, once again, a Malthusian dilemma. And today, I would offer the possibility of using this same kind of solution. We need to invent our way out but can we? Can we defeat Malthus again? How do we chart a course to a better future? Now, I didn't appreciate this, of course, until I joined the Rick Levin team but one of the central responsibilities of every university president is to imagine what will be needed to solve the problems, not of today, but of the distant future. And I don't know about all of you but my crystal ball gets pretty fuzzy about five years out and I needed to come up with a way to think about what that future might possibly be that didn't require this lousy crystal ball that I had. So, the strategy to imagining the future that I adopted was I thought if I could understand the future we're living in today and how we got here, perhaps, that would give me a path to understanding what the future we could might anticipate being living in tomorrow. So, let's just start by what is the future we're living in today.
Does anyone have one of these in this audience? Of course, we all do. These amazing products, these digital products, these cell phones that every one of us carries around in our purse or pocket represent the major technology story of the 20th century. It is the Digital Revolution.
I'm gonna divide my observations today into three parts. First, I'm gonna talk about how did we get to the digitally enabled world that we live in today. I'm gonna make the case that digital technologies today are a product of the convergence of physics with engineering, which I'll convergence 1.0. I'm gonna explain the history of the digital world and say history of discovery to marketplace technologies.
And then the second part, I'm gonna offer a view of tomorrow's likely future. Tomorrow's transformational technologies and where they're gonna come from. And just the other preview, we are on the cusp of a new convergence.
Convergence 2.0 of biology with engineering. It's already in progress and it's rapidly accelerating and to my mind, it promises technologies as impactful and as transformational as well the digital technologies we enjoy today. And lastly, the third part, I'm gonna close with some thoughts on what we need to do to accelerate those technologies and the bottom line is, as I said before, to defeat Malthus again, we need to innovate. So where did the Digital Revolution come from? The Digital Revolution is a product of 19th century physics. Curiosity-driven, fundamental discovery and fundamental discovery, we know well in the university is investigations without any practical application in mind. So let me just let's go over a bit of history that's likely familiar to many of you.
On the left, I'm showing a drawing of Michael Faraday. Michael Faraday was probably one of the world's greatest investigators of the behavior of physics. He studied electromagnetism and other physical forces and as I said, he was studying the behavior of these physical properties, not the nature of electricity or electromagnetism. He didn't know what the forces were that were giving rise to these, the properties he was studying.
And it wasn't until J.J. Thompson shown on the right, discovered it'd be electron in 1897 that we began to have an idea of what those forces were behind Faraday's observations. And it wasn't, of course, Faraday alone or Thompson alone, there was a whole group of people who were busy just had to understand how these things worked.
With the elucidation the electron, the proton, the neutron, X-rays and other forces, we got into our hands, a parts list of the physical world. Electrons are a fantastically useful part and one of the important parts of the physical parts list, physical world's parts list. Of course, my dear friends, the engineers like nothing better than a parts list and engineers picked up those physical world parts and turn them into practical applications.
The electronics industry was born and in that and industry, we got vacuum tubes and transistors, which enabled any number of new kinds of technologies. Broadcast radio and television, long distance telephony and a whole universe of new technologies. And then the electronics industry has had some very useful progeny. the computer and information industries.
This is the story of discovery leading to industrial products, which have fueled economic and jobs growth. It has been very productive, not just in terms of these digital technologies used today but in terms of bettering the lives of many. Now, the electronics industry was coming along at a reasonable pace but frankly, a little sleepily and invariably, technology's most powerful catalyst is unfortunately, war. Napoleon recognized this when in 1805, he repurposed Ecole Polytechnique into a military academy.
He understood that to wage the wars, he was waging and about to wage successfully, he needed to have the best technology on the planet and so did we. So during World War II, the United States and all the other nations invested massively in technology. It's a fantastic story and of course, I can't dig into enormous detail but our nation's massive World War II investments in R&D led to technology miracles and ultimately, won the war. Now, there's a whole list of technologies that came out of World War II would include radar.
Many consider radar to be the war-winning technology. Sonar, the atomic bomb, certainly, the war-ending technology. But in addition, the foundations of computing relayed, the foundations of GPS and the Internet, we're all part of this incredible technology and push for World War II. The man who led this effort was Vannevar Bush who had been dean of engineering at MIT and then president of Carnegie. So it was he who organized this incredible effort. Now, as the war was drawing to a close, President Roosevelt, FDR, turned to Bush and asked Bush to prepare a post-war plan.
Vannevar did so and the plan, which was published in a fantastic, just amazing treatise called "Science, the Endless Frontier". Put forward the thesis, that briefly, that the lessons learned in the wartime application of science can be profitably applied in peace. This was incredibly different and startlingly counterintuitive.
After prosecuting a war successfully, a nation is bankrupt. They've been drowning all these debt. And the biggest force after a war is to reduce the debt and pull back on expenditures and Bush was advocating exactly the opposite.
Bush advocated that rather than pull back, we should double down on those investments. In "Science, Endless Frontier" he lays out all the different ways these investments should be placed. A powerful blueprint for America's second half of the 20th century.
It was a blueprint for economic, industrial and sociological expansion. He advocated for federal investments, not just in research but in education. You all know about the GI Bill which provided education for returning GIs who many of whom had come off the farm. But to come back and get an education, college or community colleges, there was money for mortgages and much more. He described a plan to accomplish these efforts. Essentially, he laid out all of the levers necessary to drive technological and economic progress.
And his plan would set the foundation of the 20th century's most transformational technologies and industries including the computer and information and aerospace, biomedical industries and everything that the United States produced in the second half of the 20th century. However, his supporter, FDR died. And FDR his successors were not as enthusiastic as building further debt. And so, they were following Bush's plan, I would say, a little bit more slowly than Bush or FDR would have. So the post-war effort got off to a slow start until Sputnik. 1957, the Russians beat the United States into space with Sputnik.
And I recall this as it's though were yesterday, that blinking light of Sputnik traveling across the sky cast a very dark shadow across this nation. And in response, President Kennedy announced a race to the moon. And Kennedy gave any number of speeches about that quite inspirational and this is a quotation from a speech he gave at Rice University. And I wanna move this in a direction beyond the technology.
He says, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they're easy, but because they're hard and because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills." And this shared ambition, this national goal that Kennedy called out drove both national security and economic and jobs growth. It was a far-reaching catalyst for technology, for education and for industry. A certain national ambition reaches well-beyond those directly engaged in the effort.
I wanna offer one example. Now, people often ask me how I got into science and how I got from science to the presidency of MIT. Well, the simple answer is that I grew up under the shadow of Sputnik. This is me with my three sisters and I was very fortunate, we were all very fortunate in having parents who basically told us that we could do anything that we wanted.
We just had to have the ambition and the willingness to work hard. So for me then, and for my generation, growing up under the shadow spot wasn't the shadow of fear, it was the bright beacon of inspiration. What science could bring the world without any boundaries in terms of what I could study whether it was science or history or English. I heard President Kennedy's call to action and I echoed it by articulating the call for science in the new economy and found my calling. Now, this next slide is a little embarrassing but I had to include it to demonstrate what power a national ambition has even on second grade kids.
So this is an essay, an illustrated essay. It's a challenge to call it illustrated because I wasn't a good illustrator and it's a little embarrassing to share with you. I wasn't that good of drawing or you can see, at spelling or at grammar or penmanship and I would admit readily that all those deficits remained with me. However, even as a second grader, I got caught up in the enthusiasm of this national ambition. That Sputnik, that bright beacon through, not just me, but a whole generation of children, fueled our national and soon to be international ambition. So whether you're directly involved or not, you experience a sense of reflected glory and a sense of everyone working toward an ambition that's greater than your own.
So, the other thing I wanna call out from this is the last sentence. I don't know how I knew this. I was in second grade that you could figure things out maybe figure out how to go to the moon but it would be fun. So I recognized even then the magnificent and exciting paradox that you can pursue your personal dream and serve others.
And it is, in many ways, a description of the power of shared ambition. So, the Great War and then great shared ambition and Cold War fueled the most powerful transformation current of the 20th century. I'm illustrating here just a few products of the convergence of physics with engineering, convergence 1.0.
Great policy, important investments drove technology development that fuels economic growth and these technologies permeate every nook and cranny of our lives. So the question is what's next? How do we defeat Malthus this time? Where will the future come from? And as I mentioned earlier, there's another convergence that builds on this 20th century convergence of physics with engineering adding biology into it. But biology, as late as 1950, needed several revolutions of its own in order to participate. Biology didn't have a parts list.
So the first revolution in biology that delivered the parts list was the revolution of molecular biology. Molecular biology transformed the way we thought about biology. It developed a biology parts list starting with the description of the structure of DNA and then the understanding that the code, the vocabulary of DNA, the words of DNA were translated into an intermediary molecule called RNA. And that RNA then was the molecule that gave the directions to construct proteins. There are many, many proteins, each very specific to a particular cell or tissue or organism but having these concepts in hand gave biology the parts list it needed. Of course, we came to understand that DNA was the substance of heredity and we could identify particular DNA segments that's sometimes were responsible for a disease.
We can now construct molecules that intervened diseases by intervening at the level of DNA or RNA or protein. It has been an extraordinarily productive set of discoveries, this parts list of the biological world. Now, molecular biology gave us the possibility to study genes one by one. Incredible insights but we needed another revolution in a sense, industrialized biology and that second molecular biology revolution is genomics. I'm showing here a graph that illustrates the declining cost of sequencing a human genome. That is perhaps the most important tool that we have in studying biology and applying biology to other activities.
I'm competing the cost of the genome in the red line against Moore's law which is the incredibly rapid increase in the number of transistors that can fit on a computer chip, which is a technological marvel in and of itself but the declining cost of a human genome, at least as I here, is even more amazing. So the first human genome came out of the human the genome project, which was roughly between 1984 and 2003, took about 10 years to sequence the first human genome and depending on how you measure it, it costs between 100 and $150 million to sequence a genome. This declining costs and increasing speed in sequencing a human genome, today, my colleagues across the street from me at the Broad Institute tell me that they can sequence the human genome, not in 10 years, in six minutes and the cost of that sequencing is well less than $1,000 a genome. An extraordinary advance. The point is that having the understanding of the components of molecular biology and genomics, we now have a biology parts list. And when I arrived at MIT, I discovered that my marvelous friends, the engineers, were picking up this new parts list and using it to build new technologies in ways that are entirely transformative and quite remarkable.
So, the third the revolution that I'm gonna talk about is, of course, is the convergence of biology with engineering, convergence 2.0, and there are a number of examples in the book. For today, I'm just gonna talk about two. I'm gonna give you an example from healthcare, an example from energy.
But the point of my book and the point of today's lecture is that these new technologies are emerging all around you and if I can just give you the translation that allows you to understand that this convergence 2.0 is happening all around, you will see examples. You'll see examples when you pick up a newspaper when you run into any description of the science of today.
So, let's get started. The first example comes from my colleague, Sangeeta Bhatia, and I'm gonna be a little briefer 'cause I see we're, I don't wanna run over, I wanna give you plenty of time for questions. So Sangeeta Bhatia is a nanotechnologist, she's an engineer, she's also an MD and she's tackled a problem of detection. Now, you'll recall that we talked about how much money we spend on disease and if we use cancer as an example of just the inefficiency of our system, if you have cancer, well, actually, let's just back up.
What's the best way of battling cancer? The best way is not to get it and if you use the tools that we have, stop smoking, if you use sunscreen, I'm as guilty as anyone else in not using sunscreen as often as I should, if you get the vaccines against the viruses that we know to cause cancer, all of that will reduce the amount of cancer in our population and indeed, the cessation of smoking or the reduction in smoking has had a dramatic effect on the incidence of lung cancer. However, even if you did everything we know today for many cancer, people still get cancer and the second best approach for cancer is early detection. Cancer is a disease for some one cell, then two, then four, then eight, these cells divide and the earlier you catch cancer, the earlier you can detect and remove a cancerous set of cells, the better chance you have at a cure. However, our current technologies, while they're much better than they were before are still often insufficient to detect a cancer at a small enough size or a cancer before it's moved from its tissue of origin to others before it's metastasized, which makes it a very difficult disease to treat.
So Sangeeta has decided to tackle this using the genius of biology. On the right side of the slide, and I didn't put my pointer up. Let me see if I can put my pointer up. Yeah, hold on, one second.
Let's see. I hope you can see that. On the right side of the slide, this turquoise center, this is a nanoparticle, about 15 nanometers in size, that Sangeeta has decorated with a very short segment of protein and that's shown in this gold with a little turquoise marker part of that protein on the end. Every cell, every tissue has its own proteins and its own proteins that cut other proteins and those are called enzymes.
Tissue-specific or disease-specific enzymes and that's illustrated by this little Pac-Man, this gold Pac-Man character which represents a cancer enzyme. Now, with this nanoparticle that Sangeeta has designed, the idea is that if someone is suspected of having cancer, they get injected with a nanoparticle and if they don't have cancer, it remains intact and passes out of the body like other waste material. However, if cancer is present and these enzymes, these cancer enzymes are present, these cancer enzymes will clip these little protein tethers, these little peptide tethers, releasing the signal part of that protein, these little turquoise loops.
Sangeeta has engineered these loops to be very small. Small enough that they can find their way back into the bloodstream and once they're back in the bloodstream, they are so small that the kidney thinks their waste products and passes them into the urine. So if you have cancer and you were to get this test, we could gather your urine and look where these turquoise, they're not turquoise in real experiment but marker proteins and because the urine normally has a very, very low background of protein or any contaminant, you get a very profound signal to noise. Sangeeta starting to cut started a company called Glympse Bio to bring this technology to the market and they are currently in clinical trials. In their animal models, this enzyme-mediated detection technology can detect tumors when they are 1/10 the size of current best in class detection methods. If we could detect cancer when they're 1/10 of the size, we would have a very great advantage on beating it.
So these are the kinds of technologies that come out of a nanotechnologist lab but again, a nanotechnologist, which builds these little devices, these nanoparticles using nanotechnology but uses nature's genius, the brilliant specificity and efficiency of our enzymes to produce a detection technique. I'm just gonna skip the next slide and I'll just say very briefly that this is an intravenous, a bloodborne detection assay but Sangeeta has also established this kind of assay has an inhaled assay to detect lung diseases. For example, COVID. And here, the nanoparticles are inhaled.
If you have the disease, the little marker proteins here, they're in orange that cleaved off and you exhale them which can be detected with a breathalyzer. The reason that this is for me, such a compelling direction in such an impellingly important concept of possibilities that we desperately need. I gave the example for cancer but frankly, for me, one of the most painful parts of watching COVID go through our populations over the last year was the lack of diagnostics.
We have a diagnostics deficit in the country that's bad for cancer and it's terrible in the case of the pandemic. We need better diagnostics that we can detect disease early as I've described, accurately, quickly. You should be able to understand whether you have COVID or not within 15 minutes of walking into your provider's office, not after two days that are inexpensive, that are sensitive and that can perform millions of tests. We don't have it yet and I'm hoping that coming out of COVID, we may actually get ourselves organized around it. The next example I'm gonna give is from another colleague at the Koch Institute, Angela Belcher. Angie is a materials engineer and in this picture on the left, that's Angie and in her hand, she's holding an abalone shell.
The abalone shell is filled with coin cells batteries and they look like the coin cell batteries that you might use to change for your remote or any one of your small electronic devices. However, these just look like those coin cell batteries because they're filled with a new kind of battery that Angie has developed and are batteries that are made by nature. When Angie was a student at UC Santa Barbara, she used to walk along the ocean's edge, loved the ocean's edge but what she really loved were these abalone shells because she reasoned that abalone, a sea creature, picks off the materials from the sea it lives in around it and built an abalone shell which is the technology it needs. It's strong, it's lightweight and best of all, when the abalone dies, an abalone shell disintegrates into its component parts so that the next abalone can build its shell or another sea creature can use those components.
And Angie thought, you know, if abalone can build the technology they need without contaminant their world, why can't we? So Angie's work is devoted to using nature's tools to build technologies that are better. And as I described at the beginning, we have an enormous energy problem and that's gonna get much worse. And we have to figure out how to address it. Now, people are enthusiastic about alternative energy. I love wind I love solar too but the rate limiting technology for getting out of our energy dilemma, frankly, is not bigger or wind turbines or larger solar farms.
The problem, the rate limiting technology is energy storage, batteries. We've made a lot of improvement in battery technology but frankly, state-of-the-art lithium-ion batteries are not the end of the story for us. They can't be. In order to manufacture lithium-ion batteries, you need an enormous amount of heat. It's a very, very intensive heat process so it consumes a lot of energy and there are a lot of toxic byproducts. So unless we figure out how to build batteries more sustainably, we are not gonna get very far with the best alternative energy strategies that we can imagine.
So Angie has done a number of things but for the battery application, she has used a small bacteriophage, a virus that infects bacteria and it showed here, it's called the M13 virus. And she described that she's caused nature to evolve faster. Viruses normally bind living organisms, material from living cells and Angie's question is could she persuade these M13 viruses to bind battery materials? Inorganic materials, and indeed, that's what she's done. I'm just gonna show you a slide just to illustrate how these batteries are built.
So here, over on the left is an M13. You see it's quite small, less than 10 nanometers across and it has a very the repetitive structure. So there are proteins called p8 that forms the core. The tuft of these viruses formed by a protein called p3 and she has modified the p3 proteins so that they bind single-walled carbon nanotubes, which are very good conductors of electricity or in some cases, cobalt, magnesium, lithium, the components for batteries.
Once these viruses have been modified, they're kind of crystalline so they pack together very closely the way crystals do and then she uses them to build cathodes. She also, this case, in this illustration, the anode is a lithium foil but she's also used virus-built anodes. She packs them together into these coin cell battery cases and they looked just like any old coin cell but they're not because they're built from nature.
Most importantly, her battery manufacturing technology builds these batteries at room temperature without any toxic byproducts. If we could build the batteries we need using Angie's technology, we would have a chance to get out of our dilemma of having insufficient energy. So, two examples that I think are just fabulous illustrations of using nature to build better. So, now, these convergence things are easy to describe but they are hard to do. Why is it hard to implement and accelerate convergence? The first is the innovator's dilemma.
If we think about our university as just in terms of making it possible for people to talk across disciplines, our university worked pretty darn well. And if you're gonna be a chemist, it's important that you learn chemistry, probably more important than you learn chemistry than you understand how semiconductors work. However, this is a problem in terms of advancing into our next world and the challenges across disciplines makes sense.
Disciplines use different languages, they use different approaches and of course, there're any number of structures, institutional structures that make it difficult for people to communicate across disciplines and our funding agencies are siloed. This, to me, has been a really very, very difficult problem. Fabulous for Vannevar Bush and have said let's set up these funding agencies but the fact is that the National Institutes of Health has done a fabulous job at funding biology and biomedicine, the NSF has done a fabulous job at funding computer science and engineering and the Department of Energy has done a fabulous job at funding physics. Just the question is how do you provide funding for activities that cross disciplines? Once in a while, we've gotten this together.
There was a National Nanotechnology Initiative that brought together four different agencies and really propelled the United States from being a laggard to a leader in nanotechnology. The current brain project also brings together many different agencies to solve the some of the really daunting problems of decoding the brain. But the fact is those are exceptions, they're not the rule and we need to be able to do cross disciplinary funding and work without inventing a new process to do so every time. I'm gonna give you just one example and I'll go through this relatively quickly of one of our convergence efforts at MIT. This is the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. We put it together in 2007, the building was done in 2011 and I have to say there are several things that make this work.
The first is that everyone in the building shares the ambition to accelerate progress against cancer. And the second is that there is protected space. All of the faculty in the Koch Institute have their faculty appointments in their departments. In biology, in mechanical engineering, in the department of material sciences and engineering and they just cohabitate for their research so we didn't have to change the academic process of faculty appointments.
That really allowed us to accelerate. And the third element that is absolutely critical success is we had seed funding outside of standard funding practices. What do I mean? Private philanthropy, enormous generosity by a number of philanthropists that allowed us to get started and prove what we said we were gonna do which then allowed us to get funding for this from the standard agencies. But that was absolutely essential. And we built this building and established this Institute with the determination that we were going to foster collaboration and we engineered with four layers of collaboration.
Up here in the top left, chosen original floor plan of one of the floors of the building. All the floors are mixed. With engineering and biology, we want to encourage people to talk together and this was the early plan and now, as faculty have left and new faculty have come, it's actually more integrated that you don't have a biology half and engineering half of a floor. Importantly, the building has one set of stairs, one set of elevators, one set of restrooms, one cafe so wherever you go, you're likely to run into someone who comes from the other side of the equation and that's been enormously helpful. We situated the Koch Institute among a number of other disciplines. Obviously, next to the biology building, the Stata Center is the home of electrical engineering, computer science, right across the street are the Broad Institute and the Whitehead Institute, chemical engineering is here, chemistry is right here.
It makes it very easy as you crossed this courtyard, again, to run into people who aren't exactly like you and easy to start those conversations that might otherwise be difficult. You all are certainly aware that MIT does not have a medical school or a hospital. This is the third layer of collaboration. We have to establish collaboration with our clinical partners. Mass General Hospital, here, down here, Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's, Children's Hospital. We have great hospitals in our region, just not at MIT, and we have something called the bridge project that brings together clinicians with a clinical awareness and understanding of cancer along with our biologists and engineers.
And of course, I would be telling you only part of the story if I didn't remind you that MIT, which are these buildings shown in red are embedded in the Kendall Square Innovation District. My colleague, the Nobel Prize winner, Phil Sharp, often says that technology travels on two feet and it does. And so, it is to say we've lowered the barriers for translating great discoveries into marketplace lifesaving products by where we sit because if your office is here in the Koch Institute, you don't have to walk too far to talk to venture capitalists and people in the industry community. So, does it work? This is just one way you measure it. Obviously, there are more grants and more publications but because we were interested in implementation, we had kept very close track of the companies that have started out in the Koch Institute. And you can see back here when we started the Koch Institute in 2007, a few companies were being started and we now have more than 100 companies that have been founded have worked at the Koch Institute.
Among those companies, at least 30 of them now have products in clinical trials. So we feel that we're really delivering on our ambition to accelerate progress against cancer. So, what is convergence 2.0 good for? I would say just about anything.
And I've given some examples here and we talked about some of the challenges of the 21st century and the importance of tackling them in a way that will not just solve these problems but in the best of scenarios, also drive the kind of industrial and economic growth that we enjoyed in the second half of the 20th century. So, the answer to the Malthusian dilemma, of course, is more innovation. But we have to invest massively in innovation for it to work and that is always suspect. Research is inefficient, you never know where it's going when you embark on it and since the early part of the, second half of the 20th century where we got onto the Vannevar Bush plan, we have invested significant federal funds.
They have to be federal funds because the process of innovation is just too slow for a company to invest in this kind of work. They will invest later on when an idea is beginning to end mature but not at the outset and this is the responsibility of the federal government. However, it is always doubted. This is a story that may be apocryphal. Apparently, the then equivalent secretary of the treasury, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, asked Faraday why he was bothering to do his kind of bumbling around in the laboratory. What was the worth of it? And Faraday has reported to have replied, "Why sir, there's every probability that you will soon be able to tax it."
And indeed, when I bought my last iPhone, I did pay some tax on that. It is the route to economic and industrial progress but we have to feel it from the very beginning. So, Bob Solow, an MIT economist did the great study that showed that over 50% of economic growth since World War II is due to technology, not the standard components of the economy.
A very important study that demonstrated the real product how much a nation can gain by that investing in the raw material of innovation. So, how are we doing? This is a diagram showing in red are investments since 1953 in R&D. I'm showing both the federal funds and also business funds in blue and I just wanna remind you that the business funding side is more on the development side of the research and development, R&D side but it's the research, the fundamental research side that the federal government has been responsible for. This graph shows it as a kind of a national commitment to this effort and by demonstrating the percent of GDP. We got started in 50s, reached the peak in the mid 1960s and have then tailed off. This graph doesn't go all the way to the present day but today, it's about 0.7 or 0.8% of GDP
that goes into this kind of investment in our future. And you can say well, it's still a lot of money and it is a lot of money. Of course, won't surprise you that I think never enough money for this particular effort. And after World War II, we were in this game by ourselves.
The countries that could have competed were putting all the money they had into rebuilding their cities and their countrysides that had been decimated during the war. United States was in a very different place. We had the, let's say, the luxury of investing in our future and the world's future. But that's no longer the case.
There's a lot of competition out there and you can say that's a good thing and it is. Here are the numbers from a number of countries around the world. And you can see already that South Korea, Japan and Germany invest a greater percentage of their GDP in research.
The line I worry about a lot, of course, is this purple line, China. And I don't know whether this purple line has yet crossed the red line. My guess is it will have already done so last month or if it hasn't already done so, it'll be next month or next year. The way the United States has managed our technology and come to the position that we have through the 20th century is not a secret. It's there for all the world to see and all the world is, as rapidly as they can, following our pattern.
So if we wanna be a player, a major player going forward, we have to continue to make these investments. So, there are things about our federal policy that, I think, are essential to building this incredibly important resource for the country. We need to have sustained federal investments in basic research. I paid attention to this, of course, as soon as I started my own lab where there were rich years or more generous years and poor years in terms of getting federal grants to do our research and nothing could be more debilitating to a young investigator than not to be able to get the funding to support her or his research because of the vagaries in funding. Funding needs to be consistent.
Very important for this convergence 2.0 and for whatever convergence 3.0 is gonna be is that we have flexible funds available for cross agency collaborations to fund the kind of work that I've described today and then I have in my book.
Importantly, when an interesting idea gets out of the lab and is ready to go to the marketplace, we need policies that better support investments in innovation. We do have a robust investment mechanism in the United States but I would say we could do more to encourage individuals and investors to put their money into this kind of work. And it may sound weird coming from MIT where we're known fairly well for our ability to tech to transfer technology from the lab to the marketplace but even in MIT, I think we can do a better job of making it easier, making it faster 'cause these industry university collaborations are critically important to get across the gap between a laboratory discovery and a marketplace technology that's gonna save a life.
So, I've described you the products of the convergence or some of the products. At least, the thesis behind convergence 2.0 which, I think, will be the technology story of the 21st century. It's a story of fundamental research that moves to applications that move to new businesses and new industries. And you know, we simply must defeat Malthus again. But my very greatest hope is that defeat of Malthus, I hope, will come not from the threat of war but by the promise of peace.
So my book gives you a front row seat on some of the most amazing, almost science fiction technologies coming out of labs right now. As I said, it's written for a general audience and I just hope everyone can enjoy the excitement of this generation's technology revolution and to understand it and I hope you will. Thanks and I'll take some questions now. - Thank you so much, Susan, for sharing your vision and I am delighted that our president, president of Yale, Peter Salovey, a former friend and colleague of yours would love to ask the first question.
So, Peter. - Hey, Peter. - While that's happening, it's great to see you, Susan, and Priya, thank you for hosting us and for calling on me to ask the first question. That's very nice of you.
Tamar, that was a great introduction. And Rich and Barbara Franke, thank you so much for enabling all of this and so much else that you do for Yale. Just before I ask the question, it's great to see about 100 people with us today and one thing I did want to acknowledge is that Susan really is my mentor as an administrator. And back in January of 2003, it's really December 2002, Rick Levin asked me to be dean of the graduate school when Susan moved over to the provost's office and he gave me about a half a day to think about it and about a week to get trained up and start and Susan was always someone who was kind of a role model and then who tutored me during that holiday break and got me tuned up to become a dean. And I had no idea where that was going to lead either and at the time, I just wanted to see if I could get through January 2003 without doing something foolish and, but Susan was a great, great teacher in this other area of university life and I'm very thankful for that.
We're trying here at Yale to do some of the things that you have suggested that we do in order to create convergence and produce change in the world. We're also co-locating faculty across disciplinary boundaries. So, in the humanities, you could see people coming together in our new quadrangle and in the Woodside Institute at 100 College Street, you can see neuroscientists and psychologists and computer scientists and some data science all converging. What used to be called Kline Biology Tower is now the Klein Tower of data science, astronomy, mathematics, right? So we're doing all this co-location and certainly, where we're trying to engage philanthropists as you suggest and we're doing more industrial collaborations with industry as you suggest. And particularly for Yale, that was a new, has been a bit more of a new adventure and has been a successful one. So my question is should we go further? I'm not suggesting this seriously so nobody who's watching should panic but as a thought experiment, break down the disciplinary barriers completely, not have not have departments anymore, maybe not even have schools, admit people to PhD programs in science or humanities or social science.
There's one university out on the West Coast where faculty move between industry and the university with almost no barriers. So one year there at Google, one year they're at Stanford, doesn't seem to matter. And should we really go further? Should we? I think co-location is great. I think raising money is important and industrial collaboration has, I think, created new avenues. But should we, as Yale, or we as academia, however you want to answer it, should we go should we go even further? - Yeah, that's a great question, Peter, and it's one obviously that I've gotten often.
And it may surprise, probably not you, but others that I actually, people would ask me, well, don't we need to change departments? And I wouldn't even know how to begin to think about changing departments. And people need an intellectual home and people need to know something, right? All of this is possible because the people who are participating are deeply rooted in a discipline and they know what that discipline brings them. And the question is how do you provide the flexibility so that you can have the conversations with people from a different discipline to come up with a new idea? So, I often say, I don't know what the names of huge departments would be but we need more flexibility. And I'll tell you, Peter, you've probably seen this also. The students, the next generation are lunatics about this. So they are, even with the time I first arrived at MIT in 2004 and I would, when the freshmen arrive, you do the same thing wander around campus and start up conversations with our new members of our community and I said, "What do you think you might wanna do?" And a huge fraction said, "Oh, I wanna do biomedical engineering," or I want to, and that has only increased.
One of the things that we've done at MIT that I think is good for both the faculty and the students is that when I arrived, the undergraduate majors were disciplinary. And if you wanted to add something on, you could but the students' schedules are already pretty packed and it was doable but not easy. And now, we have a whole array of hybrid majors. So you can major in biology and computer science. You can major in your biology and computer science. You can major in, there are a number of these hybrid majors and it's important because, for two reasons.
One is the students wanna do it but the other reason it's important is it gives our faculty a chance to pioneer these new fields because you know well that it really is in architecting our majors or requirements that we architect a field. That's the way we pioneer fields. And so, I think that I wouldn't abandon all of the organization because people like, you're a psychologist, you know better than I how much good comes out of a more intimate community when that community is situated in a candy store of other opportunities. So I'm not a fan of letting everyone lose to self-associate but I am a fan of what I often describe as turning footpaths into super highways. You'll figure out how to make the connection with a physicist do you wanna talk to for your experiments, right? And once you've kind of bushwhacked your way between disciplines, why should the next person have to go through that same bushwhacking process? And so putting in place the, as I said, the super highways rather than just the footpaths, I think is a way of creating this and I'm a really a huge believer, I have a lot of confidence in bringing our students into this reinvention of the future by giving them the opportunities to (chuckles), as I collect my...
Be the plasmids. So the plasmids is are these genetic elements that move knowledge from one cell to another. And so the students really are in a university, the information carrier carriers, that are the real people who are doing the bridging of disciplines. - Thank you, Susan.
It's so good to see you. - [Susan] It's great to see you, Peter. - Thank you so much, Susan. And, I think, from your talk we could see the imprint that you have left on the MIT campus.
As an alum, I have seen the transformation is incredible. I really hope you can come to Yale, to our campus, and to see how things are changing in the geography and in terms of these intellectual connections. So we have a lot of questions and I'm really tempted to ask you one myself before I launch. And that is you discussed this a little bit in your book and I was curious about your views.
So there's been talk about for by economists like Mariana Mazzucato and others who've talked about how maybe the federal government and federal funding for blue skies research should have some incentivized way of returning some money back to the government so that you can grow this blue skies fund from the federal side always. So for example, a simple example that she often cites is Google that came out of the NSS libraries project, if only they had said 0.001%, if your idea gets monetized comes back for blue skies research.
So I was very curious whether what your views were on other than philanthropy and industrial partnerships, whether you felt that the federal government had a larger role to play in fostering this new kind of innovation. - Yeah, Priya, thanks for that question and you've touched on something that I think is really key and most people don't appreciate, which is it is a nation that wants to be part of the industrial future has to invest in the infrastructure, right? In the ground floor because the ground floor, you don't know where it's going, you have to invest and you have to do it wisely. Vannevar Bush was so brilliant in saying that we have to provide federal funds for that because no one can afford to invest in it. You never make enough money out it directly. But as you said, there's a huge amount of money that's produced and we have to understand that investing federal funds in the first steps of this enterprise is absolutely required. The idea is you can buy it from someone else.
That's clearly a fool's errand. That has not worked for any nation although we worry about patenting and copywriting. People often remind me that United States didn't have copyright laws until we started producing enough books and Britain was furious that, for example, Charles Dickens books were published in the United States were never published in Britain because they were obviously, done out outside of copyright.
so I so I think it's important for us to invest and I know, I mean obviously, I've been involved in you've been involved in telling the story of the critical role of blue skies research. But I do believe that, as you say, that the companies, the industries that have profited from that research should be returning and frankly, they do return some of those profits back into the into federal government. Federal government has to decide how to use those funds and of course, there are infinite demands but I think it's absolutely essential and I just wish I had kind of a magic formula to help people understand how important it is. But I think that any nation that wants to be an industrial and economic force has to invest as generously as imaginable in this kind of effort.
That's why I showed these comparisons between the United States and other countries. It's not a surprise that Germany and South Korea and Japan industrial powerhouses are the countries that are investing more than we are as as a fraction of GDP, of course. - Great. Tamar, if you had a question, now would be a good time to go because there's a real pileup. - There's a whole queue.
I'm happy to pass my spot on to a colleague. - Okay, great. So the first question was from Justin Zaremby who said, "It's very striking when Bell Labs got rid of its fundamental physics research in about 2008 or so. What would it take for commercial ventures to explore basic research alongside applied research or does the inefficiency of basic research limited to existing within university settings solely?" - Hey, Justin.
Thanks for thanks for joining us today. I was so happy to see your name in the list of attendees. So, you've actually asked a critical question. So why was there Bell Labs? Why was there a GE Research Lab? It was possible because those companies, I wouldn't go so far as to call it a monopoly but they actually controlled so much of the industry that they had the resources and they were funding, frankly, not simply their own work but they had the resources available to fund it and as, I'll use a kind word, as industrial economics became more efficient, those kinds of resources were not available or claim to be not available and so we should have very, very few industrial research labs.
So the story of the Bell Labs was Bell Labs was, obviously, legendary for the kind of physics, fundamental physics research that they did and you might say this is something that we could dream of but the economic structure doesn't support it. And what would it require? It might require a kind of federal accounting but how would you measure what research was really blue sky research and what research was really the D side of R&D, the development research? And I think it's my guess, although I haven't been inside, the companies that are involved in space exploration now, I don't know how much fundamental research is going on there but my guess is probably not so much. So I actually, I'm a fan of the system we have but I desperately wish that as a nation, we were as committed to our future as we are to our present. - Great, thanks.
The next question is from James Fairweather and the question is do you think that biology is quickly approaching the same level of development practice as software? So it's sort of the idea of version control, software-defined vaccines, patch upgrades of software to improve performance, et cetera, et cetera. If so, how long you reckon before biology develops the same standards of interoperability that accelerated mechanical engineering? Sort of the standardization, he's saying, of examples of thread sizes, dimensioning, et cetera and in electronics with interfaces and discreet components and software with cloud software-defined infrastructure. - It's a great question. So it's the industrialization of the biology parts list and that's happening. It's not so hard to get a biological piece that you need.
I think one of the, and I'm speaking about this as someone who knows very little about the world of computer science. One of the remarkable things about biology is we still are discovering new things. And so, it's not as though we have completed the biology parts list. It's not as though we understand all of the pieces that make a biological organism wo