Calit2’s Larry Smarr (Part 2): Insights on the Path Ahead and 4 Big Ideas for the Future of Health, Energy, Environment, and Culture

When California Gov. Gray Davis created the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology in 2000, it was part of a broad state initiative that spawned four new centers for science and innovation with a shared mission “to invent the future.” The specific mission for the institute known as Calit2 (Cal IT2), which is based at UC San Diego and UC Irvine, was to “radically expand the capacities of communications and information infrastructures.”

In the nine years that he has served as Calit2’s director, Larry Smarr has done all that and more. He describes the institute as a “collaboration framework” that enables researchers throughout the University of California to take a multi-disciplinary and systems-based approach to complex problems. As a result, Smarr says Calit2 has engaged hundreds of UC researchers, formed affiliations with over 300 federal agencies, and worked with more than 200 industry partners. “I have to say we’re pleased with the progress we’ve made,” he says. (Smarr talks about the origins of the Internet in Part 1 of my story here.)

But Smarr also is looking at the path forward. He tells me he’s spent the past six months “on a vision quest” to identify the large societal challenges that he anticipates the next decade will bring. And if there is a thread that runs through his vision, it is to harness the power of Calit2’s expanding resources—“to build across the successes that we’ve had”—to tackle four over-arching problems of the next decade. These are Smarr’s big ideas for what he calls the digital transformation of healthcare, energy, the environment, and of our culture itself:

Healthcare. Smarr sees healthcare moving increasingly to “a prevention and wellness model” that relies on innovations in the emerging field of “wireless health” technologies and the digital transformation of medical care. In our conversation, Smarr compares the way it will work to an automobile maintenance schedule:

“I just bought a new car, a hybrid,” Smarr says. “It has 30 computers in it. It probably has another 60 or 70 sensors, actuators, and memory chips. So my car will easily run for a couple of hundred thousand miles with no problems. How is that possible? Because every important subsystem is being monitored. And it’s not just being monitored, because when you take it in for your 10,000-mile checkup, the memories are read out, and the spark plugs, brakes, fuel injection, and pollution controls are checked against the population of cars that are the same make as yours. As long as you’re still in the bell curve of performance, then you don’t spend any money. And if there is the beginning of a deviation from normality, you catch it so early, so that it’s just the removal or replacement of a small piece. And then you’re back to perfect health.

“Until you are able to monitor your processes and compare against population numbers, though, you really can’t do a scientific job of preventative medicine…So there’s a whole new set of innovations that are coming that combine engineering with medicine, IT, telecom, and sensors. And I think Southern California has a tremendous opportunity to be a world center for this because Southern California is at the bull’s-eye of the counter-revolution of obesity and many of the other [illness] trends that are going to wreck the healthcare system financially.”

Energy. Smarr says greenhouse gases produced by industrialization, particularly now in China and India, are going to change this planet on a fairly short timescale. “We’re terraforming the planet Earth in an uncontrolled experiment,” Smarr says, and he outlined his ideas for the digital transformation of energy:

Larry Smarr

Larry Smarr

“The most important thing we can do is waste less energy…So if 40 percent of our greenhouse gases in the U.S. are produced by our houses and buildings, then going to smart buildings that are fully instrumented—just like we talked about for the body—are the critical way. But you need software and sensors to do that.

“The same goes with our cars. Basically we’re going to have to transform our sources of energy that generate electricity from fossil fuels to renewables. At the same time, our transportation fleet has got to go to plug-in hybrids or electric cars running off the smart electric grid. This is a gigantic transformation that’s going to cost trillions of dollars…It’s a system change.

“The big help here is to start with the campuses across the United States, the 200 research campuses. They are cities. They have their own transportation fleets?. In San Diego County, the largest landlord of buildings is the University of California San Diego. We’re the second-largest user of electricity as an entity…So the campuses become living laboratories for experimentation of the greener future. This is a tremendous opportunity for companies to come into the university and put their green technology to work in an integrated system…It’s only if the system gets greener that things are going to get any better.”

Environment. Smarr contends that government bodies cannot make public policy decisions about the environment without monitoring water, vegetation, temperature variations, wind, and other factors at a highly detailed level. He says the solution lies in developing environmental sensor nets:

“We’re fortunate that the NSF [National Science Foundation] has funded Hans-Werner Braun, who is one of the great innovators at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, to build out the largest wireless sensor net in the country. So we have an opportunity here to be an innovator in this sensor net environment and then couple that with some of the [computerized] climate models so you can begin to do ‘what ifs.’…This is going to do have tremendous impact on wildfires, in particular.

Culture. Smarr says the digital transformation of culture already has begun. Instead of living and working in a world that requires driving to different places to do work, to meet, and to learn, Smarr says we now live in a mixed physical-virtual world.

“What this means is with high-speed optical networks, you can now have high-definition video or even eventually digital-cinema resolution telepresence. You can have teams that are hooked together all over the world in a virtual sense that are connecting their physical spaces together. We have early versions of this already with the web and video conferencing. Oh and by the way, think of social networks. Think of how weird it is with young people that so much of their interaction goes on virtually and not physically. That’s a mixed virtual physical space.

Calit2's HIPerSpace display wall

Calit2's HIPerSpace display wall

“I think you’re going to see over the next 10 years an incredibly rapid pace of change as our physically based culture becomes a virtual-physical culture. Calit2 is setting itself up to live in that future. In my office, one of my assistants is 300 miles north and one of them physically is here. They have video Skype on all day long.”

Calit2 also has far more advanced capabilities that are being used in global collaborations, in which far-flung research groups use large, high-definition wall displays to work together on complex systems—such as stem cell research and real-time geographic information systems for mapping wildfires.

Smarr says such collaborations also will increasingly take place with and among groups located physically outside of the United States.

In Australia, for example, the government has followed his advice and is installing fiber optic networks for 90 percent of the buildings and homes. Says Smarr, “This is the new world. Innovation is going to be happening globally. It’s not a closed game for the U.S. anymore. What I try to do is go out and find where the best innovation is going on, where people are getting to the future first, and then bring it back to California. Because in the end California is still the best place on Earth for translating innovation into wealth creation and improvements in the quality of life of its citizens. And I don’t think that’s going to change in the next 10 years.”

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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