Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology CEO and Director, Professor Eugene Fitzgerald discusses why impactful R&D is vital to safeguard the world’s future in the wake of the global pandemic.
By Prof. Eugene Fitzgerald
The changes came thick and fast, and there are still plenty more to come. The way we live, work, play and learn now, wherever we are, bears little or no resemblance to how things were during the first three months of the year.
While we should expect some aspects of life to return gradually to how they were, many others will continue along the lines of this new normal. In my role, I’ve been fortunate to be in the front-row seat and see some of the revolutionary science and innovation taking place today as scientists, doctors and researchers work around the clock to fight the pandemic – and prepare for the world beyond.
Some of these changes will be temporary, some permanent, but I believe that these highlight the resilience of people around the world and also the importance of a science and innovation-focused approach as we continue to surmount challenges.
Health Takes Center Stage
The coronavirus pandemic has bolstered our community’s awareness of threats to public health. The world is now more concerned than ever about pathogens, health and quality of life. This fear will not go away, even as we find ways to overcome Covid-19, and the public will demand more research to detect future pandemics and find better ways to respond to them.
I believe that this renewed focus on detecting and addressing microbial-linked health concerns will enable further advances in treating other illnesses that cause even more deaths annually than from COVID-19.
For example, as we look for testing and treatments for the current pandemic, my own institution has also been taking up the challenge of addressing other common conditions caused by travelling pathogens. Our antimicrobial resistance programme has been addressing the threat of drug-resistant microorganisms by defining new resistance mechanisms and developing screening and synthetic therapies that we hope will stop these diseases in their tracks. This research is important because antibiotic resistance is growing in bacteria today, and as COVID-19 has shown few defenses can lead to global pandemics.
One research area that is also being accelerated is the manufacturing of living cells that act as bespoke medicines for individual patients. Teams in our Critical Analytics for Manufacturing Personalized-Medicine programme are looking at ways to enable doctors to weaponize a patient’s own cells against cancer invaders, so only tumors are targeted and everything else is left well alone.
Emerging Mobility Ecosystem
The pandemic has also exposed cracks and opportunities in transport and logistics systems that have long relied on intensive manpower. As demand for online retail booms, there is a corresponding need for safer and more efficient logistics systems to deliver goods and services to the public. Fears of virus transmission from couriers has prompted the emergence of robotic deliveries.
As early as February, Chinese retailers Meituan-Dianping and JD.com announced they would deploy driverless delivery vehicles on public roads to deliver groceries to consumers and medical supplies to hospitals. Though unmanned delivery services like Amazon’s Prime Air existed prior to the pandemic, they have been a boon since the coronavirus emerged by speeding up delivery times while at the same time minimizing risk of virus exposure and transmission.
While robot deliveries are still at an early stage of development, they could soon become the standard as lockdowns across the globe drive up demand for deliveries and food. And in hospitals and other high-risk environments, our future mobility programme has created automated wheelchairs, buggies and scooters which will become more important as we seek to minimize person-to-person contact during pandemics.
Agri-tech Is Key
The pandemic has turned the spotlight on food security as well, creating problems for farmers, food processors, and distributors around the globe, and sending a wake-up call to cities to be ready for more disruptions to the food supply chain.
The use of technology in agriculture could expand the scope of what can be grown locally and allows cities to utilize their limited land area and cultivate far more yield per square meter than in traditional farmlands, amid a growing population and an increasing demand for food caused by urban migration.
Highly innovative solutions could make urban farming a reality as a security measure and also revolutionize how food is produced. For example, the handheld micro-Raman spectroscopy pioneered by SMART allows access to the internal workings of plants, and measures plant signaling hormones and stress responses. This can help farmers understand the internal communication within plants and can be used to optimize plant growth, yield and nutrition.
5G And Digital Readiness
Pre-Covid, technology has allowed us to have real time connection to friends, family, commerce, and the world. But the lockdown has brought constraints to the way we work and communicate with others. With companies like Facebook announcing a permanent shift to remote working, we will see an increasing need for 5G to enable faster and more immersive ways for people to connect digitally.
As the world transitions to 5G, traditional silicon chips are no longer sufficient to power the mobile devices we all carry. This is why we embarked on a programme to develop low-energy electronic systems a decade ago – we knew there was a need to improve semiconductors to fuel a shift from computing to communications. Our team has worked out how to incorporate new semiconductors into common or garden variety circuits to speed up the way phones interact with networks and improve battery life, among a wide range of benefits.
With the excitement around 5G, new integrated circuits will be important to support and realize 5G’s full potential and other next-generation technologies. Part of my research and work has addressed this with our recent success in discovering a commercially viable way to manufacture integrated Silicon III-V Chips with high-performance III-V devices inserted into their design.
Advancements, backed by the many years of research and technology, have helped the world to respond quickly to the current unprecedented circumstances.
R&D needs to ramp up and remain out in front of potential change, to secure adaptability in the future as previous R&D has done. The challenge we face is to future-proof a world that is faced with ever-changing realities.
(Ed. Professor Eugene Fitzgerald is CEO of Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology. Professor Fitzgerald is also Lead Principal Investigator for SMART’s Low Energy Electronic Systems interdisciplinary research group. His latest venture is New Silicon Corporation, a Singapore company co-founded with colleagues in SMART LEES, where they have created a commercially suitable way to incorporate III-V elements into silicon wafer. Fitzgerald is also a Professor of Materials Engineering at MIT and co-author of Inside Real Innovation. Featured image by Photographer Athena.)