Smart Systems

As dean of the College of Professional Schools, architect Aron Temkin oversees programs in business, nursing, engineering, architecture, computer science, cybersecurity, and data analytics. It’s an ideal perch to ponder how all those fields are converging in smart systems today and in the future.

Smart systems use arrays of embedded sensors coupled with computing power to gather and analyze data on anything from the health and performance of roads, bridges, and skyscrapers to cars, planes, and even us. (Fitbit, anyone?)

China, for example, is now building highways embedded with smart sensors to pave the way for self-driving cars. Elsewhere, engineers are embedding smart sensors in the concrete and steel of bridges and skyscrapers to more easily assess wear and tear or the structural damage following an earthquake.

“Smart systems are already doing novel things,” Temkin says. “Yet, I think they could be doing transformative things.”

One idea Temkin has discussed with nursing, architecture and engineering faculty is the idea of designing a house that has aspects of a Star Trek tricorder — the hand-held, all-in-one medical diagnostic tool used by Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock.

As Temkin observes, our health directly relates to the built environment we live in. Do our homes, work spaces, and neighborhoods, for example, encourage us to be active or docile? Can we walk to a neighborhood café or market? Or do we drive to megastores in the suburbs? Temkin and his colleagues are asking if designing homes with smart systems can monitor our health, alerting us or others if something is awry—especially as we age.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity for smart systems to help us live better, not just lazier,” Temkin says. Self-driving cars, for example, will require a far smaller footprint for parking, squeezing greater efficiency into urban designs. Likewise, smart systems could help cities provide better public transit.

“If smart systems can help us schedule public transportation more precisely when we need it, where we need it, then it becomes less of a hassle to use,” Temkin says. “And if more people use it, that will have a great impact on energy sustainability.

“We have the tools coming together to help us improve a lot of these situations,” Temkin says. “We’re at a point where we can see what’s possible. Our systems are catching up.”

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