Ahead of Their Time


In the spirit of UCI’s forward-thinking founders, campus researchers see beyond the present to create a brilliant future

By Kathryn Bold

Imagine a day, 20 years from now, when you’re chauffeured home from work by your self-driving fuel cell car. You roll up to your solar-powered house, not worried that your lawn is dying because you don’t have one – water shortages have turned grass into an unaffordable luxury.

You’re greeted at the door by a robotic dog (they’re already popular in Japan), and your house – which senses you by your wristwatch, cellphone or other wearable technology – turns the thermostat to your liking, flips on lights and lowers shades. After changing out of your suit (one that has adjusted to your body temperature throughout the day) you settle onto the couch and the television switches to your favorite show: “Survivor: The Moon.”

Such Jetsons-type scenarios aren’t the stuff of science fiction at the University of California, Irvine. Since its founding 50 years ago, the campus has attracted those who refuse to be limited by the past while focusing on future innovations. The university’s researchers, scholars, thinkers and dreamers not only envision these kinds of possibilities but are making them a reality.

Here are some views of tomorrow from individuals who see beyond the present and examples of the work being done on campus today that could make a difference in people’s lives over the next half-century.

Machines Take the Wheel

Gregory Washington

By the time UCI celebrates its centennial in 2065, cars may not fly, but they’ll be able to drive themselves – and the shift toward machine-operated vehicles is coming on fast.

“At least three automotive companies will have cars with driverless technologies on board by 2017,” says Gregory Washington, dean of UCI’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering. “The person behind the wheel will have to do very little to command the car.”

Such vehicles, like the pod-shaped model recently unveiled by Google, will be guided by preprogrammed route data. Steering wheels and pedals won’t be necessary. Sensors and lasers will “ping” other cars for greater awareness of the surroundings.

The communication systems that let these autos “talk” to each other and the roads they travel, however, would be vulnerable to attackers. “This would not only compromise car information but pose significant risk to the health and safety of human lives,” says Mohammad Al Faruque, assistant professor of electrical engineering & computer science at UCI.

Al Faruque, who holds three U.S. patents, is developing security solutions to protect self-driving cars from hackers and other threats.

Don’t I Know You From Some Ware?

G.P. Li

Homes too will become automated. They’ll welcome their occupants by unlocking doors, turning on lights, adjusting the thermostat, lowering the blinds and switching on the television, Washington says. UCI students incorporated some of this technology in Casa del Sol, their entry in the 2015 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, an international collegiate competition to design and build the best solar-powered house.

“The home is integrated with your lifestyle,” Washington says. “This is going to be the home of the future.”

Inspired by the drought-resistant, sun-loving California poppy, Casa del Sol features eco-friendly energy and water systems, wastewater recycling, vertical landscaping and other innovations. Like a flower, the house opens up during the day, with adjustable panels letting in the sun, and closes up at night to maintain a pleasant temperature.

“Society is at a difficult standstill, where we have to decide between further sacrificing Mother Nature or our own comfort,” says Teagan Barnes, a fourth-year mechanical engineering major. “This competition gives me and my team the opportunity to [demonstrate that] you can make the changes affordably and comfortably.”

UCI’s California Plug Load Research Center, which aims to improve energy efficiency in the use and design of consumer electronics, is making other advances on the home front.

Housed at the California Institute for Telecommunications & Information Technology, CalPlug has a living room simulation called the Wall of Power. The display, equipped with everyday entertainment and household devices connected to electrical outlets, lets people turn these items on and off while seeing their energy consumption in real time.

CalPlug is now partnering with DirecTV and Southern California Edison to create a product that will allow customers to monitor their electricity usage on their television sets.

“With a click of their remote, consumers will immediately understand how much electricity they’ve used to date, what price tier that puts them in, and their remaining allotment if they want to avoid another tier increase,” explains G.P. Li, electrical engineering professor and Calit2/CalPlug director. “This personalized feedback will teach people how to adopt a more energy-efficient lifestyle and enjoy some real-time savings.”

Fahrenheit-Friendly Fabric

Alon Gorodetsky

Tomorrow’s fashion forecast calls for clothing that’s tailored to your body temperature, thanks to some creative UCI scientists. Jackets will heat up when you feel a chill and drop a few degrees when you’re too toasty.

Alon Gorodetsky, assistant professor of chemical engineering & materials science and chemistry, and colleagues have partnered with Under Armour sportswear to create a next-generation fabric that captures and releases body heat.

“Our goal is to develop technology so that each person can regulate his or her own thermal comfort.”

squid“Our goal is to develop technology so that each person can regulate his or her own thermal comfort, which potentially would let buildings expand their temperature set points by just a few degrees in each direction,” Gorodetsky says. “We would then need far less energy for heating and cooling office buildings. That could save 1 to 2 percent of all energy used in the U.S. per year.”

Gorodetsky’s project stems from his studies of squid, those undersea masters of disguise that have an amazing ability to blend in with their environment and hide from predators. With a $2.8 million grant from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, he’s applying what he’s learned about the squid’s dynamic color- and shape-changing properties to produce the proposed material, called Thermocomfort cloth.

A Different Kind of Baby Monitor

Michelle Khine

Some of the interdisciplinary work being done on campus will affect human beings even before they’re born.

TinyKicks, a startup company launched out of UCI Applied Innovation, will produce a device created in the lab of Michelle Khine, associate professor of biomedical engineering, that makes it easy to monitor fetal activity, safeguarding the health of unborn babies.

Doctors typically advise pregnant women to keep a daily record of the number of times they feel their fetus kick; a drop in the count can signal a problem. TinyKicks’ wearable smart sensor, similar in size to a Band-Aid, captures the unborn infant’s movement and sends the data to the mother’s smartphone, eliminating the subjectivity of self-reporting.

“It was the perfect marriage of medical need and technological capabilities.”

“For the past several years, our lab has been working on soft, flexible and thin electronics that can be mounted on the skin,” Khine says. “Dr. Gareth Forde, an OB-GYN at UCI, asked us if we could help develop some technology to monitor fetal movement. It was the perfect marriage of medical need and technological capabilities.”

It’s not the first time Khine has come up with a cool invention: She became a star in the scientific world in 2009 when she figured out a way to use a child’s toy – Shrinky Dinks – and her toaster oven to make sophisticated microfluidics prototypes that sparked a whole new type of technology.

Running Dry

native plants

“It’s not possible to talk about the next 50 years without talking about global warming,” says Gregory Benford, UCI professor emeritus of physics & astronomy and an acclaimed writer whose work is considered “hard science fiction” – offering more plausible renditions of the future that draw on his research as well as his imagination.

A shortage of water, fossil fuels and other natural resources will be felt in every aspect of people’s lives, he says. Lush landscaping and green lawns will disappear from suburban yards – a trend that’s just starting to take hold in drought-plagued California.

“You still might see some greenery but only around hotels and resorts,” Benford says. “It will look a lot more like Phoenix.” Native plants and rock gardens will be the norm.

He anticipates that in California overpopulation and dwindling water supplies will result in a migration from the south end of the state to the north, above Sacramento, where there are fewer people and more land and resources.

“You’ll see a colonization of the north,” Benford says. “It’s no longer ‘Go west, young man.’ There’s no West left.” He envisions a new tech area sprouting up north of Silicon Valley and warns that Oregon will have to brace itself for a California invasion.

While fake grass and cacti are visible signs of shrinking water supplies, Travis Huxman, professor of ecology & evolutionary biology and director of UCI’s Center for Environmental Biology, sees an opportunity to enhance local habitats.

Amir AghaKouchak

Currently, UCI biologists are working with Facilities Management staff in using the campus as a “living laboratory” to understand how planting and landscape management affects water and energy budgets as well as human use of the environment.

“Homeowners will see the benefits of using less water, growing native plants – such as sagebrush and manzanita, two perennial natives – and attracting the local biodiversity into their yards and lives,” Huxman says. “Not only will this save money, but it will help preserve this global biodiversity hotspot that is the California eco-region."

UCI researchers are also raising awareness of the potentially devastating water loss people don’t see: the drop in underground reserves.

Two UCI-led studies released in June, for instance, show that human consumption is rapidly draining some of the world’s largest aquifers. The work is the first to offer a comprehensive view of global groundwater losses via data from space, using readings generated by NASA’s twin GRACE satellites that measure dips and bumps in Earth’s gravity, which is affected by the weight of water.

In addition, a research team led by Amir AghaKouchak, UCI assistant professor of civil & environmental engineering, has been awarded $1.1 million by NASA to integrate satellite data with new statistical methods developed at UCI to improve drought monitoring and prediction. The resulting system could prove vital to farmers struggling to maintain crops on parched land and could enable all water users to take preventive measures in the face of future shortages.

I, Robot

i robot

No vision of the future would be complete without robots running the world – and sometimes running amok – and indeed, Benford says, “robots are going to be everywhere.” He and his wife, Elisabeth Malartre, have written a book on the subject called Beyond Human: Living with Robots & Cyborgs.

Machines will do everything from fighting fires to fighting wars, the couple predict. They’ll be used in factories and warehouses to lift heavy goods and in hospitals to perform delicate surgery.

Robots are “more precise than a human hand,” Benford says. “They’ll be especially useful in serving the old. They can move patients, replacing human caregivers. They’re also cheaper than humans and don’t become irritated.”

Technology will also change humans inside and out, rebuilding joints, elbows and hearts, he notes, adding that limb prostheses, artificial skin, electronic retinas, cochlear implants and other artificial parts will become increasingly sophisticated – and lifelike.

Inside UCI’s iMove “collaboratory” at Sue & Bill Gross Hall: A CIRM Institute, the merging of machines and humans – the premise of such films as “Alien” and “The Terminator” – has become a reality. Here, patients whose limbs have been impaired by a stroke or spinal cord injury don robotic arms, gloves with special sensors and other high-tech devices designed to help get them moving again.

David Reinkensmeyer, iMove director, hopes that robotic devices, coupled with the kind of stem cell therapies being developed at UCI, will someday help patients live better, more active lives.

“To see a person who’s been injured recover completely may seem like science fiction, but that’s what we all dream about,” says Reinkensmeyer, professor of mechanical & aerospace engineering, anatomy & neurobiology.

One exoskeleton called PAM/POGO (Pelvic Assist Manipulator/Pneumatically Operated Gait Orthosis) gives patients with spinal cord injury full range of motion in their legs and pelvis while they train on a treadmill. “It helps you stand and start moving,” he notes.

It’s another step that UCI is taking toward a better future.