Technology is ancient and first revolutionized agriculture, manufacturing and now, perhaps, fundamental human interactions through artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and mass, ubiquitous communications.

How is this current iteration of technology innovation similar to, and different from, previous iterations? Do advancements like AI and robotics change the basic human-machine relationship? Or are we perhaps witnessing a change similar to what occurred, say, during industrialization 150 years ago, when we shifted from an agrarian to an industrial and urban economy?

Dr. Massoud Amin, University of MinnesotaDr. Massoud Amin, University of MinnesotaTo explore these questions (and others as part of a series of articles), Engineering360 Editorial Director David Wagman reached out to Massoud Amin, DSc, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota.

Amin is widely credited as being the father of the smart electric power grid and a cyber-physical security leader, who directed all security-related R&D for North American utilities after the 9/11 tragedies. Amin also directed the Technological Leadership Institute at the University of Minnesota from 2003 until late 2018. He is an IEEE fellow, chaired IEEE Smart Grid and is also an ASME fellow. He holds degrees from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and from Washington University.

Massoud Amin: From a broad perspective, science/technology and engineering help to enhance our quality of life. During the past 10 millennia, fundamental understandings gained through scientific discovery and enabled by innovation have provided humans with tools that they have used to ascend from savagery to civilization.

Innovations have played a central role in shaping our world and have resulted in long-lasting “monuments of our civilization” through science and technology. In turn, social forces have altered the course of scientific and technological discovery.

Dynamic interactions extend broadly across science and technology and reach into politics, economics and the environment; literally, all aspects of our social existence. Technological revolutions offer opportunities to better manage our resources and improve our quality of life. A few examples might include:

  • Information that changes perspectives: The ability to disseminate knowledge instantaneously anywhere around the globe; information technology gives rise to virtual communities and the promise of an expanded international economy.
  • Materials advances that enhance products: The proliferation of designer alloys, ceramics, polymers, nanotechnology, and biomimetics that offer new capabilities for computer memory and speed, sensors, superconductivity and superstrength.
  • The new genetics that changes lives: Also known as the Human Genome Project, this revolutionary advancement creates the information-based foundation for medical advances; similarly, agricultural biotechnology offers the potential to feed the world's growing population with less land.

Certainly, not all has been rosy with technological advancements such as these, and multiple unintended consequences often block progress. What’s more, society often has failed to account sufficiently for the multitude of factors that alter social progress.

Infrastructure challenges

A disruption in one infrastructure array can ripple through to affect other, global, infrastructures. Source: U.S. Army illustrationA disruption in one infrastructure array can ripple through to affect other, global, infrastructures. Source: U.S. Army illustration

As an example, virtually every crucial economic and social function depends on a secure and reliable infrastructure of one kind or another. As these infrastructures have grown more complex, they also have become more interdependent and subject to greater levels of risk. The Internet, computer networks and our rapidly digitizing economy all have increased the demand for reliable and disturbance-free electricity. Meanwhile, banking and financial systems depend on robust electric and wireless telecommunications networks. Transportation systems, including military and commercial aircraft and land and sea vessels, depend on sometimes fragile communication and energy networks.

These interdependencies mean that a disruption in part of one infrastructure network can rapidly create not just regional but also global disruptions by cascading an anomaly into other networks.


To address the “grand challenges” that are inherent in our interconnected networks, a major objective of my work since 1982 has been to gain insights into the efficient application of the world’s wealth resources to advance social development. My work has been aimed at demonstrating that a fragmented approach consisting of “treating the symptoms” comes up short by failing to address the whole.

Several promising technologies may help us feed the world’s population. Applying these advances will require us to re-think the operation of national infrastructures and their linkages to social development. Source: InnoAfrica [CC BY-SA 4.0 (] Several promising technologies may help us feed the world’s population. Applying these advances will require us to re-think the operation of national infrastructures and their linkages to social development. Source: InnoAfrica [CC BY-SA 4.0 (] Extensions of my work include theoretical and practical aspects of reconfigurable and self-repairing controls, infrastructure security, enterprise information security, on-line risk-based decision making, system optimization, and differential game theory for aerospace, energy, and transportation applications.

My work has spanned a broad spectrum of activities addressing how to efficiently and securely plan for or operate complex systems, particularly those near their failure modes. This study began with components of helicopters, airplanes, silicon basal growth, and power grids, and over time grew to a number of applied and key areas:

  • Defense networks, combat and logistics systems — Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence (C4I) — for the United States Air Force including Air Mobility Command (AMC) and the U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) — and Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS and IVHS),
  • Global transition dynamics to enhance resilience, agility, security and efficiency of complex dynamic systems: Enabling smarter, more secure, sustainable, modernized, and resilient critical infrastructures for interdependent power and energy; computer and communications networks; logistics and transportation; finance and economic systems, and
  • Technology/social/business/policy analyses, foresight and strategy: Technology scanning, mapping, and valuation to identify new science and technology-based opportunities that meet the needs and aspirations of today's consumers, companies and the broader society.

Although actual dynamics, models, data, and first principles are quite different among these topic areas — and often models and data do not even exist — a basic, unifying thread that runs through them all is that certain fundamental problems and underpinning dynamics are at play. It is these problems that I have attempted to address: where to judiciously place sensors, what to measure, how to identify and estimate the systems, and how to develop reliable robust controllers, performance monitoring and improvement mechanisms.

Applying science to real-world challenges

The inherently emergent and interdisciplinary nature of such real-world challenges require a deep yet comprehensive and integrative systems science approach. Challenges and solutions are systems issues that extend beyond the scope of a single discipline. They require a wide/systemic approach that is at the same time deep in key dynamic areas if they are to realize critical value/performance objectives.

For example, several promising technologies may help us feed the world’s population. However, applying these advances will require us to re-think the operation of national infrastructures and their linkages to social development.

Dr. Amin pictured at a 2016 event at the Technological Leadership Institute at the University of Minnesota. Source: Massoud AminDr. Amin pictured at a 2016 event at the Technological Leadership Institute at the University of Minnesota. Source: Massoud AminTo be sure, such solutions must be viewed in the context of economic, social and political environments, along with a nation’s technological capability. A further complication is that the costs associated with generating and maintaining technologically advanced infrastructures are increasing. The impact of inefficiencies can be measured in terms of lost labor-hours and environmental damage and, less tangibly, in terms of the greater levels of stress that workers experience when using these systems.

To address these challenges, several fields of study in “hard” as well as “soft” sciences, including engineering, environmental, biological and social sciences, will need to be called upon. At the same time, objectives must be defined, for example:

  • Modeling: Developing techniques and simulation tools that help build a basic understanding of the interplay of complex infrastructures with environmental, policy and economic dimensions
  • Metrics and Measurements: Knowing what is happening — or is likely to happen — in order to develop techniques for visualizing and analyzing large-scale behavior, and to identify crossover points along with the key “pinch points.” This objective incorporates an integrated approach to tie the several dimensions together to show their interactions.
  • Management: Developing a comprehensive “end-to-end” resource effectiveness analysis and context-dependent optimization.

Many global challenges involving factors that affect social development will continue to persist. Addressing and anticipating these factors with the goal of achieving efficient resource allocation requires a comprehensive, integrated approach and a fresh look at the world’s wealth resources.

In short, humanity cannot advance, provide opportunity to all, preserve the environment and excel in the 21st Century and beyond with a 20th Century mindset.

Insight center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Source: Dennis Schroeder / NRELInsight center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Source: Dennis Schroeder / NRELA dynamic worldview

Most environmental problems are connected to varying degrees of poverty; economic growth depends on social development. The effects of deregulation and underlying economic factors must also be considered along with the impact of policies and human performance, the structure of societal/economic/political institutions and their interactions with ideology.

The key challenge before us is to consider what lasting monuments we are building for future generations and how wisely and ethically we are investing scarce resources.

This is nothing new, several colleges and world-class organizations and scholars have attempted to genuinely address such challenges, and evaluate them in terms of new horizons and opportunities to advance science and engineering in service of humanity and life.

Assessing technology: Insight and foresight

For the last 16 years, I have had the privilege of leading a workshop at the University of Minnesota with selected young executives and leaders to explore pivotal and emerging technologies.

We focus on technologies that are expected to play important roles in future industrial development. We assess and map the current state of each technology, identify barriers and opportunities for their commercialization and examine the technology’s 360-degree impacts, projecting those impacts forward in time with what are known as “ellipsoids of uncertainty.”

And while we have seen evolutionary progress in all technology-based products, services and solutions, we also note that progress is often incremental, low single-digit percentage improvements in key performance metrics such as throughput, accuracy, energy efficiency, cost and so on.

Cellular Visualization room of the Biomass Surface Characterization Lab at NREL. Source: Dennis Schroeder/NRELCellular Visualization room of the Biomass Surface Characterization Lab at NREL. Source: Dennis Schroeder/NRELFrom the technologies that we have studied, a few standouts are worth noting. Among these are seamless applications of artificial intelligence including artificial neural networks, machine and deep learning; additive manufacturing/onsite 3D printing; smart cities; blockchains; and augmented reality for use in everything from healthcare, commerce, education, to security/privacy and increased real-time virtual involvement of the body politic and social decision making.

However, in achieving these and more, we need to separate what are pivotal and must-have technologies from the rest.

A pivotal technology has a dramatic impact on industry and society. What’s more, pivotal technologies are those innovations that:

  • Change the game
  • Create new business models and practices
  • Lead to the formation of new industries or industry sectors
  • Result in startups that are capable of disrupting, or threatening to disrupt, established companies
  • Leverage fundamental and ancillary developments
  • Result in offshoot companies and business opportunities.

So how do we assess and focus on the very few technologies that really matter, that are measurable and that have the highest potential for transformative positive change? We do so by addressing multiple questions, including:

  • How do we distinguish the hype from the reality?
  • What advancements depend on other developments?
  • What technological obstacles remain to be overcome: engineering, cost, fundamental science?
  • What non-technical issues, including regulatory, legal, policy considerations, need to be addressed?
  • How well will the technology fit within current structures or is it disruptive to business models?

All of the answers will be uncertain, but it is also important to characterize and monitor this uncertainty as best we can. In the end, adaptation and dynamic course corrections will prove to be absolute necessities.

Read Part 2 of this series: "In conversation: A framework for addressing technology's ethical challenges."

Read Part 3 of this series: "In conversation: A framework for design for disruptive technologies."