Researchers at Cambridge are exploring new technology that will reshape the world of tomorrow

The future is unpredictable but it isn’t unknowable. At Cambridge University, considerable time and thought is spent trying to understand the future so scientists, researchers and engineers can find solutions to the problems we may face. That doesn’t necessarily mean imagining a world of jetpacks, instant teleportation and flying cars – as cool as all of these things might sound – but often more subtle but life-changing innovations in fields such as energy, medicine, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence.

Take, for example, the recent invention by Helen Lee, Director of Research at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Haematology. In 2014 she developed simple diagnostic kits that will allow doctors to test people for a range of ailments, including HIV, Hepatitis B and chlamydia without having to send samples back to a lab. The kit is produced by a company called Diagnostics For The Real World, which Lee founded in 2002 in order to make more widely available the breakthrough technologies that were developed by her Diagnostics Development Unit [DDU] at Cambridge. The SAMBA (Simple Amplification-Based Assay) II kit might sound simple, but it could change the lives of millions of people in Africa, particularly HIV-exposed infants who have a one-in-two chance of early death if HIV infection is not diagnosed within the first six weeks of life and if they are not immediately initiated on treatment. This is precisely the sort of innovation that will shape the future for millions.


Reshaping our world

Inventions such as Lee’s might not be as glamorous as a jetpack but they are certainly more useful. The SAMBA II is also a perfect example of the sort of product that might not be possible without the mutually supportive structure and environment of the university, which focuses on enterprise as much as profit. Universities are often depicted as stultifying places of hidebound tradition and stasis, but the truth is very different: universities are the places that reshape our world. A study at the University of California in 2017 discerned that university researchers have been crucial in 40 per cent of the most significant inventions since the 1950s, with universities contributing to around 75 per cent of the world’s most important inventions. As one of the best universities in the world, and one which specialises in the sciences, Cambridge is at the forefront of invention.

Much current research revolves around disease and medicine. Cambridge has led the way in stem-cell research, which is currently being used to explore ways the heart can regenerate so it can fix itself after surgery or heart attacks. Liquid biopsies – a method of analysing blood samples to find evidence of cancer – is being carried out by Inivata, a firm affiliated with the university. This is just one of many projects working with cancer, trying to increase our understanding and find that elusive all-purpose “cure”. Cambridge scientists are covering the disease in numerous areas including finding tests that allow for earlier detection, exploring ways to make progress in immunotherapy to harness and enhance the power of the immune system against cancer, and studying the “language” that cancer cells “speak” in childhood brain tumours, thus helping detect where the tumours come from, what drives them and how to catch or kill them. At some point that long-awaited cure may emerge from the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre, which unites more than 600 laboratory and healthcare professionals from 28 university departments around a common mission to end death and disease caused by cancer. Cancer is not the only disease that Cambridge researchers are looking at. Malaria remains one of the biggest killers on the planet. More than half a million people are killed every year, mainly in Africa and south-east Asia and researchers at Cambridge University are constantly looking at ways to deal with the disease. While there are medicines to treat the disease, parasites are growing increasingly resistant to these drugs, raising the spectre of untreatable malaria in the future.

One possible solution was recently discovered by researchers at the University of Cambridge, with the assistance of an AI “robot scientist” called Eve. The team – and Eve – discovered that triclosan, an ingredient found in toothpaste, could be used to target the malaria parasite. The work was undertaken at the Cambridge Systems Biology Centre and the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge. Lead author Dr Elizabeth Bilsland said: “The discovery by our robot ‘colleague’ Eve that triclosan is effective against malaria targets offers hope that we may be able to use it to develop a new drug. We know it is a safe compound, and its ability to target two points in the malaria parasite’s lifecycle means the parasite will find it difficult to evolve resistance.”


Intelligent machines

The use of artificial intelligence to help Cambridge’s scientists would have been of particular interest to researchers at the Levenhulme Centre For The Future Of Intelligence, which is tasked specifically with exploring the long-term impacts of artificial intelligence. The potential of AI is extraordinary – it has the ability to transform literally every aspect of our lives, including the way we travel, shop and work. Factor in emotional intelligence and it will even change the way we form relationships – could you marry a robot? Aside from the considerable technological challenges, these issues also raise a number of moral and philosophical complications and that is why the Levenhulme was established.

The central question is a huge one: what does it mean for the future of the planet if human levels of intelligence can be created in computers? Huw Price, the Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge, said, “Machine intelligence will be one of the defining themes of our century, and the challenges of ensuring that we make good use of its opportunities are ones we all face together. At present, however, we have barely begun to consider its ramifications, good or bad.” This can mean everything from exploring the potentials and dangers of self-driving cars to contemplating a world where most jobs are taken by robots, rendering humans redundant. There are also fascinating issues of ethics: should robots be given a sense of morality? What if there’s more money to be made in creating amoral or even immoral AI? Alternatively, do we want to make a race of robotic ethical overlords, policing human behaviour? This has previously been the preserve of science-fiction authors such as Isaac Asimov and Philip K Dick, but now it’s something we all need to think hard about before a future is unleashed that none of us desires.

Actual technological breakthroughs in AI are likely to come from the Machine Intelligence Laboratory at the Department of Engineering, where the Computer Vision and Robotics Group are working on everything from augmented reality and human-computer interfaces to visually-guided robot navigation and manipulation. The idea of augmenting the human body and even brain with robotics is one area of great interest, while another project has looked at robotic evolution – that is, the construction of robots that can design, build and test their own robot “children” and use the results to improve performance of the next generation without any need for human intervention. Over at the Department of Engineering’s Computational and Biological Learning Lab, Professor Carl Edward Rasmussen has created a self-taught robotic unicycle to explore how robots can learn by trial and error. One trusts that the folk at the Levenhulme Centre are keeping a close eye on all these developments…


Things can only get better

Also at the Department of Engineering, researchers from Cambridge University are helping to establish the “Internet Of Things” (IoT), which is the concept of a digital connection between everyday physical objects, allowing them to communicate with each other. Researchers believe that when this is applied to objects and machines in factories it could lead to the “fourth industrial revolution”. The Institute for Manufacturing is one of a number of partners that will investigate the barriers to successful IoT take-up. It is estimated that we will have 50 billion connected elements online within the next decade. Effective implementation of Internet of Things is critical to industrial, societal and economic development in the UK.

If disease and artificial intelligence are particularly rich areas of concern, energy is another. Humanity consumes more than 150 billion kilowatt-hours of energy each year, and 85 per cent of our energy still comes from burning fossil fuels which emit greenhouse gases and pollute the air. Cambridge has already contributed to combating this in the form of technologies as the turbine and splitting the atom, and future solutions may need to be on even more radical scale. At Cambridge, scientists are exploring the potential of using superconductors to turn the Sahara Desert into a giant solar farm, and creating nuclear energy that is fuelled by thorium instead of plutonium. Dr Ben Lindley used his PhD “to explore how we could use thorium with existing reactor technologies. At the end of my PhD, I think we had a credible model.”

Researchers at the university are also looking at solar powered cars, new designs of algae-powered fuel cells that could be up to five times more efficient than existing models and a new type of smartphone lithium-sulphur battery that is many times stronger than the typical lithium-ion battery. In one area that overlaps issues of disease and energy, research groups in several disciplines are looking for ways to clean up water in regions where dirty, polluted and inadequate supplies of clean water cause untold problems.

Could the solution lie with something as simple as the common mussel, which has an amazing ability to act as a cheap and sustainable water filter? That’s what Dr David Aldridge from Cambridge’s University of Zoology has been looking into. In experiments carried out a polluted lake in China, he discovered that specially bred giant mussels could filter 50 litres of water a day. “In just a few month, not only did the water become clearer but native plants suddenly began to emerge from seeds buried for decades on the lake bed,” he said. “These, in turn, provide habitat for insects, and then fish, and the system stabilises back to clearer water.”


Design and innovation

Innovation doesn’t just come from nowhere. Having in place the right staff, environment and facilities is also essential, which is why the James Dyson Foundation donated £8 million to build the Dyson Centre For Engineering Design. This is a focal point for 1,200 students who have been using the space and equipment to explore things such as solar-powered racing cars and helium balloon spaceflight. The supportive environment is fostered by events such as the annual Cambridge University Entrepreneurs’ competition, which offers financial prizes to the best ideas in software, science and technology, and social enterprise. The 2017 winners included a solar-power torch called Halo, developed by the Cambridge Centre for Gallium Nitride. This uses a new type of LED produced on silicon wafer, making it cheaper than conventional LEDs. Powered by a tiny solar panel, it can be used for indoor tasks and will help bring light to the 1.2 billion in the world without access to electricity.

Further impetus to Cambridge’s work in such areas came in October 2017, when Cambridge University appointed its first Professor Of Innovation. Dr Tim Minshall, who was previously a Reader in Technology & Innovation Management at the Department of Engineering. “The UK has long been superb at invention – the creation of new ideas – but we need to develop a generation of engineers able to create and capture value from these new ideas, and provide these innovators with the capabilities to respond to future challenges and opportunities throughout their careers,” he said. “This requires us to take a much more joined-up, long-term view of technology, management and policy issues.”

Dr Minshall’s comments were supported by Professor Andy Neely, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Relations. “We’re working very hard to make sure that we end up with technologies that change the way the world works,” said Professor Neely. The post was funded by British inventor Dr John Taylor, who has 400 patents – the most important of these was probably a very simple device you used every day without even thinking. It’s the little switch that automatically turns off an electric kettle when it has reached boiling point, something early electric kettles lacked because nobody thought they were necessary. Over the decades, this simple invention has stopped countless fires and saved uncountable hours of electricity from being wasted. Sometimes it only takes a tiny element to change the world, but the big ideas have to come from somewhere – and that somewhere is often the University of Cambridge.