Life and matter

Life and matter

Anticipating the century of biotech, IITs do well to introduce the life sciences as core elements of the curriculum.

The line between the living and inert worlds is being blurred by advances in physics and chemistry, which explain the processes of life.

Traditionally, IIT students have been burdened by load-bearing beams, the Laplace transform and assembly language. But now, they are also being taught the elements of the Krebs cycle, human anatomy and epidemiology. The information technology wave has washed over the world, the biotechnology revolution is gathering steam, and the customary curricular split between the engineering and medical streams is now meaningless. It was quietly overstepped decades ago by engineers working on agriculture and food processing. They were followed by those working on prostheses like artificial limbs and heart valves. And studies of the structure of bamboos, which can resist tremendous stresses, have been applied in architecture for quake-prone areas.

But now, the line between the living and inert worlds is being blurred by advances in physics and chemistry, which explain the processes of life. The award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Venkataraman Ramakrishnan, a biologist, is a sign of the times. The impending biotech revolution will have wide-ranging impacts, from general health and disease control, through prosthetics and nanorobots embedded in our bodies, to the augmentation of human functions. It promises to generate unprecedented wealth and completely alter the way we live, and the world we live in. The cell and its organelles are machines, and worthy of the attentions of engineers. So is genetic material, for that matter, and the advent of the Crispr/Cas9 editing tool has opened the door to a new game level.

By introducing compulsory material in the life sciences, the IITs are preparing engineers for the near future, a time when designing an artificial eye will be more glamorous and rewarding than building a bridge. Applications will range widely, from mimicking structures and processes of nature in engineering projects and using big data analytics to understand living systems and societies better, to building augmentations and replacements for organs, systems or their functions. We can already see the beginnings of the future in robotics, where sensory and motor functions have been transmitted from the realm of living beings to machines. But the reverse process, in which machines will eventually become a part of us, will make robotics look like an Arduino project. And at that point, the IITs would be well advised to add a crucial subject in their programmes for engineering life: Ethics. Engineers will play with life in uncharted waters, and without the ethical faculty, they could come to grief — and cause grief, too.