As EPFL celebrated its 50th anniversary as a federal institute of technology, I let my thoughts wander to the future: what might our School look like in 2069, its centenary year? More specifically, I wondered how EPFL, the programs we offer and the technologies our laboratories produce might help build a better world. What will our School do to ensure that the common good as described over 50 years ago by Garrett Hardin in The Tragedy of the Commons – and I’m thinking about climate change in particular – receives the attention it deserves as humanity’s most pressing challenge?
A challenging exercise in prediction, for sure. Back in 1969, when EPFL was created, who could have foreseen the internet in its current form, deepfakes, cyber threats and so on? Who could have predicted the rise of virtual currencies, or the fact that they would come to be seen as a safer bet than cold, hard cash? And who could have imagined that one day cars would drive themselves – and not just in science-fiction novels?
I will focus my predictions on three areas of research: information science, medicine and life sciences, and energy and sustainability.
The impact of information science has been significant and will only continue to grow. Predicting developments in this area over the next five decades is particularly fraught – although artificial intelligence might help! One thing is for certain: we will need to get used to living alongside intelligent machines. Yet we should approach this Faustian bargain with caution: machines must always serve us, not the other way around. This risk aside, data science holds great potential for other scientific disciplines, and for the economy and society at large. I firmly believe that it will help us overcome some of the fundamental challenges we face. And quantum computers will be our ally, solving problems that lie far beyond the capabilities of today’s supercomputers.
A similar story awaits in life sciences, where remarkable progress will continue at the intersection with natural sciences and engineering. Neuroscience raises existential questions, and genome editing ethical ones. Although we will be better equipped to fight cancer, the sad fact is that, in all likelihood, it will continue to claim countless lives. Likewise, modern lifestyle diseases will remain with us.
We will also face new health challenges. Some, like antibiotic resistance, are known to us; others, not. I hope that collaboration between science, medicine and healthcare yields its full potential, although the myth of immortality could confront society with a choice between the lesser of two evils.
My third and final set of predictions concerns the complex matter of energy, the environment and sustainability. Either we solve the tragedy of the commons, or we find ourselves in a difficult – perhaps impossible – situation. The Swiss government has pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2050. For a school like EPFL, rising to this challenge means drawing on the full range of our expertise. However, that is a necessary but insufficient condition: society itself must change, because ridding ourselves of fossil fuels is a massive challenge that will affect us all.
Cardinal de Richelieu once said that politics is the art of making possible what is necessary. Modern consumerism, it would seem, is about making necessary what is possible. We live in a world of finite resources, which means a paradigm shift is needed if we hope to celebrate our centenary with a sense of optimism for both our School and our planet.
(parue dans Le Temps du 20 décembre 2019)
Dear students and colleagues,
What a pleasure it is to see the entire EPFL community back on campus! Some 11,000 students – including 2,071 first-year Bachelor’s students (32% of whom are women) and 406 new Master’s students – are discovering or returning to campus, while our wonderful staff, professors and researchers kept working through the unusually hot summer. I wish you all a warm welcome as we kick off the new academic year – one that, as you will see, is particularly important to me.
I am still savoring my trip to California in July with the EPFLoop team, which rose to the occasion by capturing third place at the Hyperloop Pod Competition. But now it is time to turn my gaze to the future, so let me start by setting out EPFL’s priorities for the coming year.
The Senior Management’s top priority is talent development, with a dual focus on our students and on encouraging innovative approaches to teaching. For starters, we have decided to trim down the number of first-year courses so that our students can focus on the fundamentals. We are also making a bellwether change – the inclusion of computational thinking as the ‘third pillar’ of the first-year curriculum.
EPFL has a solid track record in innovation in education that reaches beyond our campus. This can be seen in the MOOCs we began running in 2012 and the Extension School we set up in 2017. We are now taking this even further by creating LEARN, a center for innovation in education. LEARN will give rise to a number of initiatives – you will hear more about them in the months to come.
Another of our priorities is to strengthen EPFL in emerging fields of science that are set to have a major impact on society. For the first time in 20 years, we were able to convince the ETH Board to provide us with a disproportionate budget increase, which will be invested in research and teaching. Six new positions will be created in three areas: the digital transformation of society, cross-disciplinary research between engineering and neuroscience, and computational life sciences. What’s more, we are currently recruiting for 28 professorships.
Our third priority is to promote initiatives across EPFL in the areas of project-based learning and open science. In the afterglow of the Solar Decathlon and Hyperloop, we are keen to encourage more exploits along these lines. Indeed, that’s the rationale behind MAKE, a new innovation fund and support team for cross-disciplinary projects; the fund will receive 650,000 francs in financing per year. And in the field of research, a new fund devoted to encouraging open science will be allocated one million francs per year for three years.
This academic year will take us into EPFL’s 50th-anniversary year as a federal institute of technology. In the run-up, we are updating our visual identity with a new logo that will serve to etch our four letters into people’s minds – you will soon be asked to vote for your favorite design. And in January, we will launch a year full of festivities to celebrate science, research, education and innovation.
My hope is that together we can make EPFL one of the world’s leading teaching and research universities, a school driven by a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. Already, thanks to your hard work in fulfilling our core missions, EPFL is considered both a thought leader and trailblazer in Swiss and international academic circles alike. For this, I thank you.
The 2017-2018 school year gets under way today, and more than 10,000 students have now returned to campus. We have 1,955 new Bachelor’s students this year and 328 new Master’s students, 6% and 13% more than last year, respectively (the final figures will be released on November 1).
I wish you all a warm welcome!
Nearly 29% of EPFL’s current student body is female. While this is far from gender parity, we are taking steps to support and attract young women interested in embarking on a technical or scientific career.
This year marks the start of the new Master’s Program in Data Science at EPFL and ETH Zurich. Here at EPFL, the program will be run by the School of Computer and Communication Sciences (IC) in conjunction with the Institute of Mathematics (SB) and the School of Engineering (STI). It was set up in response to the revolution in data science and will equip students with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in this field. The program will provide a fully rounded education, from building blocks to implementation, from algorithms to database architecture, and from information theory to machine learning.
EPFL is also starting a Master’s program in Digital Humanities this year. The neat divide between engineers, who create algorithms, and social science experts, who interpret data, no longer exists. Big-data and machine-learning techniques have now been appropriated by the content industry – through the media, entertainment and culture – and by all aspects of public life. This new Master’s program provides cutting-edge training in data science and the humanities, preparing students to work with these new content-rich information systems.
This is also the first year in which third-year Bachelor’s students in EPFL’s School of Life Sciences will be offered a module that will enable them to join the final year of the University of Lausanne’s (UNIL) Bachelor’s program in medicine so that they can then do a Master’s at UNIL in this field. By linking the two programs in this way, we will help produce doctors with excellent technical skills.
In another important step forward, EPFL signed an agreement this past summer with the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris (l’X) under which students will be able to obtain a degree from both schools at the same time.
Next fall, EPFL will start teaching computational thinking, an important addition to our curriculum. Along these lines, I would strongly encourage students to participate in the second annual ACCES visualization contest. For future engineers, it’s an opportunity to learn more about a subject that is just as fundamental as mathematics and physics.
Turning to research, last week we launched the beta version of RENGA (連歌, Japanese collaborative poetry), an open-source platform developed by the Swiss Data Science Center (SDSC). It will facilitate multidisciplinary collaborations in the field of data science while at the same time encouraging scientific transparency, reusability and reproducibility. The SDSC, a joint venture between EPFL and ETH Zurich, provides Switzerland with much-needed infrastructure in the field of data science. It was designed to process massive amounts of information and extract meaningful data for use by specialists in various fields, such as personalized medicine, environmental sciences and predictive maintenance, to name a few.
On August 31, we signed agreements setting in motion the second phase of EPFL’s Valais expansion, which will include the construction of a new building to house a research center on alpine and extreme environments. The rehabilitation and health cluster and the green chemistry and energies-of-the-future hub will also be strengthened.
The first-ever EPFL Drone Days, which took place two weeks ago, is a good example of the role that EPFL can play in a fast-growing field that is likely to have an impact on many manufacturing sectors. Drone researchers, pilots and startups rubbed shoulders throughout the on-campus event, which dazzled the public and the many colleagues in attendance. That’s technology transfer at work, right here in French-speaking Switzerland!
Lastly, I would like to mention x-grants, a new EPFL initiative to foster entrepreneurship among our Bachelor’s and Master’s students. These grants, worth around CHF 10,000 each, will give recipients the support they need to work on their ideas – which they may someday turn into a startup. Grant recipients will also be given a chance to build their network of contacts in Silicon Valley by spending one or two months at the Swissnex office on Pier 17 in San Francisco.
I wish you all an excellent school year, and I hope that your studies, research and work will be a source of fun and excitement. I would also like to thank you for playing an active part in the EPFL community.
The new Senior Management team officially began work just over one hundred days ago. I would like to take this opportunity to share with you some of my thoughts on how things are going so far. For starters, I still think I have the best job in Europe! What’s more, the new team of vice presidents works well together, taking advantage of their like-minded approach to get things done. And I see this same sense of shared purpose in our interactions with the deans. One of them, Jan S. Hestaven, has also just completed his first one hundred days, at the helm of the School of Basic Sciences; and don’t forget that Ali H. Sayed will join us on 1 July as the new dean of the School of Engineering.
Much has happened since the new Senior Management team took office. For one, the Swiss Data Science Center opened; this project is a key step in the development of open science – one of my priorities as president of EPFL. And in February, the new Review Course for first-year students (MAN) got under way. On 26 April, the Section Directors’ Conference decided that we would make the computational thinking course, Information, Computation, Communication, a requirement for all first-year engineering students starting in the fall of 2018; we believe that they need a firm grounding in this field – just as they do in math and physics – starting at the undergraduate level. Finally, the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition (ACE) reached Cape Town – I was there to greet the researchers; it was exciting to follow this human and scientific adventure as it unfolded.
During these first three months, my team and I reached out to the EPFL community on numerous occasions: we introduced the new Senior Management to you on 11 January, and we also met with the EPFL Assembly, the schools, the outposts, AGEPoly, student representatives, and, most recently, the administrative assistants. All these interactions have given us a fuller appreciation of EPFL’s diversity, richness and complexity.
I like to remind people that a university is not a business. We build pillars of knowledge: the knowledge we pass along to our students; the knowledge we create in our labs; and the knowledge that we turn into innovations. This knowledge is also tied to our responsibility towards society, which, thanks to new technologies, is changing faster and in more ways than ever before. By fulfilling our missions, we play an active role in these (r)evolutions, ensuring they benefit everyone. Our task includes responding to the needs and challenges that these changes lead to, and taking risks in order to stay one step ahead of future challenges.
For all these reasons, our school requires a 21st-century campus – one that is fully digital and can break down the traditional boundaries between our many fields of study. We will create value by positioning ourselves at the nexus between life sciences and engineering and between computational sciences and most other fields, to give but two examples. We have a shared duty to use our talents and resources to meet these many challenges and seize opportunities that will allow our school to continue growing.