NSF announces new investment areas for the Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) program

April 25, 2023

The NSF Directorate for Engineering plans one new topic area for the Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) program in fiscal year (FY) 2024: Engineering Organoid Intelligence. Additionally, the EFRI program plans to employ an Ideas Lab approach to stimulate interdisciplinary research into emerging technologies for Personalized Learning for Engineering Education. These topics were developed with input from the research community.

Engineering Organoid Intelligence 
For many years engineers have aspired to emulate the complexity of the human brain in computation through the design of artificial intelligence (AI) systems. However, compared to the human brain, current AI systems lack energy efficiency, computational flexibility, and robustness. While AI is increasingly being incorporated into our daily lives, it is reaching its limits due to such inefficiencies and consequent unsustainable energy requirements.

The Engineering Organoid Intelligence (EOI) EFRI topic will support fundamental research on the development of engineered biocomputers using brain organoids (i.e., 3-dimensional brain cell cultures) to utilize the computational capacity of the brain. Organoid cultures will be interfaced with electronics to deliver input as well as export output to external digital systems.

EOI will build on recent advances in 3D neural cell culture methods and neuronal “wetware” to harness the computing power of the brain and overcome the challenges of current AI systems. Neurons can process information in real time with low levels of energy consumption. Utilizing 3D neuronal cell culture allows for a thousand-fold increase in cell density as compared to 2D culture, exponentially increasing the number of synapses and neuronal connections available for the development of wetware systems with learning capacity.

Potential transformative research outcomes arising from this program could include the development of biological computing systems that transcend the energy limitations of current AI systems; increased understanding of human cognition, learning, and memory; and insights into neurological disease.

Integration of ethical, legal, and social considerations of the proposed research will be essential to this topic.

Personalized Learning for Engineering Education 
Dynamic personalized assessment of learning is the next big frontier in engineering education. Understanding how individuals are learning in real-time and tailoring instruction accordingly will afford great opportunities for designing effective and inclusive engineering education.

Personalized teaching and learning in engineering, driven by learners, will integrate sensors and data to understand cognitive practices and provide real-time feedback on learner progress. Integration of physiological, physical, and cognitive cues with knowledge management and retrieval processes will inform our understanding of the individual learner’s process.

Successful development of technologies to monitor student learning and pro-actively adjust for optimal learning will require convergent advances in neuroscience, sensing, artificial intelligence, and human cognition.

The Ideas Lab framework will be deployed to catalyze interactions between researchers from each of these communities, seeding formation of interdisciplinary teams with innovative approaches to develop Personalized Learning for Engineering Education.

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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