Why virtual technologies are the new real

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Albert Einstein, in a letter to his biographer Carl Seelig, wrote: “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” Passion and curiosity—combined with intelligence, imagination and persistence—have accelerated human development especially over the last 500 years. These, in fact, have been the very foundations of scientific innovation.

Science is all around us, impacting our lives more than ever before in history. This was the focus at the recent ‘Science in the Age of Experience’ conference held in Boston. “When science and innovation intersect, the future comes into focus,” said Bernard Charles, vice-chairman and CEO of Dassault Systèmes, the French company that develops 3D design, 3D digital mock-up and PLM software.

From unlocking the mysteries of human genome to developing medicines to treating diseases, from understanding the interplay between the earth’s atmosphere and oceans to finding ways to improve crop yield, the rise of virtual technologies like digital modelling and simulation are expanding the boundaries of scientific understanding and human knowhow.

The focus areas at the conference included digital modelling and simulation, real world and virtual world interplay, data mining, Big Data, and new ways of working and communicating.

Digital modelling and simulation: The use of virtual technologies to model, simulate, visualise and experience physical, biological, chemical and material processes has risen with advances in computing, and these are enabling scientists to conduct experiments in the virtual world that would be impossible to undertake in the real world.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of simulation is the medical industry. For example, the Living Heart Project, which was begun by Dassault Systèmes about five years ago. It is a 3D heart model developed on the company’s Simulia application—it uses 3D modelling, simulation and virtual reality to bring the human heart to life in a way that is lifelike in its accuracy. The Living Heart is now available on the cloud as well, offering the speed and flexibility of high-performance computing to even small medical device companies. A Dassault Systèmes spokesperson said that by creating a community platform, it is beginning to see the advances from the project being used for additional aspects of cardiovascular research, as well as for other parts of the body, such as orthopaedics.

“Simulation and clinical decision support systems are transforming planning and execution of orthopaedic surgeries and treatment by personalising precision me dicine,” added Bruno Ferre of Digital Orthopaedics, a digital health company.

Real world and virtual world interaction: Call it a cycle. Whatever the scale or source of real world data that feeds digital models, it is certain that better real world data make for better virtual models, which can be used to improve the real world.

A few years ago, three scientists won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on blue LEDs. Blue is important, because it was the most difficult advance required to create white LED light, and with white LED, companies can create smartphone and computer screens, and light bulbs that last longer and use less electricity. These scientists leveraged a simulation environment that helps understand the relationship of a material’s atomic and molecular structure with its properties and behaviour.

Data mining and Big Data: The combination of Big Data technologies and scalable, affordable computing means that complex analyses and simulations using large datasets can be run thousands or even millions of times in minutes. “This offers scientists the possibility to iterate through the theorise-model-test cycle at a staggering rate while still meeting real-world budget and time constraints,” said Olivier Ribet, VP, Industries, Dassault Systèmes. “Science is reducing the distance between virtual and real.” He added that in the world of manufacturing, this limitless iterative power is giving rise to generative design of materials and products, and enabling scientists, designers and engineers to cycle through an infinite search space of possible options.

The new book is the experience

In the 15th century, a man named Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. Books, which were hitherto handwritten and available to a few, started getting printed in the millions, helping spread knowledge, and leading to the Renaissance, Industrial Revolution, technological revolution and modern democracy. “We have entered the age of experience. The new book,” Bernard said, “is the experience.”