Feeding innovation with digital R&D

Published On: December 2022Categories: 2022 Conference editorials, 2022 Editorial Series, Editorials


Joel Martin

National Research Council of Canada (NRC)

Chief Science Officer, Chief Digital Research Officer and Departmental Science Advisor

joel martin headshot

Our electronic world is fuelling a digital revolution that is rapidly transforming research, business and lifestyles. A data explosion is shifting the way organizations research, develop, make and service products. Computational power is blasting through traditional barriers to accelerate research and development (R&D). And—as early adopters of digital R&D—science, discovery and innovation are, more than ever, the driving forces behind global economies.

Digital R&D accelerates innovation in countless areas—from materials and drug design to mining and astronomy. It yields exponential improvements in speed, savings and resources. In product development, for example, companies that embrace digital R&D have seen efficiency improvements of 15 percent in the requirement and system design phase, 30 percent in the hardware and software design phase, and up to 50 percent in the testing phase.

Two decades from now, when digital adoption is ubiquitous and even richer, these technologies will simply be the sustainable engine of economic prosperity. According to the Gartner Research Board, “After digital transformation comes a time of value harvesting, an era in which organizations reap the productivity benefits of the arduous changes they’ve made in their businesses.” The next wave of digital innovation is expected to generate $10–15 trillion globally.

To close the digital gap between now and then, the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) is advancing the adoption of digital technologies across all research and innovation within the organization. We are also promoting multidisciplinary studies with integral digital technologies between us and external collaborators.

I see digital transformation as a triangle, with one vertex at the top and a flat base. At the top is machine learning or other algorithms, like digital twinning and quantum algorithms. On one side is the data and the new sensors needed to collect that data. On the other side is some way for the algorithm to make a change in the world, maybe a decision or a robot action.

The digital transformation process is continuous. At the top of the triangle, a scientist uses digital tools to generate a hypothesis, then on one side of the triangle, tests that hypothesis in the real world.  From that test, they collect new data, which leads to more changes or discoveries. And this augments the possibilities of machine learning back at the top.

As the NRC’s Chief Digital Research Officer and Chief Science Officer, I work closely with Canada’s Chief Science Advisor and a network of departmental science advisors. Through strategic plans, new program proposals and the professional development of our researchers, we at the NRC strive for the highest standard of research integrity and excellence.

I’m also pleased to report that Canada is a global leader in key areas of quantum research and development, ranging from sensing and metrology to data science and artificial intelligence (AI). A study commissioned by the NRC in 2020 estimates that by 2045, quantum technologies could be a $42-billion industry in Canada and support more than 200,000 jobs.

Digital innovation at the NRC

The NRC is making strategic investments in AI and quantum technologies, which are at the forefront of the current wave of R&D transformation. Our flagship AI for Design Challenge program—the first of its kind—is gaining traction around the world, and our new Applied Quantum Computing Challenge program aims to solidify Canada’s leadership in quantum.

There are currently 31 collaborative projects in the AI for Design program, which aims to devise methods for speeding up simulations, improve design-space searches and create easy-to-understand models that clearly correlate to the real world. It focuses on three key areas: life sciences, materials science and photonics.

At the intersection of AI and life sciences is the field of systems biology. The NRC and collaborators are using AI to accelerate discovery of new medicines against cancer and central nervous system diseases; create digital twins of the biomanufacturing processes needed to produce innovative medicines; and uncover complex relationships between COVID-19, delirium and dementia.

In one study, for example, we are using AI-powered design for stem cell therapy to speed research into treating degenerative muscle diseases. Partnering with the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, we are leveraging AI methodologies to accelerate experiment design and achieve ideal scenarios much faster.

In the materials discovery realm, AI can also help sort through incredible amounts of information and propose unique, novel avenues for such discovery. With collaborators, the NRC is using AI to develop new methods for the discovery and synthesis of materials.

For instance, we used an AI model to predict new high-entropy alloys (HEAs). HEAs are stronger, more malleable, wear- and heat-resistant alloys with countless potential applications, including state-of-the-art spacecraft, submarines and nuclear reactors. The AI model generated structures containing more than 40,000 atoms in a matter of hours—roughly 1,000 times faster than quasi-random approaches.

AI can also assist in designing photonic devices and components, which are key to the telecommunications industry. A recently launched multi-partner collaboration is designing photonic power converters to work with a new wavelength. This will allow efficient photonic power transmission over many kilometres, even through the atmosphere. We are formulating AI techniques to advance materials and device optimization in researching such chips.

At the end of the day, we will share with the world the AI algorithms from these and other ground-breaking projects. They can be used by anyone—including non-AI experts—across a broad set of domains.

What lies ahead

While digital tools have been used in R&D for decades, the new sensors, data, AI, quantum and increasing automation are pushing the boundaries of their power and impact. With data and speed explosions all around us, research organizations need to take full advantage of these technologies to accelerate their adoption. We must maintain our leadership role in this space to stay ahead of the game and help Canadian industries become increasingly competitive.

Accelerated R&D will address issues of importance to the economy and quality of life for Canadians. Through pan-Canadian networks and collaborations with universities and research organizations here and abroad, the NRC will continue to explore opportunities that encourage collaborative research in areas of importance to Canada.

We are a culture of innovation that has already created some wonderful solutions to help us address today’s global challenges. We are seeing amazing results—and I am optimistic that what we’re doing with AI and other digital technologies will speed us even more quickly toward much-needed solutions for even greater benefit to our world.