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Stateside: Lemon Tree Very Pretty

The Berkeley campus of the University of California sports what must surely be the most aromatic monuments to ill-informed decision-making that you could find anywhere in the world. The early planners of the campus decided to plant copious trees that could be used for construction timber and looked about for a fast-growing, tall, straight-trunked candidate that would fit the bill. The one they decided on was an import from one of their Pacific neighhbours. It was the Australian gum tree.

According to the student tour guide at last year's Cal open day, the reason the huge trees still grace the campus to this day is that they actually grow in a spiral pattern so are completely unfit to serve as lumber. Looks aren't everything, it seems, especially if the underlying structure is inappropriate to the task. However, UCB's sentimental attachment to this folly is such that the blue gum is literally the poster tree for the campus. It appears on the Summer Sessions 2001 poster - an Arts and Crafts style woodcut of a woman sitting beside a flaky tree trunk with a book on her lap, the leaves and flowers cascading down one side.

The prospect of the state's budget surplus being bled dry by attempts to alleviate the effects of energy deregulation must be a worry for the University of California's latest arboreal venture - the ambitious CITRIS program, which is spearheaded by the College of Engineering at Berkeley, and which is called in their brochure "A Technology Partnership for California's Future". The Governor's state budget for 2001-02 - announced in January this year but not yet voted on - included $33 million as the first instalment in a 3-year plan to develop a centre for information technology at UC Berkeley.

The state funds are to be matched on a two-to-one basis by non-state funds, which have already been pretty much pledged. According to the brochure some of the companies that have joined the partnership are BroadVision, Ericsson, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Infineon, Intel, Marvell, Microsoft, Nortel, STMicroelectronics and Sun Microsystems. I should point out that Berkeley is first and foremost a research university - and its engineering schools are consistently in the top 5 in the country - so the relationships between many of these companies and UC are long-standing ones, as they're funding research there anyway.

At research universities both undergraduate and graduate students get to work on projects funded through a complex system of federal, state and industry grants. For most of each semester students are wooed by companies both big and small - using anything from pizza to Palm Pilots to lure them to job fairs - to get them to work in those companies as paid or unpaid interns during the summer break. The competition for students is so intense that IBM's Almaden research facility, for example, takes on high school students as interns.

When you hear the gee-whizz stories about university drop-outs creating a multi-billion dollar company out of their garage, you need to keep it in mind that they've already had thousands of dollars of government and industry money poured into their education and have probably already been working in those same industries in a research capacity. And the term "military-industrial complex", which was bandied about in the 60s to describe this research environment, is as alive today as it was then, as much of the federal funding comes from various branches of the armed forces
and the Department of Defense.

Berkeley, being Berkeley - two steps away from campus the street stalls do a roaring business in tie-dyed t-shirts and peace symbols - has sprinkled a new flavour on its research with the CITRIS project. This is not just a centre for information technology research; it's the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society. Some of the issues it will address are energy efficiency, transportation, seismic safety, education, health care, and the environment. More than 100 faculty members in engineering, science, social science and other disciplines at four UC campuses will be collaborating with researchers at more than 20 supporting companies.

It is, of course, a moot point whether 'optimizing traffic' is in the interest of society but that is one of the projects listed in the brochure - the use of sensors in California's roadways to analyze traffic flow and point commuters to efficient routes. CITRIS technology will deliver the undergraduate program in information technology taught at UC Merced. Research into using a network of tiny inexpensive sensors that can make buildings vastly more energy efficient could, according to the brochure, lead to savings of as much as $55 billion in energy costs nationally and reduce carbon emissions by 35 million tons each year.

Sensors worn by at-risk people could prevent 20 percent of the deaths from cardiac arrest each year by relaying changes in vital signs immediately. Well, yes. If you can afford the sensor and if you don't mind being monitored electronically 24 hours a day. Which you probably wouldn't if it meant the difference between life and death. But in what other ways could this technology be used? Will this technology be like the eucalyptus trees, not just unsuitable for their intended purpose but poisoning the ground around them too so that nothing else can grow?

As the old folk song says: Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet, but the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat.

Lea Barker
Saturday 17 February 2001

- Disclosure: the author is a staff member of the College of Engineering at UC Berkeley

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