"When Scientists, Engineers, and Artists Concur:
Imagination is the Answer"
Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Chief Operating Officer
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
The Wharton School
University of Pennsylvania
3rd Annual Emerging Technologies Update Day
University of Pennsylvania
February 9, 2001
I am delighted to be here today. Penn is a home to
me and I am always proud to participate in its programs.
The distinguished group of thinkers and innovators
on the faculty and among the invited guests makes
any interaction here a learning experience for me.
Before we get serious, let me share a tale of levity
and learning to keep in mind. A man is flying in a
hot air balloon and realizes he is lost. He reduces
height, spots a woman down below and asks, "Excuse
me, can you help me? I promised to return the balloon
to its owner but, I don't know where I am."
The woman below says: "You are in a hot air balloon,
hovering approximately 350 feet above mean sea level
and 30 feet above this field. You are at 40 degrees
north latitude, and 75 degrees west longitude."
"You must be an engineer," says
"I am," replies the woman. "How
did you know?"
"Well," says the balloonist, "everything
you told me is technically correct, but I have no
idea what to make of your information, and the fact
is I am still lost."
The woman below says, "You must
be a manager."
"I am," replies the balloonist,
"but how did you know?"
"Well," says the engineer, "you
don't know where you are, or where you are going.
You have made a promise, which you have no idea how
to keep, and you expect me to solve your problem.
The fact is you are in the exact same position you
were in before we met, but now it is somehow my fault."
The story has many interpretations and I can tell you
from being both an engineer and a manager, they are
all right and all wrong.
Now, to more serious work. I have titled my remarks
today, When Scientists, Engineers, and Artists
Concur: Imagination is the Answer. In my remarks,
I plan to talk about some of the territories that
the National Science Foundation has identified as
emerging fields and trends of over-arching potential.
They comprise a group of five capabilities that help
to connect and expand our core science and engineering
disciplines. They are nanoscale, terascale, cognition,
complexity, and holism; I'll address them in the second
segment of my talk.
But let me begin by elaborating on the title of my
remarks, the place where scientists, engineers, and
artists agree - the territory of Imagination. One
would think that a world class scientist, Einstein,
and an early 20th century American painter,
Edward Hopper, would have little to say to each other.
However, the exact opposite was the case. Both believed
that 'imagination' was the key to their work. Einstein
said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."
And Hopper said, "No amount of skillful invention
can replace the essential element of imagination."
Both of these men, living in their separate universes,
understood that imagination was the fundamental element
of their creative thinking.
Imagining is also at the very core of technological
innovation. Let me illustrate this with an anecdote
told by Danny Hillis, computer philosopher and designer,
who pioneered the concept of parallel computing, and
became vice president of R&D at the Walt Disney Company
in the 1990s.
He relates, "I went to my first computer conference
at the New York Hilton about 20 years ago. When somebody
there predicted the market for microprocessors would
eventually be in the millions, someone else asked,
'Where are they all going to go? It's not like you
need a computer in every doorknob!"
Years later, Hillis went back to the same hotel. He
noticed that the room keys had been replaced by electronic
cards you slide into slots in the doors. There was
indeed a computer in every doorknob, as well as sensors,
actuators, and other hardware to make the software
Danny Hillis may have seen that future for microprocessors,
but right there in the midst of a computer conference,
that insight or imagination was in short supply. That's
probably why Danny Hillis became head of R&D for Walt
The renowned physician and writer Lewis Thomas hit
the nail on the head when he said, "Discovery consists
of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what
nobody has thought." Lewis illuminates what Danny
Hillis experienced at that first computer conference.
Similarly, our nation's management guru, Peter Drucker,
when asked several years ago how he predicted so well
said, "I never predict; I just look out of the window
and see what's visible but not yet seen."
Since the dawn of civilization, there have always been
some people whose thought process directed them to
see things through another lens. These thinkers become
triggers in society to propel us in completely new
directions with their over-arching vision. These people
are not always the 'inventors' but rather the 'envisioners'
-- those that see a scenario for the broad application
of a new process or technology. We can glimpse this
in every field, but our goal is to optimize it in
fields that will revolutionize our economy and promote
the well being of our citizenry.
Last February, the National Academy of Engineering
(NAE) unveiled a list of the 20 most influential engineering
achievements of the 20th century. The criterion for
judging the nominations was the impact each advance
had on improving quality of life across the nation.
Electrification was voted #1. The NAE noted that it
"...powers almost every pursuit and enterprise in
society. ...including food production and processing,
air conditioning and heating, refrigeration, entertainment,
transportation, communication, health care, and computers."
The automobile came in at #2, the airplane at #3. Safe
and abundant water was 4th for preventing
the spread of disease and increasing life expectancy.
I'm sure many of you are familiar with the list so
I won't belabor it. However, it is instructive to
note that the computer industry, which emerged in
society only a few decades ago, came in at #5. And,
interestingly, the very first all-electronic, large
scale, general purpose digital computer was imagined
in 1943 and built by 1946 three blocks east of where
we are meeting.
Companies, industries, institutions, and even governments
are constantly searching for that newest societal
innovation or improvement. They hunger for the innovation
that becomes so ubiquitous that it is almost an extension
of ourselves. Electrification is undoubtedly in that
category. In fact, I am always amused that when the
power goes off how many of us go to flip the light
switch to find the candles in the cupboard. Computers
are fast entering that category. We search for that
something with pervasive applicability -- something
that can imprint society.
But we also know that something new usually renders
something else obsolete. The advent of the automobile
drove the livery stable into the history books. For
those who owned livery stables the auto was not a
welcome change. But on the whole, this disruption
is a positive process. The Austrian economist Joseph
Schumpeter described it as "creative destruction"
- or the constant disruption of the economic status
quo by technological innovation. He viewed it as a
healthy and necessary force for economies. The reverse,
an economy in equilibrium, is the unhealthy economy,
according to Schumpeter.
None of us wants to be on the obsolescent side of creative
destruction; we want to be on the innovation side
with some new and startling conception. So, disruption
is an important characteristic of innovation. And,
it must cause losses in its path of making gains.
This creates the dynamism of healthy economies. Nonetheless,
as all of you know, these healthy economic adventures
can bring down a leading manufacturer or even a whole
industry in their wake. Transistor technology disrupted
the vacuum-tube industry, HMOs shook the foundation
of the health insurance industry, and the CD killed
the needle in the groove.
What then does a corporation or an industry do to stay
on the positive side of "creative destruction?" For
starters, our accumulated knowledge in science and
technology is now so vast that we can, with some rationalization,
anticipate and design different futures. This is not
predicting the future; we leave that to the
mystics and soothsayers. This is about anticipating.
In order to anticipate where we need to go, we must
take stock of where we are. So let's begin there.
It is not enough to examine just how your industry
or company has evolved or veered in a new direction.
It is not enough to know how a particular product-line
has changed. It is not enough to know how financial
markets affect a specific business.
Instead, we must ask how all fields are evolving --
in science and engineering, in manufacturing and marketing,
in the arts and entertainment, in education and the
To cite some examples that we barely notice: children's
toys are a fairly stable commodity. But now, the majority
of toys come with some kind of computer chip. A growing
number of business addresses come with an e-mail address
and a web site. And at NSF, all proposals are now
submitted electronically via our 'fast lane' process.
And, by the way, because we can never really fool
Mother Nature, at proposal deadline time, instead
of Federal Express trucks lined up at NSF's loading
dock, our computer-communications servers slow down.
Although these are simple examples, they immediately
tell us of the changing nature of society and the
changing needs. Science and engineering are the
cornerstones of this hyper-paced, technological economy.
We are a society that requires complex infrastructures
and a highly sophisticated workforce.
And at NSF we are all about science and engineering.
Our task has been to foster the building of the nation's
science and engineering strength in order to strengthen
our economic and social future - even though we don't
know what that future will be. In this process, we
support the disciplines in their constant effort to
reach the farthest frontier while maintaining their
With the community's peer advice, we do this by choosing
the most capable people with the most insightful ideas.
With them, we provide the risky opportunity to advance
a field in a new direction, accelerate its pace and,
increasingly, help it build a bridge to another field.
Enter now the five priority capabilities that I highlighted
earlier -- territories that hold the most promising
potential for our future.
Let me list them again, and then I'll address each
The term nano encompasses nanoscale science
and engineering. Its focus is at the molecular and
atomic level of things, both natural and human-made.
It was a brief twenty years ago, with the invention
of the scanning/tunneling microscope, that we could
first observe molecules on a surface.
And so you might ask how we got from those initial
observations to recognizing that nano was going to
be one of the key capabilities of the 21st
century. Neal Lane, our nation's most recent science
advisor, described it this way.
He said, "Any research wave builds by the free and
open disclosure of knowledge. That sharing of knowledge,
its replication by experiments, and the cross-communication
of researchers in the field and beyond are the [heart
of] the scientific process. These time-honored practices
create vibrations in the research community that 'something
new' is happening."
In 1996 at NSF, we began to sense the wave of interest
in the science and engineering community to expand
research activities at the nanoscale. Responding to
those imagining at that frontier, we have increased
our investment in this promising research area.
But how small is nanoscale and what can we do with
this capability? First, nanoscale is three orders
of magnitude smaller than most of today's human-made
devices. One nanometer is one billionth of a meter,
a magical point on the dimensional scale, as expressed
by Gene Wong, a former head of engineering at NSF.
Nanotechnology gives us the ability to manipulate matter
one atom or molecule at a time. This technology could
lead to a future of dramatic breakthroughs. For example,
molecular computers could store the equivalent of
the U.S. Library of Congress in a device any of us
Nanostructures are at the confluence of the smallest
human-made devices and the large molecules of living
systems. Individual atoms are a few tenths
of a nanometer. To use another comparison, DNA molecules
are about 2.5 nanometers wide. Biological cells, such
as red blood cells, have diameters in the range of
thousands of nanometers. Microelectromechanical systems
are now approaching this same scale. This suggests
a most exciting prospect. We are now at the point
of being able to connect machines to individual living
Nano application is not completely new; it has already
been used in photography and in catalysis. But until
recently it was primarily confined to those areas.
Now, we will be able to build a "wish list" of properties
into structures large and small. We will design automobile
tires atom by atom. Perhaps of more interest to you
will be the nano-capability to pattern recording media
in nanoscale layers and dots. The information on a
thousand CDs could be packed into the space of a wristwatch.
We could have golf club shafts as thin as fishing
Let's look at a few industries to see what nano might
hold for their futures. In the automotive and aeronautics
industries, we can foresee nanoparticle reinforced
materials for lighter bodies, external painting that
does not need washing, cheap non-flammable plastics,
and self-repairing coatings and textiles.
In the electronics and communications industries,
recording in all media will be able to be accomplished
in nanolayers and dots. This includes flat panel displays
and wireless technology. An entire range of new devices
and processes with startling ratios of improvement
await us across communication and information technologies.
It will be possible to vastly increase data storage
capacity and processing speeds. This will be accompanied
by both lower cost and improved power efficiency compared
to current electronic circuits.
In the field of chemicals and materials, we
foresee more catalysts that increase the energy and
combustion efficiency of chemical plants, super-hard
and tough (not brittle) drill bits and cutting tools,
and "smart"magnetic fluids for vacuum seals and lubricants.
In the burgeoning areas of pharmaceuticals, health
care and life sciences we will see new nanostructured
drugs and drug delivery systems targeted to specific
sites in the body. Researchers anticipate biocompatible
replacements for body parts and fluids, and material
for bone and tissue regeneration.
In manufacturing, we can expect precision engineering
based on new generations of microscopes and measuring
techniques, and new processes and tools to manipulate
matter at the atomic level. These are just the beginning.
Every field and industry will be able to capitalize
on nano innovations.
The new nano capability brings together many
disciplines of science and engineering to work in
collaboration. Its scope and scale create an overarching,
enabling field, not unlike the role of information
The expansion of our nanocapability will depend on
insightful researchers envisioning - imagining --its
possibilities - talented people with good ideas throughout
academe and industry.
Terascale computing is shorthand for computing technology
that takes us three orders of magnitude beyond prevailing
In the past, our system architectures could only handle
hundreds of processors. Now we work with systems of
thousands of processors. Shortly, we'll connect millions
of systems and billions of 'information appliances'
to the Internet. Crossing that boundary of 10^12th
- one trillion operations per second - launches us
to new frontiers.
Take for example protein synthesis within a cell. It
requires 20 milliseconds for a nascent protein to
fold into its functional conformation. However, it
takes 40 months of processor time on current systems
to simulate that folding. With a terascale system,
we reduce that time to one day -- one thousand times
faster. Think what that means for the task of functional
genomics, that is, putting our DNA sequence knowledge
When we dramatically advance the speed of our capability
in any area we give researchers and industrialists
the mechanism to get to a frontier much faster or,
better yet in terms of NSF's mission, to reach a frontier
that had been, heretofore, unreachable, as well as
For several years at NSF, we have been anticipating
and planning for dramatically enhanced computing speed
and expanded capabilities. The revolution in information
technologies connected and integrated researchers
and research fields in a way never before possible.
The nation's IT capability has acted like 'adrenaline'
to all of science and engineering. A next step was
to build the most advanced computing infrastructure
for researchers to use, while simultaneously broadening
Fields like physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering
are high-end computational fields. Researchers need
the fastest machines to predict the behavior of storms
or simulate 'protein folding,' or find the origin
of our rising sea level. Computer Science researchers
also need this capability to continue advancing their
NSF has recently given an award to the Pittsburgh Supercomputing
Center, which is a joint effort of Carnegie Mellon
University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the
Westinghouse Electric Company. The award is for the
express purpose of building a terascale computing
system. By building, we're doing more than just connecting
chips and wires. We'll need fundamental advances in
software and computer science across the board.
This high-performance computing system - funded at
$36 million, plus $9 million over three years in operating
costs - will eventually exceed 6 trillion operations
per second (tera ops), making it the world's fastest
for civilian research.
Now comes the next step, equally as exciting. Less
than a month ago, NSF invited new proposals for a
Distributed Terascale System that will further broaden
the research community's high-end capabilities. This
is a $45 million competition -plus operating costs
- for a Distributed Terascale Facility to reside at
Our vision here is to reach terascale competency and
catapult capability into a whole new era of science
and engineering. We're really talking about terascale
in four dimensions - T4 as we call it.
Tera ops - computational power
Tera bits - a broader band Internet
Tera bytes - hefty storage or memory
Tera instruments - the interfaces to the computing
In essence, we want to create a "tera universe or era"
for science and engineering ... and a freshly robust
Progress in 21st century science and engineering
depends upon access to world-class tools and infrastructure.
From past experience, we know that infrastructures
can either expand or inhibit our potential.
An infrastructure system can provide potential in
one era, but drag us into obsolescence in another
So, in a sense, infrastructure can be thought of as
'perishable.' This is an important understanding because
what is state-of-the-art today is conventional tomorrow.
As exciting and futuristic as terascale is now, someday
it will be eclipsed by something beyond today's furthest
And even the best tools are useless without well-trained
people who have the capacity to pose challenging questions,
conceptualize critical issues, identify opportunities,
and employ their skills to derive answers.
This brings me to the third capability we intend to
expand, cognition. The dictionary defines cognition
as the mental process by which knowledge is acquired.
Most of us would simply say, this is learning. Learning
is the foundation territory of all other capabilities,
human and institutional. Our understanding of the
learning process holds the key to tapping the potential
of every child, empowering a 21st century
workforce, and, in fact, maintaining our democracy.
From the last 30 years of research, we know that people,
both young and old, absorb and assimilate knowledge
in different ways, and in more than one way. So the
"science of learning" is a critical inquiry into how
More than any other species, humans are configured
to be the most flexible learners. Although much of
what we learn is outside of any formal instruction,
people are intentional learners, proactive in acquiring
knowledge and skills. Compulsory education in all
50 states dictates that children must attend school
until a certain age, an intentional learning environment.
Our understanding of the learning process has changed
dramatically since the time I was growing up. Then
the dogma was 'diligent drilling and rote memorization.'
Now it has shifted to students' understanding and
application of knowledge.
Industry foots a multimillion-dollar bill each year
on training of every kind for its employees. This
money is not only well spent but perhaps even 'best'
spent. State-of-the-art industrial facilities and
equipment and a national cyberinfrastructure are of
little value without equally sophisticated workforce
skills and knowledge. The new educational technologies
tooled to individual learning styles could transform
worker education and training.
Research in learning has built a growing body of knowledge;
however, experts believe that it's only the tip of
the iceberg. But I know that one of their findings
already resonates with most of us.
From studies of people who have astute expertise in
areas such as chess, physics, mathematics, and history,
we have found, not to anyone's surprise, that being
an expert does not guarantee your ability to instruct
others about the topic. If our nation is to live up
to its potential and continue to be competitive, we
have to be able to provide the best instruction for
every student and worker.
From a very different perspective of learning, the
advent of non-invasive imaging technologies such as
the PET scan and the MRI, has allowed neuroscience
researchers to directly observe the process of the
brain learning. Through these observations they were
able to see that practice increases learning and that
learning changes the physical structure of the brain.
With changes in structure, the brain reorganizes
itself. From this work we also know that different
parts of the brain may be ready to learn at different
Many of the new educational technologies have features
consistent with basic principles of learning. The
interactive feature helps students learn by doing,
receiving feedback, and refining their understanding.
Technologies help people visualize concepts that are
difficult to grasp. And the most obvious, technologies
provide access to a universe of information that includes
digital libraries, real-world data, and a panoply
of people for both information and feedback.
As industry increasingly seeks agile and adaptive learners
for its workforce, the science of learning will make
invaluable contributions. Our ultimate goal is not
to waste a single child and to do whatever is needed
to ensure that today's and tomorrow's workers are
NSF will soon announce a competition for a set of Science
of Learning Centers. They are intended to coalesce
the rapidly advancing cognitive knowledge base with
IT tools of growing capability. Imagine the next decade
with breakthroughs in our understanding of how people
think and learn.
By focusing on cognition, we will advance our capability
in everything from teaching children how to read to
building human-like computers and robots. Industry
can capitalize on this knowledge in training initiatives,
in the manufacturing process, and in the development
of new products in a field that is blossoming. But,
fundamentally we will help empower people and thus
empower the nation, all of which can lead to wealth
creation, and social progress currently unimaginable.
Now to the 4th and 5th capabilities,
complexity and holism. They act as two sides of a
coin to guide us in the best way to use our accumulated
knowledge of science and technology to discover new
knowledge and better understand how to use it.
Mitch Waldrop, in his book Complexity, writes
about a point we often refer to as "the edge of chaos."
That is, "where the components of a system never quite
lock into place, and yet never quite dissolve into
turbulence either...The edge of chaos is where new
ideas and innovative genotypes are forever nibbling
away at the edges of the status quo..."
This territory of complexity is 'a space of opportunity,'
a place to make a marriage of unlike partners or disparate
ideas. High-paid consultants sometimes refer to people
who understand this territory and feel comfortable
there as 'out of the box thinkers.' The consultants
may use their vernacular but both Einstein and Edward
Hopper pegged it a long time ago as "imagination."
Today, researchers are trying to put polymers together
with silicon, a marriage of opposites because plastics
are chaotic chains while silicon is composed of orderly
crystals. The result can give us electronic devices
with marvelous flexibility that are also much less
expensive. The awareness of 'complexity' makes us
nimble and opportunistic seekers not only in our science
and engineering knowledge but in our industrial institutions.
If we operate with this awareness we will be able
to identify and capitalize on those fringe territories
which have potential for optimum arrangement.
Holism is the "flip side" of the complexity coin.
Holism and complexity have a symbiotic relationship.
Complexity teaches us to look at places of dissonance
or disorder in a field as windows of possibility.
Holism teaches us that combinations of things have
a power and capability greater than the sum of their
separate parts. Holism is far from a new idea. We
have seen it work in social structures since the beginning
of civilization. We see its power today in areas as
diverse as our communities, science and engineering
partnerships, and teams in any field of sports.
Something new happens in this integration process.
A singular or separate dynamic emerges from the interaction.
That's probably why when economists are analyzing
productivity inputs they refer to the residual, what's
left after you factor in capital, labor, land, etc.,
as the "black box." They can't explain the dynamism
or interaction of the leftovers such as R&D, education,
workplace interaction, and the like. They can only
recognize that something better or more enhanced comes
out on the other side.
This integration and interaction works at many levels
- the sociology of a team of workers can be a stimulant,
with ideas firing-off in many directions. Holism creates
supportive space where taking risks and challenging
the unquestionable is acceptable. Holism engenders
elucidation, the discovery of your own knowledge transformed
by other perspectives.
The mid-20th century philosopher, Josť Ortega
y Gasset wrote in his work, Mission of the University,
"The need to create sound syntheses and systemizations
of knowledge will call out a kind of scientific genius
which hitherto has existed only as an aberration:
the genius for integration. Of necessity this means
specialization, as all creative effort does, but this
time the [person] will be specializing in construction
of the whole."
Although holism is an ancient dynamic, what is new
is that it can be applied to the vast accumulated
knowledge of science and engineering and the new knowledge
that is burgeoning as we speak.
So when we train ourselves to think about complexity
and holism as two sides of a coin, we develop a pattern
or attitude to search for the disordered fringes of
a field and to pick out fragments of possibility.
With these pieces of potential, different 'wholes'
can be created in new integration. The possibilities
are endless when you think about the flexible building
power that nanotechnology will provide, the enormous
insight from research in cognition, and the ratcheting
up of speed that terascale computing offers. Now if
you take each of these 5 capabilities and you ask,
what is the 'constant' or fundamental ingredient,
it's the simple formula of talented people and the
power of their new ideas. The "imaginers" are never
confined by what they know, never restricted by existing
rules, and never afraid to propose what no one else
had seen or imagined. They swing with no net but never
lose sight of the ground. They created everything
from Velcro to America's democracy. Any corporation
or industry can do the same.