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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


"In the Sarnoff Tradition: Envisioning, Believing, and Making It Happen"

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
Seminar for Sarnoff Community
Princeton, NJ

April 30, 2001

See also slide presentation.

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact
The Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

I am honored and delighted to be here in Sarnoff country - a place of ideas and innovation. David Sarnoff was an icon of 20th century industrial innovation, and it is a proud day for me to be invited back to the place that still carries his name and where I once worked on very exciting projects as a young engineer.

Before we get serious, let me share with you a tale of levity as one way to describe the tension involved in the important skill that Sarnoff displayed in managing technological innovation.

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 the balloonist.

"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 as all of us in this room have experienced. Among these, it does serve to highlight, in opposition, the savvy bridging-skills that Sarnoff brought to the national table for managing technological innovation.

Now, to more serious work. I have titled my remarks today, In the Sarnoff Tradition: Envisioning, Believing, and Making it Happen. Among poets, an expression of good wishes is, " may the Muse visit you," in essence meaning, may inspiration visit the poet. When I think about David Sarnoff it seems to me he was always his own Muse, an amazing wellspring of ideas. But what made him unique was the tenacity with which he pursued those inspirations. I'm sure you all know his often quoted comment, "There are few things the mind can conceive that science ultimately cannot accomplish."

That same tenacity carried over into his management. Even when the new trend in American business turned to diversification and conglomeration, which proved both unhealthy and unsuccessful, Sarnoff stuck to his fundamental beliefs. He had locked on a vision that turned out to be elegant and sound.

In his biography of Sarnoff called The General, Kenneth Bilby quotes two scholars in the Harvard Business Review of 1980, 10 years after Sarnoff's death. They wrote, "The key to long term success -- even survival -- in business is what it has always been: to invest, to innovate, to lead, to create value where none existed before. Such determination, such striving to excel, requires leaders -- not just controllers, market analysts and portfolio managers." This was very much the Sarnoff formula, and he never lost sight of it, even when others followed the fashion of the times. His vision of electronics, especially for telecommunications, became the nation's vision for a long time.

In today's world, I believe he would understand well the variety of global trends noted on this slide (slide 1) and would capitalize on each to create wealth out of what some may view as societal dilemmas. Indeed, he understood well the difference between productivity and innovation (slide 2) and the related process of concurrent integration described in the next slides (slide 3).

In my remarks today, I want to stay with another component of the Sarnoff legend. Even in the hardest of economic times, he was determined that the last thing to be cut was RCA's research budget.

As the Deputy Director of the National Science Foundation where we focus on research and education across the frontiers of science and engineering, I understand his thinking and agree with it. 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, recompose, and expand core science and engineering disciplines. They encompass the concepts and expertise that our present and future workforce of scientists and engineers will require to succeed and help the nation prosper. They are (slide 4) nanoscale, terascale, cognition, complexity, and holism; I'll address each of them in the remainder of this talk. David Sarnoff would have found unique ways to utilize these capabilities. He would certainly know how an integrated capability among these would play well vis-a-vis Schumpeter's thesis of 'creative destruction' (slide 5).

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 more and more embracing what happens at their interfaces.

With the community's peer advice, we do this by investing in 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 mentioned. Let me list them again, and then I'll address each one. (slide 6)

1. nanoscale
2. terascale
3. cognition
4. complexity
5. holism

We use the term nano to express nanoscale science and engineering, things in the realm of a billionth of a meter. 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. Now our micro world is becoming a nano world.

As you know, nanoscale is three orders of magnitude smaller than most of today's human-made devices. To get a feeling for what this means in terms of the cosmos, let's look at this next slide. (slide 7)

Nanotechnology gives us the ability to manipulate matter one atom or molecule at a time. 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, (slide 8) 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 cells.

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.

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 technologies today.

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 computing capabilities. In the past, our system architectures could handle only 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 to work.

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 unknowable.

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 its accessibility.

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 field.

Our vision here is to reach terascale competency and catapult capability into a whole new era of science and engineering. In essence, we want to create a "tera universe or era" for science and engineering ... and a freshly robust national "cyberinfrastructure." (slide 9) Within this infrastructure, we'll enjoy tera-ops power, terabyte storage, terabit connectivity, and tera-instrument interfaces.

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 era.

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 frontier.

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 people learn. (slide 10)

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.

Because of new tools and interdisciplinary research investments, our understanding of the learning process has changed dramatically in the past two decades. A rich knowledge base in cognitive science has been developed jointly by linguists, psychologists, philosophers, computer scientists, engineers, and neuroscientists. This has prompted us this past year to envision Science of Learning Centers to complement and synergize our Engineering Research Centers and Science and Technology Centers (slide 11).

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.

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 so much potential.

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. Something new happens in this integration process. A singular or separate dynamic emerges from the interaction.

Although holism, the process of integration, perhaps far older than reductionism as a human construct, 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. A striking example is evident in our holistic approach to issues of our environment. The next slide (slide 12) illustrates our investment in what we call biocomplexity in the environment.

When we train students and workers 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 five 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. Those like David Sarnoff led the pack, created whole new universes of technology. They 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.

In closing, and in nostalgia, I want to share with you some words by Sarnoff that were published in Popular Mechanics in 1939. He said, "It is possible that television drama of high caliber and produced by first rate artists will materially raise the level of dramatic taste of the nation." Well, though we revere him, the General was only human and not always right.



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