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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Beyond Barcodes: Wisdom in the Age of Information"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
National Press Club

April 29, 1999

Thank you. I'm honored to have the chance to share a few thoughts with you today about the digital revolution that's underway in science and society.

I would like to explore with you some of the ramifications of our embrace of information technology.

It has genuinely transformed science and engineering and it's rapidly changing our lives.

We know these technologies can be a powerful force for progress, provided we use them wisely.

Our timing couldn't be better. Earlier this week, President Clinton awarded the National Medal of Science to nine superstars of science.

Many of their stunning discoveries across the scientific disciplines have drawn on the power of information technology.

That same drive toward exploration and discovery -- which is so basic to the human spirit -- is being celebrated right now through National Science and Technology Week.

Around the room you can see our poster announcing the kick-off of our new initiative, which we call "find out why."

Our challenge is to people of all ages to discover the science and technology that are found everywhere in their daily lives. I often say that kids make the best scientists. Their favorite word is "why."

The striking object on this poster is not, as you might think, an insect or a flower. It's a ferrofluid -- part liquid and part magnet.

It's used in such things as rotary seals in disk drives for computers. (If you'd like a poster, or for those of you who are listening in, I encourage you to visit our website at

Many of the information technologies that surround us got their start from federally supported, basic science and engineering.

These new tools have given us so many ways to "find out why" that we can hardly count them. The bar-coding of our lives has made information access instantaneous.

  • When I jog or run in a race, I get a chip to attach to my shoe. It records my start, and the world can see my times on the Web. (I don't understand why they'd want to, but at least they can.)

  • In Antarctica, at least one scientist has put bar-codes on the penguins he is studying. This makes his data gathering faster and more precise.

  • I expect we'll soon be bar-coding the pathogen Pfisteria in the Chesapeake Bay. This will happen thanks to microchips that will identify the organism's genome as fast as a supermarket scanner could do. After all, what's DNA but the ultimate natural barcode?

The electronic fingerprinting of the world reminds me of a story that -- naturally -- comes from the Web.

It's attributed to Danny Hillis, who pioneered the concept of parallel computing. He's now vice president of research and development at Walt Disney Company. As he said, "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 said, 'Where are they all going to go?' It's not like you need a computer in every doorknob!'"

Well, years later, Hillis went back to the same hotel. He noticed the room keys had been replaced by those electronic cards you slide into slots in the doors.

So -- actually -- there was "a computer in every doorknob."

Computing technology surrounds us, yet we've hardly begun to absorb the meaning of these changes in almost every sphere of life.

We assume that all this information makes us smarter. But, I suppose if you believe that, it's like believing that having a library card makes you well read.

I'd like to step beyond the bar-code -- that's my metaphor for the pervasiveness of the information revolution.

We need to approach the avalanche of information with that rarer quantity, wisdom.

Douglas Robertson, in his book The New Renaissance, calls the computer revolution the fourth great information explosion in human history -- after the invention of language, writing, and printing.

So now is a time for reflection ---

  • on how we think about those wonderful tools;
  • how we choose to invest in and design them;
  • and who we should include in the debate. Our choices truly determine what we will become.

We face issues of privacy and security. The public's worry over the consequences of Y2K is a good example.

Many of us, I think, also felt a touch of unease a few weeks ago as we waited for the "Melissa" virus to visit our virtual worlds. The virus invaded an estimated 100,000 computers in just a few days.

And of course we've just read on the front page that the Chernobyl virus has crippled more than 600,000 computers worldwide.

Our new connectedness can amplify a single voice in revolutionary ways. Individual consumers have set up websites to air complaints about -- in the vernacular, to "flame" -- hundreds of big companies.

For whatever purpose, one individual can reach, potentially, hundreds of thousands of people.

Today, the Internet links 37 million computers and over 150 million users.

By the beginning of the coming millennium, less than half the material on the Worldwide Web will be in English. The Web is truly worldwide.

In this country, information technology has become the fuel for our nation's economic engine. IT has generated one-third of the recent growth in the U.S. economy.

It supports 7.4 million jobs, and pays wages at least 60 percent higher than the private sector average.

High-tech's share of U.S. trade -- that's the imports and exports -- has doubled over 15 years from 9 percent in 1980 to 18 percent in 1995.

Last week, the CEO of the Web's largest consumer site for "e-commerce" spoke at this podium.

The company, eBay, claims $11.2 billion in gross merchandise sales annually, with ten percent of the users outside the United States.

I think it's ironic that few people realize that key advances in this technology were spurred by federally sponsored research.

What we know today as the Internet grew from predecessors in the 1980s and earlier, notably ARPANet and NSFNET.

The NSFNET was a research and education network. It was used to link our supercomputer centers to universities.

In the same decade, scientists and students from NSF's supercomputer center at the University of Illinois developed the first web browser.

That browser moved the Internet from the realm of university research to public communication and commerce.

Over the past several years, NSF has invested on the order of $500 million annually in supercomputing, networking, and other information technology activities.

That's helped to lay the foundation for what is fast becoming a trillion-dollar share of the U.S. economy. Not a bad return.

Well, there's a shadow on the horizon. Government support for innovation in computing has not been keeping up with inflation.

Recently, the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC for short) concluded that federal support for long-term research on information technology was "dangerously inadequate."

Given the intense competition in the industry, private companies support research with only a three-to-five year timeline.

I recall how computer researchers at a university I visited recently seemed to soar in their work, like eagles without limits. I also met researchers for a private software company who soared equally well, but seemed like birds trapped in a net. Though just as brilliant, they were tethered to the bottom line.

We are falling short on long-term, basic research. This is happening just when the importance of computing and communications to our economy has grown so dramatically.

And it's become so very important. According to the National Research Council, Internet traffic has doubled every year from 1989 to 1995. It's now doubling every six-to-nine months.

We can take another measure of where we're going -- that's the wisdom of Moore's law, which predicts that the density of transistors on microprocessors will double about every two years.

Well, there are now a couple of obstacles to sustaining this trend.

By the year 2005, we simply run out of physics to keep the doubling on track. We can't go any faster than the speed of light. Transistors can't become smaller than molecules.

So, we need to look out toward a more distant horizon -- toward visionary research on computing and communications. This may mean quantum computing or DNA computing.

We're actually now in the process of building the Internet of the future. The network we're constructing will run at much higher speeds. This capacity is essential to the future of science and engineering.

We have an opportunity now to invigorate the pace and character of this revolution. As the poet Octavio Paz says, "Revolution is both planned and spontaneous, a science and an art."

It makes sense, then, to look to science for the next stage in this revolution, because science and engineering are spurring it, and they often prefigure how computing technology plays out in our broader society.

I can comfortably say that no field of research will be left untouched by the current explosion in information.

Science used to be composed of two endeavors, theory and experiment. Now it has a third component: computer simulation, which links the other two.

In fact, scientific questions in all fields are growing more complex and interconnected.

Much of the future excitement will come at the borders of disciplines, at the interfaces, nourished by progress in the core scientific areas.

  • In materials engineering, there is the interface of synthetic and biological materials. We have artificial skin that is partly biodegradable. It's already been developed for burn victims.

  • Blood vessels can now be repaired with polymers. On the horizon are new materials that could join perfectly to natural tissues and replace damaged parts of the body.

  • We're also seeing that complexity theory from mathematics is being applied to biology and social science. Research on fish that aggregate in schools and birds flocking together might actually yield insights for human crowd control.

The solid foundation of information technology is absolutely fundamental for these fields to fuse and to flower.

We can join together what have been discrete scientific cultures. This way, we can better reflect and probe the integration and wholeness of the world that we study.

We're seeing this happen. The head of one of our national partnerships for advanced computing, Larry Smarr, gives us a view on how it can take place.

He describes a rise in "effervescent" collaborations among the scientific and engineering disciplines. Fluid partnerships using the Web will appear and disappear when they're needed.

A software designer may link with an expert in social ethics. They can design features to deliberately encourage broad public access to the technology.

Another software collaboration might require conferring with an expert on human speech patterns. The Internet will help these scientists find each other and work together.

The ultimate vision is to collect researchers into one "virtual room," a single virtual laboratory.

The daily and now discrete activities of science -- talking to our colleagues, reading journals, working in the laboratory -- will be conducted in a seamless digital theater.

We've already seen the advent of these "collaboratories."

One network based at the University of Michigan combines the efforts of space physicists to predict space weather. These are the disturbances whipped up when the solar wind buffets our atmosphere.

Wherever they are, researchers can consult an array of satellites in space and earthbound radars in four countries.

Another example: the SHEBA project. You may recall that a year ago last fall, a ship was frozen-in to the Arctic Ocean. It served as a floating station for climate, ice, and ocean research.

The streams of data were regularly posted to the Net. Most of the researchers, wherever in the world they may have been based, did not need to visit the North Pole themselves. And I'm sure they appreciated that.

My own research provides another example of how computing has transformed what science can do.

I've long used computers in my own work. In fact, an IBM 650 -- the same model I used in my PhD research -- is now on display in the Smithsonian Institution! That tells you how fast things have moved.

My research is a kind of detective story. Over the years, we have followed the organism that causes cholera and linked its spread to environmental factors, including El Niño.

My students and I use satellites and remote sensing as well as computer processing to integrate data from many disciplines -- oceanography, epidemiology, ecology, microbiology, and others.

We have been studying cholera since the mid-1960s. It is a severe dehydrating illness.

In nature, the cholera bacteria attach to the egg cases of microscopic animals in the ocean. As these tiny animals, or plankton, multiply in the spring, the cholera bacteria also increase in numbers.

In Bangladesh, where cholera is endemic, we've traced the association between the two.

Now we're beginning to be able to predict. Because the 1997-1998 El Niño had been predicted, we were able to mobilize public health teams in Latin America -- in Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador -- to look for the cholera bacteria in the environment before El Niño got underway.

This means we can now develop models to predict cholera outbreaks. Throughout history, we've always played catch-up with these diseases -- responding after outbreaks occurred. Now we can gear up and move into action in advance.

We have so many examples of how computing has expanded our options, helping us to gain better control over our lives.

But there are some who feel quite the opposite about the information revolution. We can be overwhelmed by the pace and scale of change.

Indeed, the technologies are transfiguring virtually all parts of our lives. We need to understand not only the economic but also the social impact of the Internet.

One of our social scientists at the National Science Foundation, Rachelle Hollander, was recently honored as a "Hero of the Information Age" in a Los Angeles Times article. In her view, "Information technology has the ability to transform the social as well as the physical landscape, perhaps beyond even what the automobile has done."

These words have a clear implication: We need to widen our scope beyond the narrow technical parameters. We need to know how this technology can affect what it is to be a person, a community, a society.

We've seen that information technology has transformed science by lowering the barriers in many ways. This is also true in society at large.

Computing and communications have blurred the boundaries between our work and our personal lives, between the government and its citizens, and between nations.

  • Doctors and patients now have access to the same information.

  • Because e-mail rarely shows the sender's status, it soars over the levels of hierarchy. The examples are legion -- some are a source of worry, and others are liberating.

Our embrace of information technology has already brought fundamental social change. Yet, we really are not aware of its magnitude.

We marvel at how information technology makes the world seem smaller. At the same time, it has the potential to create new barriers, new inequalities in our society.

We imagine universal connectedness, with talk of "tetherless networks" that anyone could tap into any time, anywhere. Conversely, we could also broaden the gap between the information rich and the information bereft.

In our own nation, sociologists have identified groups whose access to telephones, computers and the Internet lag well behind the national averages.

These information gaps appear among nations as well. Indeed, most of those who live in the Third World have never used a telephone.

Earlier I said that the Web was indeed worldwide, but it's a thinly stretched web. Less than two percent of the world is actually on the web. If we subtract the United States and Canada, it's less than one percent.

A perfect example of the information divide is Africa. If we take out South Africa from the count, only one out of 5,000 Africans has Internet access, compared to one in 38 worldwide.

This inequality of access to cyberspace should concern us not only from a humanitarian but from an economic and stability standpoint as well.

All of this leads to perhaps the most pressing, promising, and controversial junction of computing and society -- education.

Education is the key to bridging the divides and tapping the full potential of emerging technologies.

If there's one theme that sociologists and educators strike repeatedly about computers and education, it's that context matters.

Like all technologies, computers have different impacts in different settings. It's not simply a matter of wiring-up every school or putting a laptop into every lap.

Having a PC at home might improve school performance for kids with high socioeconomic status. But a home PC may not have much effect in poorer households.

At school, the social organization of classrooms also affects how well computers help students learn.

We know that research has measured real learning benefits from information technology.

But we don't yet know how these techniques and these methods square up against other kinds of instruction.

The great hope is that computerized tools will bring individualized learning to all -- stimulating natural curiosity, providing access to the knowledge that's available in the world, and helping everyone to learn in his or her own singular style.

Information empowerment takes skill -- information literacy. This is the ability to find, assess, and use information for decision-making. The American Library Association calls it "central to the practice of democracy."

This skill -- one that grows ever more complex, yet necessary, by the minute -- should become everyone's right to possess, just like the ability to read is now.

Surrounded by both hype and hope, the idea of unleashing computers for educational reform remains a vision. But it's one that needs to be pursued.

Computer scientists point to the next great breakthrough as the ability of computers to converse with us-even to be able to recognize when we're in a bad mood!

Let me step back and ask: How much of this is just a dream? As I close, I turn to a book written by Mark Stefik, appropriately called Internet Dreams.

He crafted a metaphor to illuminate our hopes for the emergent digital world. About information technology, Stefik writes: "In the present century the metaphor of knowledge as light is both poetic and physically realized."

Our challenge now is to design our digital future to reflect the light of the Information Age.

Our challenge is to fuel basic research, so it truly nourishes our technological advancement and helps us to spread the benefits of knowledge.

Our challenge, above all, is to make wise choices-and that's something we have to do inclusively, together as a society.

That will be the way to transform the Age of Information into one of wisdom. Thank you.



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