"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
That same drive toward exploration and discovery --
which is so basic to the human spirit -- is being
celebrated right now through National Science and
Around the room you can see our poster announcing the
kick-off of our new initiative, which we call "find
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 www.nsf.gov.)
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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 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
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
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
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
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.