National Academy of Sciences
September 25, 1997
Let me thank David Clark, Marjory Blumenthal, and the entire Board and staff of the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board here at the NRC. My hat's off to you for setting an agenda that is both appropriately ambitious and inherently manageable. Thanks for all of your efforts and hard work.
I also want to extend my thanks to all of you for taking the time to join us here today. I know many of you had to rearrange your schedules to be here in Washington, and my NSF colleagues and I all very much look forward to hearing your thoughts and exchanging ideas with you. (The fact that our appropriation for FY 98 is being debated in Congress as we speak should not distract us - much!)
We are here to discuss a very important yet difficult to define topic. Suffice it to say that few events can match our gathering here today for giving us the chance to take stock of the so-called cutting-edge of research, what it is? Where it is? - and to assess the promise it offers to our society.
Some weeks back, I had a chance to read a very interesting special edition of U.S. News and World Report. The cover story was entitled, "Great Science Mysteries." I used to read my science in Phys. Rev. and Rev. Med. Phys., now - it's U.S. News. The first thing that caught my eye was the subtext presented in the Table of Contents. It read, "the wonder of science is that the more we know, the more we know there is to know."
It was refreshing to see this statement in a major news magazine. We live in an era where books are being published saying the exact opposite - that we know all there is to know, and all the great questions have been answered. It was therefore reassuring and inspiring to see a major media publication helping to deflate some of the arrogance of our era. Great frontiers of learning, discovery, and progress still lie before us - so long as we retain the courage and the desire to take some risks and explore the unknown through research, education, and scholarship.
The centerpiece of the U.S. News issue was a collection of essays by leading researchers and science writers. They examined some 19 unanswered questions that run the gamut of science and engineering fields. The questions included:
Perhaps the most provocative question in the set asked, "why do males exist?". The magazine points out that according to evolutionary biology, there is no need for males to exist. I didn't follow the entire argument. Perhaps my heart wasn't in it. It focused on the genetic merits of asexual reproduction. My wife who was more open minded about the matter, did point out that the question is an appropriate one to ask in America at this particular time of year - with football season having just arrived.
If we leave that question aside - as we probably should - it is instructive to consider the U.S. News list in light of our agenda today. When I first read the article, I spotted two questions that seemed most directly related to the challenges posed under what we've been calling Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence. One question asked, "Can computers be conscious?" and the other, "What is memory?". To someone just skimming the entire article, these are the only two questions where concepts related to advanced information technologies leapt off the page.
This reminded me of a puzzler that was popular some years back. It asked: what do comets, pigs, my teenage son's hairdo, and lobsters have in common?
The answer is: they all have tails.
In this same way, all the questions on the U.S. News list all have a surprising amount in common with each other. Whether we are asking how old the universe is, how many species there are, or what causes ice ages, the answers we seek will be locked away forever - unless we can release the full potential of this era of Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence.
To quote: "The job of cataloging the world's species is straightforward, methodical, and slow. Taxonomists...add an average of 13,000 species a year to the list of known organisms. At that rate it would take centuries to complete the census. Because no central storehouse coordinates the results, even the number of species named so far - between 1.5 million and 1.8 million - is uncertain."
These few examples represent just a small sampling of the great mysteries that work in KDI will help us unravel. Even more important is that the advances needed to address these challenges in research will likely bring even greater gains to our society as a whole. If we step back and consider areas like education and social services, then we can see an entirely new view of the potential that lies before us.
It's often said that we as a society are being overrun by the information age. The phrase "information is everywhere" is more than just a cliché. We can now link to a rich array of information sources virtually anywhere and anytime we desire. We can check the weather at the beach and on Mars, see who won the late game, and keep tabs on the market - all without ever leaving our living rooms.
Now comes the hard part. Is this increased access to information enriching us as individuals and as a society? Is it creating opportunities that benefit all Americans? Critics and cynics point that these advances have numerous unanticipated and perhaps undesired consequences. There are disturbing signs that these new technologies have further widened long-standing gaps and divisions in our society - creating a world of technological haves and have-nots. Even some of our strongest supporters have openly wondered if all we've done is create newer and faster ways to grow that variety of our species commonly called the couch potato, or new distractions for our young people that prevent them from their studies.
The access we have gained to widely distributed sources of information marks a major accomplishment for human civilization. It is nevertheless only the first step. Access to information is one thing. But intelligently absorbing, refining, and analyzing this information to glean useful knowledge is another altogether. This represents the driving force behind NSF's efforts in Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence.
We don't need to look back very far into history for a precedent that bodes well for our future success. I know the early 1990s hardly count as ancient history, but one could say that's the stone age in terms of the World Wide Web. At the time, the Web was literally the exclusive domain of high energy physicists working at places like CERN and other major facilities around the globe. But right around that time a sharp undergraduate took a job as a programmer at the NSF-supported supercomputer center at the University of Illinois, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.
This student knew that there had be something better than gophers and FTPs for linking data and exchanging files across different sites and applications. He came up with a program - named it Mosaic - and the web browser was born. The student's name is Marc Andreessen. He's since turned Mosaic into Netscape, and he's also provided us with a great story on the financial rewards students can reap from working on NSF-supported research projects.
But that is just one part of the story I want us to consider today, because the rewards that the web has brought to our society surpass those it has brought to any particular individuals. Last December, I had the chance to take part in a very prestigious event in New York City. It was the ceremony to present the National Information Infrastructure Awards, which recognize innovative and extraordinary uses of the Internet and other advanced information and communications technologies.
NSF was being recognized for the electronic system we have established to administer our grants for research and education, known as FastLane. I should point out that the name was not my idea! NSF was one of 10 institutions recognized at the ceremony. If it's true that you are judged by the company you keep, then the collection of awardees from last December's event provides powerful testimony to the potential KDI offers to our society.
From these examples we can learn an invaluable lesson that underlies much of the vision and the promise behind NSF's work in Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence. What began as an obscure tool used by physicists to exchange data has become a powerful force for progress and enrichment across our society. And it has all happened in just a few years.
We are here today to talk about how we can collectively shape and spur what comes next. Further progress requires collaborative efforts that reach across different disciplines and across our respective institutions.
All of us here share a commitment to advancing research, creativity, and scholarship to promote the common good. At NSF, our mission keeps us in the domain of science and engineering. It's a broad mission, but not nearly so broad as the collection of institutional priorities and objectives represented here today. A compendium of our different institutional missions would include such areas as heath care, learning technologies, oral history, literature, fine arts, social welfare, and virtually every other aspect of our collective history and humanity.
As with the list of questions from U.S. News, the overlap between all of these missions and objectives is far from obvious at first glance, but it begins to become clear after just a few moments of reflection.
The institutions we represent have already established truly complementary working relationships in areas of mutual interest. This has occurred through a mixture of happenstance, fortuitous networking, and insightful planning. One example is the area of digital libraries, which we will discuss in greater detail later today.
Another, perhaps more surprising area of common interest lies at the interface of communications, linguistics, and history. It's easy to imagine why both historians and linguists have an interest in developing ways to search, query, and reference recorded statements and accounts, and oral histories in particular. Nowhere is this challenge greater than with the multimedia archive of eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust being developed by the Shoah Visual History Foundation. This archive now includes nearly 35,000 interviews in 29 different languages.
This reminds us that knowledge resides in different dialects, alphabets, and character sets. Improving our ability to access this particular knowledge base poses a daunting and exciting scientific opportunity. We'll need to draw upon experts from linguistics, computer science, engineering, voice recognition, and numerous other areas to develop new approaches and systems. This would yield a resource whose value to our society, especially to future generations, truly would defy measurement of any kind.
Today, we are here to explore and exchange ideas on countless other challenges and opportunities brought to us by this era of Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence. The first part of our agenda is build around the priorities and themes that my colleagues and I at NSF have identified through a series of workshops and planning discussion. These fall under headings like Learning and Intelligent Systems, Knowledge Networking, and New Computational Challenges.
Let me close by saying that if some of us may seem well-armed with briefing charts and official sounding acronyms, don't be fooled. We are fully aware that we are still on the front edge of the learning curve. As I said out the outset, we know this is an important topic, and we also know it is very difficult to define.
For this reason, today is a day for sharing insights, guidance, concerns, criticisms, and most of all, for sharing ideas on where our interests overlap and point the way to possible joint ventures and collaborations. This is meant to be a workshop in the fullest sense of the term. We want the atmosphere to be informal and engaging. Feel free to ask questions and speak up at any time - and by all means stop us when we slip into obscure jargon and Washington-speak.
With that, let me once again offer my thanks to all of you for making time in what I know are very busy schedules to join us here today. This promises to be an exciting and productive pair of days, so let's get started.