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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


"When Scientists, Engineers, and Artists Concur:
Imagination is the Answer"

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
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 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 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 sing.

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 Disney.

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 environment.

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 fundamental capability.

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 one.

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

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 could wear.

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 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. We could have golf club shafts as thin as fishing lines.

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 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 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.

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 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.

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 multiple sites.

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 system

In essence, we want to create a "tera universe or era" for science and engineering ... and a freshly robust national "cyberinfrastructure."

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.

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 times.

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 well prepared.

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, Jos 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.



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