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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


"Planning the Future: It Wasn't Raining When Noah Built the Ark"

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
National Engineers Week
Greater Philadelphia Region

February 24, 2001

Several months ago, we were inundated with election information and misinformation, and material that was either pertinent or impertinent. In the midst of that barrage, I consulted my copy of The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce. Some of you may know this slim little collection of witty and unorthodox definitions.

I found one apropos of election decisions. It said, "A Conservative is a statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others."

I am also reminded of the wisdom of Sir Winston Churchill. He said, "Political skill is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow. ...And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn't happen."

In a more serious vein, we know that elections change styles of leadership. They alter policies. And they can move the nation in a different direction. But there are some societal forces that have a life of their own. These forces possess a certain historical inevitability that presses forward against all odds.

The increasing scientific and technological nature of civilization has been one of those forces, an undisputed pattern. It can be traced from early human history to a veritable frenzy in modern times. In the last twenty-five years, our knowledge base has exploded, and the pace of science and technology has accelerated with it. This accumulated knowledge is now so vast that we can, with some modicum of confidence, anticipate and design different futures.

In this sense, I have titled my remarks, Planning the Future: It Wasn't Raining when Noah Built the Ark. No one but mystics and psychics ever claim to be able to predict future events. But I believe that in the last several years our nation has turned the corner in thinking about how to better anticipate the future of technological change. There has been a growing tendency to think comprehensively about trends and patterns, and their collective outcomes. Again, we're not predicting, we're 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 field of study 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. In all of these, new scientific and engineering knowledge, and new technologies, are enormous drivers of change. Thus, we need to be especially anticipatory about the nation's future science and engineering direction, infrastructure, and workforce. Science and engineering are the cornerstones of our hyper-paced economy. We are a society that requires complex infrastructures and a highly sophisticated workforce.

At NSF we are all about science and engineering. Scientists and engineers are partners in the process of discovering knowledge and applying it to tasks that are new and different. They bring about change; they cause disruption. We call this process innovation.

Both science and engineering are cornerstones of innovation. They are always changing the present to become the future, so in essence they are fundamentally anticipatory.

The distinguished mathematician Alfred North Whitehead laid down a simple guiding principle applicable to this anticipatory process when he said, "The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order."

At NSF, we are mindful of this depiction of progress. Our task has been to foster the building of the nation's science and engineering strength in order to strengthen the nation's economic and social future. In that process we support the disciplines in their constant effort to reach the farthest frontier while maintaining their fundamental capability. As Whitehead said, we make progress through change in the context of order.

You might ask how a grant-making institution like NSF does that? It can be likened to 'planning to build the ark based on a long range forecast.' In other words, developing a certain institutional vision. That visionary landscape at NSF has three critical components -- people, ideas, and tools. They are the stock in which NSF invests. Although we speak of them separately, they are, in fact, inseparable, and form the core goals of our strategic agenda.

With the community's peer advice, we choose to invest in the most capable people with the most insightful ideas and provide tools to enable their work. With this team, we provide the opportunity to advance a field in a new direction, accelerate its pace and, increasingly, help it build a bridge to another field. In this way, we address territories that hold the most promising potential for our future. We jointly identify these territories as over-arching capabilities that help to connect and expand the core science and engineering disciplines. For the start of the 21st century, these capabilities include nanoscale, terascale, cognition, complexity, and 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.

Nanoscale represents things that are a thousand times smaller than most of today's human-made devices. One nanometer is one billionth of a meter. 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. And we will be able to build a "wish list" of properties into structures large and small. We will design automobile tires atom by atom. The information on a thousand CDs will be packed into the space of a wristwatch. We could have golf club shafts as thin as fishing lines. We can foresee nanoparticle reinforced materials for lighter and stronger vehicles and bridges. We will design external painting that does not need washing, cheap non-flammable plastics, and self-repairing coatings and textiles.

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 energy efficiency.

Imagine new 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.

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.

And 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 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, 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. 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 is in the process of building a national distributed terascale computing system. By building, we're doing more than just connecting chips and wires. We'll need fundamental advances in software, architecture, and computer science across the board.

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 computer-communications systems

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, that is, the science of learning, 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 think and learn.

More than any other species, humans are configured to be the most flexible learners. Our understanding of the learning process has changed dramatically in recent years. 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. 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 have been 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.

We know that 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 or, as President Bush says it, "Leave no child behind," and to do whatever is needed to ensure that today's and tomorrow's workers are well prepared.

The Science of Learning is important to NSF and to the nation. 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 their 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.'

Today, for example, 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 also 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, Josť 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 five capabilities and you ask, what is the 'constant' or fundamental requirement for all of them, it's the simple foundation of people, ideas, and tools.

With them, like Noah, we too are building an ark for an assured change in the future. We cannot precisely predict the weather. But we have anticipated the fundamental capabilities that will help us navigate a successful voyage. This is our journey together. Let us hoist the sails and set forth.

Thank you.



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