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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
Tech Trends 2001
Atlantic City, New Jersey

April 18, 2001

I want to thank Peter Herczfeld for his consistently fine work on the TechTrends events. These meetings illuminate the important role of public and private collaboration in the funding of science and engineering for America's future.

As some of you may know, Pennsylvania is my home and most of my history. I am so pleased to see that it's Congressional and State Delegations -- along with those of Maryland, New Jersey, and Delaware - are presenting this year's event.

I especially appreciate the opportunity to address a subject close to my heart, at the center of NSF's mission, and critical to our nation's future. The capabilities required of a 21st century workforce to meet this nation's defense and economic needs, is nothing less than urgent.

We know that the future never looks like the past, despite the fact that philosopher/educator George Santayana warned us that, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Santayana was warning us that the past always has lessons that we must carry into the future, or we will repeat all the old mistakes. He never suggested that in any future we would be confronting the same thinking, trends, tools, or technologies.

In fact, we live in such a hyper accelerated world that tomorrow can be light-years different from today. When we speak of ancient events, we often distinguish them in time by BC or AD. In this era, scholars are already referring to time as 'before and after the PC.' And twenty years hence, our current society is likely to be completely transformed by the fledgling technologies that are emerging today.

So this morning, I want to talk briefly about five capabilities that I believe will be front-and-center in the first part of the 21st century. They are nanoscale, terascale, cognition, complexity, and holism. The confluence of these capabilities has the potential to revolutionize form and function in our society.

Let me spend a few minutes on each, and then I hope we can have a lively question and answer period.

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 at IBM of the scanning/tunneling microscope, that we could first observe molecules on a surface.

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. We've become used to the term micro for the past few decades; well, it's going to be a nano world from here on.

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. With 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.

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.

Our vision is to reach terascale competency and catapult capability into a whole new era of science and engineering. 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 need to expand, cognition. Most of us would use the term learning. Learning is the foundation 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.

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 multibillion-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.

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.

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 train workers to think with this awareness, we will be able to identify and capitalize on those fringe territories which have so much potential.

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. Something new happens in this integration process. A singular or separate dynamic emerges from the interaction. 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.

When we train students and workers 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 ingredient; it's the simple formula of talented people and the power of their new ideas. They make the leaps that move civilizations from one era into the next. In both defense and economic applications, these breakthroughs in thinking and in technology can move us from a plateau to the summit. The important thing to remember is that the summit is always a moving target, so we must anticipate only a brief moment to take in the new landscape. By then we will always be joined by others and the summit is yet another leap.

I look forward to a robust discussion.



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