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Author: George M. C. Fisher
Technology, humanism, and cross-disciplinary cooperation can combine to take us farther than we dreamed we could go.
Good afternoon, and congratulations to our new members. I know you will find your experience with the NAE rewarding. Few organizations have so great an effect on the future. And our influence is bound to grow. I come to that conclusion by analyzing the Academy as if it were a business. Consider our customer base, which is the government and the public interest. What more influential constituencies could be served!? Consider our product, which is knowledge. It’s growing in value as technology becomes more complex and plays a larger role in public policy. Beyond the strength of that business case, we have the good fortune to serve the NAE during an extraordinary period in history. As a nation, the United States has achieved a level of prosperity and technological leadership unequalled in human experience. No country has ever been so rich in resources. No country has ever been better positioned to improve the human condition through its technologies.
Of course there are obstacles. But there is one threat to progress we can eliminate, and that is low expectations! Given our current situation, we have good reason to set our sights high. We should expect advancements greater than those of the Italian Renaissance. I think it’s both rational and helpful to envision a "21st Century Renaissance"-and picture the coming years as a period of unprecedented achievement.
The technology engine that drove the first Renaissance was the printing press. Today, it’s digital computing and communication that allow faster, wider access to the best information, tools, and practices. Information technology is enabling faster development of more fundamental breakthroughs in virtually every field, including materials, energy, and biotechnology. If you measure progress in engineering by degrees of precision, we have come far. Engineers are now controlling photons of light with optoelectronics and working at the atomic level with nanotechnology. Few people would question our capacity for great technological achievements-certainly few in this audience.
The scale of accomplishments on the horizon makes the Renaissance idea rational. I believe that what makes it appealing is humanism, the force at the heart of the first Renaissance. It placed human needs and aspirations at the center of every endeavor.
Assessing technology from a humanist perspective will, I think, be the greatest challenge we face at the NAE in the coming years. Technical knowledge is table stakes. We must also be aware of public priorities, environmental and health concerns, and difficult ethical issues such as privacy. We tend to think of these as "soft" issues. They defy the kind of certainty and mastery we bring to our technical disciplines. But these soft issues are the hardest to resolve.
Ultimate responsibility lies with policymakers. But we can help by considering these issues when we assess the impact of technology, including those elusive "unintended consequences." If we are to analyze costs and benefits, we need to understand what the public perceives as important and valuable.
Integrating human needs is engineering’s biggest challenge and opportunity. The Internet exemplifies what can happen when we address, intentionally or inadvertently, those needs. It gives everyone what they wanted long ago: computers that talk to each other. What everyone initially received instead was cheap computing power. But people needed to communicate easily and inexpensively to use their computers productively.
Simplifying Complex Devices
I believe that one of the greatest opportunities in product engineering will be in simplifying complex devices. Computers and cameras and every digital device must and will become much easier for ordinary human beings to use. The end of the twentieth century will seem like the Dark Ages in terms of convenience. And engineering a new generation of digital products that are far more convenient will drive another cycle of economic growth.
As always, it is engineers who will develop these breakthroughs. In a sense, engineering is a humanist discipline by definition. Applying technology to human needs is what we are trained to do. Even many of the standards and measures we use in our work derive from the human form, beginning with the Egyptian cubit-from elbow to fingertips-and continuing through digits, palms, hands, feet, and yards.
It’s interesting to trace engineering standards to their roots. Some of those standards are surprisingly arbitrary. There’s a tale told at Kodak about the origin of the 35-mm film format, which was first used for motion pictures. It’s said that George Eastman asked Thomas Edison how wide the film should be for Edison’s new movie camera and viewer. Edison separated his thumb and forefinger and said: "About this wide."
Now, "about this wide" is hardly consistent with today’s nanolevels of precision for international standards. It may be inconsistent with the truth, too. It’s more likely that a roll of 70-mm film, which was common in the 1890s, was slit in half to make 35-mm film. If this is the true source of the standard, it’s just as arbitrary as the legend. There’s a similar story about the size of SRBs-solid rocket boosters-used to launch the first space shuttle. The SRBs had to be shipped by rail to the launch site. This influenced their design. Size was limited by the load capacity of railroad cars and the width of tunnels-all of which relate to the standard distance between rails, which is exactly 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches. That standard can be traced back to the first English tramways. They were built with the same jigs and tools used to build wagons. Spacing between wagon wheels had been standardized to accommodate ruts in long distance roads. Those ruts had been worn by wagons dating back to Imperial Rome, when chariots accompanied the legions that conquered Europe and Britain. Roman chariots were engineered with a very particular wheel spacing: just wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two horses. So the next time you see a shuttle launch, remember that one of the major design features of one of the world’s most advanced transportation systems was determined by the width of a horse’s rear. And the next time you see a questionable design spec, it may be appropriate to ask: "What horse’s rear end was responsible for this?" Joking aside, this is another reason the Renaissance metaphor is helpful, because it leads us to reconsider our most basic standards, assumptions, and priorities.
Engineering and Public Expectations
A Renaissance is a time of rethinking and optimism. Successful engineering has redefined the public’s expectations of what we can accomplish. If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we significantly improve the environment and education? Why can’t we eliminate hunger, poverty, and disease? In answering those questions, very few Americans would say we are limited by technology. For good reason, the general public has a positive view of technology. But they also see risks-to the environment, health, safety-and have other legitimate concerns. One of our roles at the NAE is to anticipate, to see those risks first, and to help policymakers deal with them effectively. It’s an important contribution, because it helps sustain this country’s confidence in change driven by technology.
America’s optimism and ability to change will put us at the center of the 21st Century Renaissance. As will the strides made by American industry in being the first to bring new technologies to market. This confident, aggressive approach gives us a competitive advantage as a nation.
We are very good at competing in this country. Cooperation, on the other hand, is not so natural. Certainly not between government and industry. Not between regulators and the regulated. That must change to enable a Renaissance. Those of us in the business world need to relearn a lesson from the past: some government regulation is essential to capitalism.
Half a millennium ago, capitalism grew from the bedrock of uniform legal and monetary systems. Today, the lack of a supportive legal system is a major source of Russia’s difficulties. And Europeans are struggling to establish a uniform monetary system. Business leaders need to recognize and respect government’s contribution to our success.
Many companies are benefiting from alliances and joint ventures with competitors. If competitors can cooperate creatively, so can business and government. We need to improve in this aspect, because the major projects that change life in the future will involve government, corporations, and universities. Government will often drive these projects, and it will rely on the NAE for guidance. The stakes in public policy decisions will be higher than ever before. All our wealth of resources and potential for historic achievements will make the risks bigger.
This Academy was created to help policymakers avoid major pitfalls and stay on the path to progress. The NAE is a model of the Renaissance ideal, a forum for cooperation and sharing of knowledge from diverse institutions and specialties. To our work, we bring high standards of excellence and objective analysis. I’d like to propose that we also bring high expectations for the future. Let’s think of our years here as the beginning of a 21st Century Renaissance-a time when technology, humanism, and cross-disciplinary cooperation combine to take us farther than we dreamed we could go. This is the picture we should keep in our minds. It’s a vision that can help lead us to the great achievements we have every reason to expect in the years ahead.