In This Issue
Competitive Materials and Solutions
December 1, 1998 Volume 28 Issue 4
The Bridge, Volume 28, Number 4 - Winter 1998

Transforming Information into Prosperity

Tuesday, December 1, 1998

Author: Neal Lane

Federal investments in basic, high-risk information-technology research, including software, will be essential to ensuring the intellectual and technical underpinnings of the U.S. S&T enterprise.

Advances in information technology will provide the basis for much of America's economic growth as we head into the next century. Current economic statistics indicate that during the past 5 years, production in computers, semiconductors, and communications equipment quadrupled at a time when total industrial production grew by 28 percent. These three industries account for one-third of the total growth in production since 1992. In the coming decades, the opportunities for innovation in information technology are larger than they ever have been - and more important.

While the continued importance of this technology is not in doubt, what cannot be known is how the technology and its applications will evolve over the coming decades. If the past decade is any guide, the most important advances will come from unexpected directions, facilitated by an advancement in technical capability that can only result from fundamental research. Thus, federal investments in basic, high-risk research for information technology will be even more essential to ensuring the intellectual and technical underpinnings for these as-yet-unforeseeable developments.

President Clinton has made a commitment to a strong federal program in information technology research. My challenge is to develop a balanced investment strategy. My office has gotten invaluable assistance on this score from the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC). This group of prominent computer researchers and industry executives released a preliminary report in August that urged the government to re-examine its support of computing and communications. The report identifies four IT research priorities to help the United States meet critical national economic and defense needs and maintain its global leadership position:

  • continued research for high-end computing to sustain America's lead in advanced supercomputing;
  • research on software, with special emphasis on design and production techniques and enhancing software reliability;
  • expanded federal programs for scalable information infrastructures, like the next-generation Internet, for advanced communications systems, combining networks, wireless, distributed data bases, and satellite systems; and
  • research on socioeconomic and work-force issues to ensure that the full promise of information technology benefits all Americans.

Social Issues Pose Greatest Challenge
The first three issues are indeed challenging, but we know how to get at them. The fourth item is the most difficult. In my view, these social issues pose the greatest challenge, and we simply cannot afford to come up short in this area. PITAC's interim recommendations, and its continuing work, provide an indispensable road map for our efforts. I will be paying close attention to this report in developing recommendations for the president.

The involvement of the federal government in computing and communications has several dimensions. The dimension many of us think of first is hardware. Useful computers capable of conducting a trillion operations a second are now on the near horizon, as are communication networks capable of moving a billion bits a second. These new capabilities are already essential in fields throughout the sciences and engineering, from climatic forecasting to manufacturing to the design of new pharmaceuticals. Furthermore, new capabilities will create new opportunities that we have difficulty even predicting today.

Moore's law - that the power of computing increases by a factor of two approximately every 18 months - has been a powerful force behind the advance of this field. The reason this law has remained in force has been because of constant investment in research by both the public and private sectors.

We cannot now let the technology pipeline go dry. Our portfolio needs to be diverse, from far-out research on quantum and DNA computing to work on petaflop machines. At the same time, we have to learn how to actually do something useful with machines capable of operating at such speeds.

That brings me to what many people, PITAC included, view as an area of serious federal underinvestment in IT: software research. Better software is essential for exploiting the power of the new hardware. It also is critical for avoiding liabilities associated with a society whose key operations are built on elaborate software networks.

The year-2000 software glitch vividly reminds us of our sometimes unfathomable dependence on software. The software systems handling financial transactions, air traffic control, telephone operations, and many other areas are among the most complex systems ever built by humans. But we have nothing approaching what we will need to design, test, and evaluate software systems that will be needed in the future for bridges, aircraft, weather and climate modeling, and many other major engineering projects. Even larger codes, similar to those that have gone before, simply won't do the job!

The federal government has a logical and appropriate role in software research and development. Federal R&D can provide support for specifying, designing, integrating, testing, and deploying software. There is work going on in a wide variety of areas such as application-development tools, component-based software, real-time systems, fault-tolerant software, software engineering, scaleable applications, and simulations using massively parallel architectures. Any of these areas could yield the next major development that will transform how we think about computing and communications.

PITAC called research on software the highest priority and said that software research should be a substantive component of every major federal research initiative in information technology. We take PITAC's views seriously!

There also is no point in having a sophisticated computational system that doesn't provide useful information where and when it is needed - the critical third dimension of information technology research. We are quickly approaching a world where there are likely to be several thousand processors for each person in the United States, many of them linked in complex networks. The challenge of understanding how to build and operate these enormously sophisticated networks is one of the great design problems of the next century. As PITAC said, "the tools now used to operate an Internet with 30 million computers cannot be safely extended to networks that will involve billions of distinct components." The networks of the future will need to offer quality of service tailored for different markets, privacy, security, and reliability.

These are serious challenges of a type never encountered before. It will take a strong lead agency to make sure we fulfill them, and we will give serious consideration to PITAC's recommendation that the National Science Foundation play that role.

These challenges - set out by PITAC - will determine the character of the 21st century. We already are seeing a generational shift to a wired reality. A while back, a colleague told me a story right after she and her family had returned from a weekend of camping. She said the most memorable moment of the trip came one evening when the entire family was gathered around the campfire. Her young daughter kept circling the fire, watching the flames jump, and following sparks as they flew into the sky. After a few minutes of this, the young girl finally turned to her mother and said, "Wow, mom, neat graphics!"

I don't mean to imply that young people today have trouble separating reality from virtual reality. But they are growing up surrounded by computers. To them, computers are as much a part of the world as chemistry sets and erector sets were when we were growing up. And we can expect computers to have a comparable influence on how they see the world. There is no point debating whether computers and access to the Internet should be in the classrooms and homes; the reality is that these technologies will be pervasive. The only question is how to ensure young people - all young people - learn with them.

A Technological Divide
While I have been emphasizing the technological challenges of computing and communications, there are serious social challenges as well, and I want to conclude by focusing on those.

All of us, I know, share the concern that the information revolution threatens to bypass many of our friends and neighbors. A host of surveys and reports reveal that the impact of these technologies is at best uneven and at worst divisive. Most worrisome are the signs of a technological divide in our educational system - a divide that tracks with long-standing socioeconomic differences.

For example, data from a number of sources reveal significant educational inequity in access to computers and the Internet. The gaps are closing, but the latest data still provide cause for concern. Students in schools with predominantly minority enrollments are up to three times less likely, on average, to have access to computers and the Internet when compared with their counterparts in predominantly white schools.

These same differences appear when we examine the data on home computer use collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. Children living in our poorest households are less than one-tenth as likely to have access to a computer at home as are children from upper-income households.

There is more than a little irony in these findings, since the information revolution has always brought with it the prospect of increased opportunity for all. President Clinton spoke to this point when he delivered the MIT commencement address this past June. He said:

The dimensions of the information revolution and its limitless possibilities are widely accepted and generally understood, even by lay people. But to make the most of it we must also acknowledge that there are challenges, and we must make important choices. We can extend opportunity to all Americans or leave many behind. We can erase lines of inequity or etch them indelibly. We can accelerate the most powerful engine of growth and prosperity the world has ever known, or allow the engine to stall.

The challenge of which the president was speaking, of course, extends well beyond information technology. The major problems facing our society are primarily human problems, not scientific and technical ones. Scientists and engineers cannot be expected to solve these vast problems from within their own professional community. But few, if any, of these problems will be solved without the science and engineering community's knowledge and skills as a foundation. Somehow, we've got to do a better job of bridging the boundaries that separate us.

Some of you may well have heard me speak on this subject over the past 5 years. I have become convinced that scientists and engineers must learn to play a new, additional role in society - that of the "civic scientist" and the "civic engineer." In this new capacity, scientists and engineers would step beyond their campuses, laboratories, and institutes and into the center of their communities to engage in active dialogue - a two-way conversation - with their fellow citizens.

To engage in dialogue is to listen as well as to speak. While there is a great need for the public to have a better understanding of science, engineering, and technology, there also is a great need for scientists and engineers to have a better understanding of the public. As Calvin Coolidge once said, "No one ever listened himself out of a job."

It is time for outreach to the public to be numbered among the professional responsibilities of scientists and engineers, and for training for that role to become an integral part of a scientific or engineering education. I call on the scientists and engineers in your organizations to consider how they can better inform the community about what they do, and more broadly how they can convey the complex link between science and technology and social progress. Only if we succeed in this will we be able to deliver the full benefits of progress and prosperity made possible by world leadership in science, engineering, and technology.

Those of us here in this room know the promise science and technology offer. We are fortunate to live at a time when this promise is so clear. In a speech to the American Association for the Advancement of Science earlier this year, President Clinton spoke of a world 50 years from now "where climatic disruption has been halted; where wars on cancer and AIDS have long since been won; where humanity is safe from the destructive force of chemical and biological weapons . . . where our noble career of science is pursued and then advanced by children of every race and background; and where the benefits of science are broadly shared in countries both rich and poor. That is what I pray it will be like, 50 years from now." Please note that the president was speaking to a room full of scientists. Here, we would certainly add engineering.

The year 2000 marks a beginning, not an end. The dawn of a new millennium. The 20th century has demonstrated the power of science, engineering, and technology to help us understand and change our world. Now we must use that knowledge to bring the benefits of science, engineering, and technology to everyone, and to the creation of a better and more just society.

Information technology research is particularly vital to those aspirations. The president will soon receive my recommendations on that topic. I will work very hard to make them the right ones. As Mark Twain admonished: "Always do the right thing. This will gratify some people - and astonish the rest."


About the Author:Neal Lane is assistant to the president for science and technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. This article is an excerpt of a talk he gave 4 October during the 1998 NAE Annual Meeting. The full text of his remarks may be found on the NAE website.