2001 Annual Meeting - President's Remarks

National Academy of Engineering Annual Meeting
October 7, 2001

Wm. A. Wulf

First, I want to convey my congratulations to the new members. My own induction was not that long ago, and I have a very vivid memory of what it is like to become a new member of the academy. Remember that the Academy is honored, renewed, and enriched by each new class. So my welcome is heartfelt.

Originally, my talk was going to be about the public understanding of engineering and technological literacy. The events of the 11th of September changed that. I want to share with you what the Academy is doing and to solicit your ideas about what the Academy should do. But as I rewrote my remarks, I realized that this is a celebration and that there are young children in the audience. Therefore, I am going to keep my remarks as short and as light as possible--in fact, I will spend some time talking about my original subject of public understanding. Ironically, it really does relate to our present crisis.

It has been said that success has many parents. For example, many explanations have been given for how we won the Cold War. Most of them focus on the deterrence of a nuclear war--but a critical aspect of our victory was deterrence of a conventional, non-nuclear war as well. The reason there was no conventional war was that the NATO allies represented a credible conventional deterrent in spite of the significant numerical advantage of the Warsaw Pact in both troops and armaments. The reason we were a credible deterrent was something called the "offset strategy." We offset their numerical advantage with our superior technology. Our technology could locate, identify, target, and remove the enemy with far greater lethality than that of our opponents. Mutually assured destruction (MAD) may have been the principle reason we never got into a nuclear war, but the offset strategy was the reason we never got into a conventional war.

We’re now faced with a very, very different adversary fighting a very different kind of war. But I think the same principle applies. We cannot, we will not fight the way the terrorists do. So we must offset their advantage with technology.

Technology can improve our security. There are ways, for example, of taking control of an airplane so that it cannot be flown by anybody on board and landing it safely. Installing such technology would eliminate the incentive for hijacking an airplane. Technology can improve our intelligence gathering and analysis by fusing information from disparate electronic databases. Technology can help us track the flow of money essential for terrorists. Technology can also help us identify the perpetrators of terrorist attacks.

Technology can also reduce the cost of security--and I don’t mean just the financial cost. The conventional wisdom is that security has costs, an adverse effect on our quality of life and a reduction of our civil liberties, particularly our privacy. For example, having to stand in line for hours at airports will surely change the way we fly--change the way we conduct our lives. The technologies I am most interested in are those that would increase our security but would not affect our life styles or reduce our civil liberties. For example, a metal detector is both less intrusive and more effective than a pat down search.

The Academies have a long history of helping our nation in times of crisis. As you know, we were created during the Civil War. In fact, one of the first studies done by the Academy was to determine how to use magnetic compasses in ironclad warships. Just prior to WWI, the National Research Council was created to handle the increased number of studies being requested by the government. During WWII, we again stepped up to the plate, and we’re ready to do that again! As a trusted advisor to the federal government, the Academy can play an important role today in identifying and validating the kinds of technologies we need to combat terrorism and terrorists.

Since September 11, we have mostly been getting ready to do things. But let me enumerate some of the concrete things we have already done. One of the first things we did was write a letter to President Bush, Governor Ridge, and senior congressional leaders. Our message was "We’ll do anything you want us to do. Just ask." But, we’re not simply waiting to be asked. We are also undertaking things on our own. On Wednesday, September 26, we convened a group of senior engineers, scientists, and current and former government officials. We invited 35 people just six days before the meeting, thinking we’d be lucky if 10 or 12 showed up. As a measure of how people have been willing to set aside their normal lives, and to our delight, 30 of the 35 came and spent the most of the day with us.

As a result of that meeting, we put together a long list of ideas, which we are now prioritizing. We cannot do everything, but we are already implementing some of them. We have decided that money should not be an impediment. As many of you know, we are a soft-money organization. Each time the government asks us a question, we must negotiate a separate contract to answer just that question. We operate with about 30 days cash flow all the time. But this is not the time to worry about getting paid. We are starting to work now and will worry about getting paid later, if at all.

Many of our past studies are relevant to the new situation, for example, a study just two years ago on how to make buildings blastproof. We have packaged all of these reports and posted them on the web at www.nae.edu, under "Site Highlights."

In June of this year, we held a joint meeting with the Russian Academy in Moscow on the question of high-impact terrorism. The meeting was cochaired by NAE member Sig Hecker. We will convene a second meeting here in Washington by the end of the year.

About a year ago, a group of us spent a week in Iran. The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran; indeed, Iran is listed as one of seven state sponsors of terrorism. And yet we learned that the people of Iran have no ill will toward Americans; indeed, quite the contrary. We were welcomed profusely everywhere we went. The Iranian people admire us, respect us, and want to work with us. We’ve developed a series of seven bilateral activities that we will conduct with the Iranian Academy. These kinds of person-to-person contacts are very important, especially when we don’t have government-to-government relations. I’d like to think they are part of the reason for Iran’s cooperation since Sept. 11th.

More than 40 government agencies are responsible for some aspect of homeland defense and an interagency task force is responsible for coordinating their antiterrorism activities. The task force came to us with a list of technologies they wished they had and asked us if any of them exist, who the leading researchers are, and if any of them could be moved quickly from the laboratory into use. We are putting together committees to begin answering these questions.

We have also appointed a committee to develop taxonomy and prioritize the threats. Believe it or not, we cannot find a usable list of the kinds of threats we face coupled with an assessment of their likelihood or the level of damage they could inflict. A lot of attention is being paid right now to airport security, but, in point of fact, that may not be where the greatest danger lies.

I am a computer engineer, and I have done research on computer security off and on over the years. On October 10th I will testify before a House science committee about cyber terrorism.

Each board in the National Research Council has been asked to devote a portion of its next meeting to thinking about how their expertise could further the cause. I have also asked the section chairs to devote a portion of the section meetings tomorrow to discussing which technologies we can use to offset this threat. I am immensely proud of the willingness of our members to work on this subject--even to take substantial amounts of time off from their regular jobs so we can act quickly and effectively. I feel confident that we will offset this threat in the same way that we offset the threat during the Cold War.

The Concept of Tolerance
As I was preparing these remarks, I was reminded of a marvelous PBS television series in the 1970s called The Ascent of Man. It was hosted by J. Bronowski from the University of Pittsburgh. In one episode, he talked about the notion of tolerance, an incredibly important concept in engineering. Because we can’t make parts perfectly, every engineering design specifies tolerances: How much bigger or smaller can something be and still work? How much heavier can it be? How much extra current can it carry? What’s the range of heat it must be able to dissipate?

The systems we engineer could not work if they didn’t allow for some ambiguity, some uncertainty, some level of tolerance. Bronowski pointed out that science, too, in a very fundamental way, depends on the notion of tolerance. It’s usually called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, but Bronowski suggested that the name was wrong. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that we cannot know, for example, the position and momentum of an electron except within certain tolerances. So, Bronowski argued, it really should be called a principle of tolerance rather than a principle of uncertainty. We aren’t uncertain. We are quite certain, in fact, that we can only know to within a certain tolerance.

Bronowski went on to point out that the principle of tolerance applies to human affairs as well. We cannot know everything. We must tolerate some ambiguity, some imprecision, some differences for our human systems to work. Bronowski used the horror of the Holocaust to underscore the consequences of intolerance, the consequences of people who are absolutely convinced of their rightness and cannot tolerate differences and uncertainty.

As I mentioned, a group of us went to Iran to visit the Iranian Academy, and I want to emphasize again that our enemy is not the Iranian people. It is not the Arabic people, it is not Islamic people. In our fear and justifiable anger over the events of September 11, let us not slip into intolerance of our Arabic or Islamic neighbors in this country, or of people who happen to live in countries whose leaders practice intolerance. President Bush has said that this is not a war against Arabs or Islam, and he is absolutely right. It is a war against intolerance. Let us not become victims by letting ourselves become intolerant.

Public Understanding of Engineering and Technological Literacy
Now let me turn briefly, very briefly, to my original topic of public understanding of engineering and try to relate it to my previous remarks. Public understanding and technological literacy are separate programs at the Academy, but I am going to talk about them together. Why does the public need to understand engineering? Why is that important? Why do they need to be technologically literate?

Some people misunderstand what public understanding of engineering means. At least one person thought it meant that everybody ought to have a B.S. degree-level of understanding. That is clearly not what I mean. Others have the Rodney Dangerfield attitude: "We don’t get no respect." They would like public understanding of engineering to mean more gratitude for the contributions of engineers--but I don’t mean that either. What I mean is that, in order to function in modern society, the public needs a sufficient level of understanding of the contributions of engineers that have shaped our present society and of what engineers can (or can’t) do to solve problems--to shape our future society.

Let me start with the understanding of the contributions of engineers to our current society. Indulge me for a moment. Imagine that this is 1900, just 101 years ago. In 1900, very few people had electricity or telephones or automobiles, and none of those technologies had a significant impact on our social or economic lives. Without the airplane, intercontinental and transcontinental travel were too time consuming and too costly for all but the privileged few. The average life span was 46. Today, it is 76. It has increased largely because of clean water and improved sanitation. In 1900, we had no radio or television to entertain us, or more importantly, to bind us together culturally. Half of the U.S. population lived on farms, and it took that many to feed the other half. Now 2 percent of Americans live on farms. Because of agricultural mechanization, that 2 percent can not only feed the other 98 percent, but can also feed a good deal of the rest of the world. In 1900, 14 percent of households had bathtubs, and there was a total of 144 miles of paved roads in the entire country.

Okay, now come back. It’s 2001. Indulge me a bit more. Do a mental comparison of how your life differs from the lives of your great grandparents in 1900. To me, it is apparent that engineers have had a profound effect on the quality of life in America and, indeed, in the entire industrialized world. But do Americans know that? No. Let me tell you about an unscientific experiment that was reported in The Bridge five or six years ago. The experiment was done by Jonathan Cole, provost of Columbia University.

Cole went to his colleagues on the Columbia faculty and asked them to identify the most used and most important textbooks in modern American history, especially the history of the last century. He also asked the faculty of the education school to name the most important textbooks on modern history used in high schools. Then he went through those books looking for references to engineering, technology, and science. Guess what? There were hardly any. He found three pages out of 300 in some books, but most of the references were to negative effects--the atom bomb, DDT, that sort of thing. Does the average public know how dramatically their lives have been changed since 1900 because of engineering? No, they don’t. My point is not that they ought to know so they can express their gratitude to engineers. The point is that we are going to have the same kind of dramatic impact on society over the next hundred years. Therefore, any sensible public discourse about choices in the future must take into account the changes brought on by technology.

I could cite dozens of examples, but I selected the understanding of risk--the lack of a sensible discussion of risk in connection with the events following the 11th of September. A well-known science fiction writer once observed that any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic. I would suggest to you that the vast majority of Americans believes that the technology they use is magic. Think about it. You are speeding down I-95 south of Washington. You utter a seven or ten-digit incantation, and all of sudden you are talking to your sister who is creeping down I-405 outside of Los Angeles. Magic! Wave a wand, push a button, and your living room is filled with live images of events half way around the world. Magic! In a magical world there are no risks. If there is a failure, it must be somebody’s fault. In fact, it must be somebody else’s fault. It must be. With magic nothing has to go wrong.

As engineers we know a great deal about risk, and we know that a world without risk is nonsense. The problem is that a liberally educated person today does not know it. Liberally educated people are uninformed and unable to participate in sensible discussions of many public policy issues. We need to broaden the definition of liberal education to include a healthy dose of technological literacy.

Let me give you another example. A friend of mine recommended a book called Preparing for the 21st Century, written by a Yale professor, Paul Kennedy, a highly respected historian. In the introduction, he explains why he wrote the book. In the 1980s he had written a very popular and influential book called The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers--a fairly traditional historical treatment that strongly emphasized the role of the nation state. One day he was having a discussion, he actually calls it a debate, with a group of economists from RAND, and one of them asked why he had not addressed the really important problems--the things that were going to shape history, like the population explosion, technology, and environmental issues. The new book, Preparing for the 21st Century, is his response to that criticism.

I was enthused about reading the book until I was about a quarter of the way through it, when I suddenly realized that for Kennedy, technology was a completely static thing. He is a bright guy. He clearly has read a tremendous amount. I think he understands the state of technology, but he has no sense whatsoever of its dynamics, how it interacts with society, its feedback loops, its couplings, its change, its evolution in response to human needs.

Perhaps most importantly, he doesn’t comprehend that a large number of incremental evolutionary changes ultimately add up to a revolutionary change. We are living in a world that is revolutionarily different from the world of 1900 mostly because of an accumulation of incremental, evolutionary changes. Once I realized the size of Kennedy’s blind spot, reading the rest of the book was painful.

If you recall, a friend had recommended that book to me. This friend had just gone to work for the Central Intelligence Agency, specifically for the part of the CIA that is responsible for developing scenarios of the future that are used to think through potential threats. She is a scientist, but almost everybody else who works there is either an economist or a historian. I read some of what they have produced, and guess what? A lot of it is based on exactly the same premise--that technology is static. Technology seems to be outside of society rather than an integral part of it. We can’t expect economists and historians to be experts on technology, but we can expect them to be informed enough to ask people who are. But they are so technologically illiterate that that question has not even occurred to them. That’s scary!

So, what can or should the NAE do to improve public understanding and technological literacy? First, we must recognize that it is our problem. Others may be the ones who are illiterate, but we can’t expect Paul Kennedy or Joe Sixpack to come to us and say, "I’m illiterate, please help me." We, the engineering profession, must take the lead. I don’t have time today to talk about the programs we have initiated, but I’ll describe them in future newsletters to you.

In closing, let me come back and repeat what I said at the very beginning. Welcome and congratulations to you and the new class. You renew us. You expand our expertise. You are the ones who enable us to take on important national issues. The United States is well served by having access to the expertise the Academies can marshal, to your expertise.

Thank you very much.