Thursday, January 11, 2007
We are entering a second revolution in information technology, one that may well usher in a new technological age that dwarfs, in sheer transformational scope and power, anything we have yet experienced.
We are already intimately familiar with the first revolution, now well underway. Information, computer, and communications technologies have transformed nearly every aspect of our lives, creating entirely new opportunities and challenges, and trailing some “inevitable surprises” in their wake.
In the science and engineering community, these revolutionary technologies have helped us scan the research frontier at velocities that are orders of magnitude faster than ever before. These tools are not simply faster—they are also fundamentally superior. They have raised the level of complexity we can understand and harness. That capability is growing at a breathtaking pace.
Just consider two revolutionary innovations in our tool kit: computer simulation and modeling. Combine these with new visualization and observational tools—such as sensor nets, satellites, and distributed observatories—and you have a flood of data that threatens to swamp our capacity to preserve, analyze, and apply. With these new capabilities comes the challenge to use them to cross new frontiers of discovery.
The engine of change for the next revolution is cyberinfrastructure (CI), a comprehensive phenomenon that involves the creation, dissemination, preservation, and application of knowledge. It adds new dimensions that greatly increase transformational potential.
Like other infrastructure—the electric power grid, the national highways—CI combines complex elements to create a dynamic system. It eclipses its many hardware and software components to enable people and their interactions with technology to become the central focus.
The American higher education community can lead the pack by embracing the cyberinfrastructure vision.
In order to create and use CI, learning and work force development initiatives will be the most important requirements. You may have seen a recent New York Times article with the title, “No test tubes?” It considers whether students immersed in Internet and computer learning may not be missing something that is vital to their education—the “hands-on” experiences that can be delivered only in the tangibility and messiness of the real-world laboratory. This controversy is driven, in part, by the possibility that the College Boards may not recognize science classes based solely on simulations as equivalent to those including hands-on experience.
To my mind, America's universities are a national and international treasure. There is ample time to respond decisively to the changing landscape. More importantly, if we begin now, we can shape that landscape through important innovations in education. In other words, the American higher education community can lead the pack by embracing the CI vision.
I would go one step further and suggest that the community has a responsibility to move forward with alacrity toward e-learning. Embracing CI is a tall order, considering the press of current issues—from privacy to property rights, and from cyber-security to cyber-sustainability, as well as keeping current with technologies that become obsolete in a flash. But that is precisely what we need to do.
The National Science Foundation has been a leader in supporting supercomputing centers and high broadband interconnections for the research and education community. We are equally committed to a robust CI initiative. But the point to remember is that NSF’s leadership efforts will only touch the tip of the iceberg. We are dealing with a matter that is broad and deep. The evolution of knowledge communities enabled by CI will require extensive collaboration among individuals from all fields and institutions across the entire educational spectrum. In particular, universities must be responsible for initiating, developing, and supporting the lion's share of CI.
As CI evolves, it will become an integral part of research and education across the board, including the humanities and the arts. To be somewhat provocative, I would even suggest that leadership in CI may well become the major determinant in measuring preeminence in higher education among nations.
And preeminence matters in a knowledge-driven world. Although there are many competitive forces at work globally, the demand for highly skilled talent looms larger and larger. In October, The Economist magazine carried an article with the title, “The Search for Talent: The World's Most Valuable Commodity is Getting Harder to Find.”
As CI evolves, it may well become the major determinant in measuring preeminence in higher education among nations.
The message is clear: “The value of 'intangible' assets—everything from skilled workers to patents to know-how—has ballooned from 20 percent of the value of companies in the S&P 500 to 70 percent today. The proportion of American workers doing jobs that call for complex skills has grown three times as fast as employment in general.”
No one doubts that the American system of higher education is currently the best in the world. The quality of U.S.-trained scientists, engineers and technologists is a measure of that excellence. In fact, America's global leadership in innovative technologies depends, in large part, on this “spike” in a world that is increasingly flat, to use the metaphor of Tom Friedman, The New York Times's foreign-affairs columnist.
The U.S. has enjoyed an unparalleled position of strength in the world because of our incredible ability to create new ideas and to transform them into innovative technologies that keep us competitive. Innovation is America's “ace in the hole.” Indeed, to be even more provocative, I would suggest that leadership in CI may determine America's continued ability to innovate—and thus our ability to compete successfully in the global arena.
Certainly other nations are acting with determination to realize their own visions of the future, including how to educate the scientists and engineers who are central to technology-driven societies. Every nation now knows that investments in education, research, and research infrastructure are the key elements that are driving the global economy in this knowledge-intensive era.
When asked where their nations will be five years from now, the leaders of China and India reply: “We will be where the U.S. is today.” This potential reality should spur the U.S. to be in a different place five years from now. The rapid pace of new technology development along with growing investments in research and education around the world should signal to us that no nation can afford to be complacent. We must continue to invent the future and fine tune our national innovation systems. A robust CI is central to that future.
While the coming CI revolution will further flatten and shrink the world, it will also reward those who are agile and adept at change. Charting a course for this “second” revolution is a task for here and now. It will require passion and persistence to propel us to success.