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Closing the Circle of Information Technology

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Information technology has already penetrated and transformed research in science and technology so fundamentally that younger generations will not know what it was like before the computing revolution. My own career as a microbiologist exploring the linkages between environment and health has paralleled this transformation. My own research experience has given me a deep respect for the power of computing to propel us on to new discoveries in all research disciplines. As this revolution continues, I have very high hopes for the potential of information technology.

As the wellspring of basic research in physics, chemistry, and mathematics nourishes progress in medicine and health, we can hardly imagine what shape the advances will take. But we can be sure that, coupled with the power of information technology, they will dwarf those of the 20th century, or even those through all of human history. We already have experimental nanochips that simulate the electrical activity of a normal nerve synapse by letting nerve axons regrow through the chip. We imagine implanting a chip in the brain, directly in those areas where intention resides. Thus, we would be able to bypass the areas of muscular control. Such a confluence of microelectronics and neural research holds great promise for improving the operation of artificial limbs, or even for bypassing spinal-cord injuries, creating hope that a paraplegic may walk again. Even for some types of mental illness, we can imagine a computer implant that might provide the missing neurological circuitry necessary for normal brain functioning.

In my research in the field of environment and health, computing has already brought us to the threshold of being able to predict epidemics of cholera and other diseases. We are beginning to have at our fingertips information about emerging diseases as they are identified. We can now track the progress of these diseases from anywhere in the world and in a number of languages.

To unravel the complexity of living systems—the web of life and its surrounding environment—will require tools advanced far beyond those we now possess.

Still, to unravel the complexity of living systems—the web of life and its surrounding environment—will require tools advanced far beyond those we now possess. We know that ecosystems do not respond linearly to environmental change, and that tracing that complexity is crucial to the future of life on our planet. Yet, we are watching the simultaneous flowering of nano-, bio-, and information technology, each accelerating the other’s progress, bringing us to the brink of being able to observe complexity at multiple scales across the hierarchic levels of life. Envision being able to wave a tool packed with sensors—not a Geiger counter, but an "eco-counter," if you will—that would inventory the health of an entire ecosystem. From the Lilliputian level of observing individual atoms and molecules with nanotechnology, to our global ecological observatories in every ecosystem, we are setting up vantage points for viewing at every scale.

As we imagine the new frontiers we can explore by harnessing the power of information technology in medicine, health, and the environment, we confront yet another challenge: How to engage all of our society to realize this dream? This challenge looms particularly large. The top five fastest-growing occupations in the U.S. economy are in the field of computing, but much of our workforce is not poised to take advantage of these opportunities. Women, minorities, and the disabled constitute more than two-thirds of our country’s workers, yet these groups are excluded, to a large extent, from the burgeoning science and technology professions. The digital divide cuts both ways—our economy suffers as well as those members of society left behind. If these groups joined the U.S. science and technology workforce in proportion to their numbers, we would no longer have a significant shortage of skilled workers.

A diverse workforce has been called our country’s competitive edge in science and technology, and it is as much a part of my hopes for our future in information technology as any technological wonder. I suspect, however, that our technological capabilities will be very integral to fulfilling our hopes to involve everyone in the information revolution. For the first time we are on the threshold of being able to provide anyone—not just the middle-class student in the university, but also the Native American child on a reservation, or a senior citizen in a retirement home—with the ability to learn any subject at any time.

Immersed in a virtual environment, anyone will be able to learn—not from books and tapes, but through a life-like interactive experience. With an unlimited corps of personal online tutors, we will be able to tailor teaching methods to each individual’s needs, level of education, and cognitive abilities. At last we will have the technology to enable us to achieve true literacy in science and technology across society, not just for the privileged. This will also mean the world of science and engineering research will be richer for the prospect of fuller participation. When future generations look back at this juncture in time, I hope they will be able to judge us as having exercised the foresight and wisdom to employ information technology not just to speed up the pace of discovery, but to have truly improved and sustained our world.

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