Social Needs Mold Government Policy, Spur Future Scientific Research

December 1999
By Michelle L. Hankins

Today’s popular trends act as catalysts for tomorrow’s technology developments.

Eyeglasses with directional microphones that enhance hearing, polymeric lattices that heal broken bones, and databases that scan weather information to predict earthquakes are just a hint of government-developed technologies that could drastically alter life in the next century. From cars and airplanes to personal computers and lasers in common household products, technological advancement in America has evolved dramatically in the past 100 years and will occur twice as rapidly throughout the next 50 years, scientists predict.

Most researchers agree that in the future, social needs and trends will drive technological development even more than in the past. The advent of the electronic democracy in the United States could change the way the nation is governed, and citizens could benefit from this well into the future. Already seen in the development of the Internet, practical access to government information is now possible for citizens at the click of a mouse. Continuing social currents, which are mirrored today in government agency missions and agendas, are influencing policy that will undoubtedly affect the nation and the world in the years to come.

Across the board, federal technology advisers recognize the need for investment in research and development. The President’s Committee of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) has called for a focus on long-term research as a basis for next-generation technologies. The committee’s recommendations to the president echo down from the top levels of government. They stress the importance of preparing for the future and avoiding gaps in scientific examination that might lead to technology standstills.

The National Science Foundation, the independent U.S. government agency that was created nearly 50 years ago to support frontier scientific research, is the nation’s advocate for realizing its potential through scientific exploration. Thomas Weber, division director for materials research at the foundation, notes that people often do not realize that many years of research go into such basic products and services as high-speed communications, and that leading-edge research is essential to maintaining the nation’s position in science and technology.

Weber’s colleague, George Strawn, executive officer of the directorate for computer and information, science and engineering, agrees that a high level of commitment to scientific exploration must continue for technologies to be available as needed in the future. “Research and development are more and more an integral part of the modern world,” he states. “In the scheme of our national economy, the amount of money we invest in research is extremely small, but very important.”

Strawn points to great inventions of the past and concludes that there have been three major information technology revolutions throughout time. In a broad interpretation, he suggests that these are the invention of written language, mathematics and computers. “What if there is another revolution around the corner that is of the same magnitude as the ones we’ve had?” he asks.

White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Associate Director for Technology Duncan Moore recalls one social objective that resulted from a meeting of presidential advisers who tacked the word “tech” onto major themes reflected in a State of the Union address. Reflected in that speech were the needs of the aging population. “Elder tech,” as the initiative was named, is the government’s foresight into the needs of the citizens of the future. With some predictions that the average life span in the future could reach nearly three times that of the average citizen in 1900, officials are quick to note the implications this could have on the government, particularly on costs in programs such as Social Security. “What if the average life span moves up to 90 and the retirement age stays at 65,” Moore asks. “That’s going to be a very interesting problem.”

With people living longer, new devices must be developed to help the elderly. New aids will be designed for people with disabilities, and technologies will evolve that make everyday life easier. Eyeglasses with directional microphones that enhance hearing devices are being designed for pilots in the U.S. Air Force today but in the future will likely be used by the average citizen, Moore believes. He suggests that tools using global positioning system technology can be installed in canes for the vision impaired to provide location information and improve their mobility. Transportation methods for the elderly, especially in rural areas, will improve. Even the construction industry will see changes as homes are built that can be reconfigured to provide additions such as elevators to help homeowners as their physical needs change, officials claim.

Materials science will advance technologies in the medical field that benefit the elderly as well, Weber predicts. This research will yield better materials for artificial limbs and polymeric lattices to heal broken bones more quickly. Better materials will also be designed for specific uses such as breast implants. Robotic surgery is a future technology that could allow doctors on one continent to help patients on another.

The medical profession also anticipates the development of better diagnostic tools, and Strawn suggests that years from now, computers will offer such realistic simulations of humans that medical testing will be performed on machines to determine human reactions to medical procedures.

In addition, medical data will be stored in new ways. “It’s not inconceivable that in 20 years your whole life medical history will be carried around with you on a credit-card-type device,” Weber says.

Wireless technology is another area that has great promise. Strawn notes, “We probably don’t have to wait 50 years or 25 years to see the impact of wireless.” Many believe the first decade of the next century will bring great advances in wireless technologies. The goal is to promote “anywhere, anytime information,” Strawn explains, referring to technologies such as cellular telephones with Internet access and global positioning system capabilities that are already on the horizon. Perhaps even Post-It notes outfitted with global positioning technologies could help users track possessions electronically, Strawn suggests.

Information appliances will be part of daily life. At the low end, diminutive computers will literally be embedded in every facet of life, Strawn says, and will appear not only in cars, but also on clothes and in household items.

At the high end, supercomputers will be enhanced by at least a factor of 1,000 each decade, Strawn predicts. Now at the teraflop range, or trillions of instructions per second, supercomputers in 2010 will reach the petaflop range, a quadrillion instructions per second. These systems will enable scientists to advance other technologies such as modeling and simulation to solve a diverse range of problems. “I think that our ability to simulate and model very complex systems—everything from our social systems to ourselves to our weather systems to our ecosystems—is the very exciting, growing edge of science implemented by computation,” Strawn asserts.

Further, he notes continuous changes in chip technology and the need for continued research in that area. “On the horizon right away is replacing chip technology with the next step,” he says. “Chip technology will run out of steam when the chips finally get to a certain density that we can predict they might be within the next decade or so.”

Weber concurs, “I think the whole electronics revolution is going to continue. … There’s always these projections that in the year 2010 or 2020 all of a sudden this great increase in speed and lowering in cost is going to come to a grinding halt because we start reaching some fundamental physical limits. We’re going to have to do research right now to get past those limits.” Research to determine the next step, scientists say, will impact the future greatly.

Comprehending how materials work in the societal environment is a growing scientific area, with scientists studying underlying structures to understand the world down to the tiniest particle. “There’s a whole revolution in the way we can handle and manipulate atoms and molecules on a very small level to get the desired properties that we need,” Weber says. This will allow materials scientists to develop tools from substances that can be used on the nanometer scale in small, portable devices. Understanding materials properties, he notes, will revolutionize information storage techniques and optical transmission capabilities. In the early development stages now, colossal magneto resistance materials will most likely be used in the next 20 years to store information, Weber suggests. And new materials will even be used for medical purposes as well as in common items such as lighter-weight cars.

The ability to monitor and predict natural disasters is bound to have a significant impact on life. The use of space platforms for monitoring climate and weather is going to be very important, scientists say. “The ability to model and simulate weather is getting better and better. In another few decades, we’re going to be pretty good at knowing exactly where the tornadoes and hurricanes are going to strike,” Strawn says. Warning and response techniques will be enhanced and will include tools that allow nations worldwide to share useful weather information. International standards and protocols will be important to the development of these tools to communicate different data. Already, the U.S. Geological Survey is working on a geographic information system that will pull together information from different databases into one integrated information package. Making the available technologies interoperable to maximize information capabilities will be crucial to further understanding the impact of natural disasters.

International collaboration will also increase to provide a global information exchange, says PCAST member Norman R. Augustine, former chairman and chief operating officer of Lockheed Martin Corporation. The committee is currently looking at the international impact of technology in many areas, including commerce and security. Electronic commerce will continue to explode and will replace conventional methods of purchasing for government and commercial consumers, Augustine relays. And, assuring our nation’s information infrastructure will remain a priority into the future.

Augustine adds that experts must examine how high-technology terrorism could disrupt government and industry operations. Some say security techniques developed originally for the military for national defense will filter down to the commercial sector to address this issue.

Other areas of international importance include emphasis on environmental issues such as global warming. Scientists say they will continue to grapple with the challenge of maintaining a healthy environment as man seeks more control over nature. Methods to conserve energy or protect ecosystems as development accelerates will have increased importance into the future, scientists reveal. Augustine reports that PCAST is examining environmental issues among many of its areas of study to make recommendations to the president.

In addition, the international space station that will be developed in the next 10 to 15 years could change mankind’s link to outer space. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration will continue working on improved launch technologies and a replacement for the aging space shuttle. Improving aviation safety as well as safety in space projects will remain a priority, officials note. And issues related to the amount of planes crowding the nation’s air transportation hub system will most likely cause aviators to rethink the use of smaller airports to handle the increasing number of travelers.

Government officials recognize some of the obstacles to technological development. Moore relays that budgetary issues and the appropriations process can sometimes be impediments to advancement. Further, he cites regulation and the process for moving technology from the development stage to the production stage as bottlenecks in the pipeline. Standards, he notes, must be instituted at the appropriate time, so they will not prevent people from developing new technologies. If imposed too soon, standards can hamper creativity; yet, if developed too late, standards can miss the mark, which is to maximize the use of each technology for its intended purpose. In addition, officials sometimes criticize the peer review process for being too conservative and blocking funding for projects that are “out of the box.”

Moore says not having a large enough pool of well-educated, talented, technically skilled employees is another hurdle the United States must overcome. PCAST, as well, has recognized education as a national priority, namely from kindergarten through 12th grade, to bolster the work force.

With technological advancements, scientists agree that new challenges may arise. Foremost are ethical questions that evolve from developments in biological science. “Look at the ethical questions we’re facing today versus 20 years ago,” says Moore. “It’s probably going to be more and more important, while in college, for engineers and scientists to take ethics courses. I think they will be facing some very interesting developments.” Debates about stem cell research are just one example of the nature of ethical questions that are yet to come.

Further, as technology costs decrease and technology filters down into the daily life of the average citizen, dependence on machines will increase. Public water, sewage, power and transportation are all services that have been improved in the last 100 years, and if these services were interrupted, people would have a difficult time adapting, Strawn says. “Very few of us would be prepared to go back to the woods and hunt and gather for our sustenance.” Similarly, Weber believes people will take future technologies for granted just as many already do with today’s Internet. “Technology is going to improve and you’re going to say, ‘Wow. How did I ever live without that?’ ”