Goals of a Visual Verbal Language Research Program

A research program requires both bold, general goals and specific landmarks along the way. A major effort to deal with the problem of increasing complexity and the limitations of our human cognitive abilities would benefit all human endeavors and could easily be focused on biotechnology and nanotechnology as prototype test beds. We can contemplate, thus, the steady, incremental achievement of the following goals as a realistic result of a major visual language program:

1. Provide policymakers with comprehensive visual-verbal models. The combination of the ability to represent complex mental models and the ability to collect realtime data will provide sophisticated decision-making tools for social policy. Highly visual cognitive maps will facilitate the management of and navigation through major public policy issues. These maps provide patterned abstractions of policy landscapes that permit the decisionmakers and their advisors to consider which roads to take within the wider policy context. Like the hundreds of different projections of geographic maps (e.g., polar or Mercator), they provide different ways of viewing issues and their backgrounds. They enable policymakers to drill down to the appropriate level of detail. In short, they provide an invaluable information management tool.

2. Provide world-class, worldwide education for children. Our children will inherit the results of this research. It is imperative that they receive the increased benefits of visual language communication research as soon as it is developed. The continued growth of the Internet and the convergence of intelligent visual-verbal representation of mental models and computer-enhanced tutoring programs will enable children everywhere to learn the content and skills needed to live in the 21st century. But this will take place only if these advances are incorporated into educational programs as soon as they are developed.

3. Achieved large breakthroughs in scientific research. The convergence of more competent computers, computer-based collaborative tools, visual representation breakthroughs, and large databases provided by sensors will enable major improvements in scientific research. Many of the advances that we can imagine will come from interdisciplinary teams of scientists, engineers, and technicians who will need to become familiar rapidly with fields that are outside of their backgrounds and competencies. Visual language resources (such as the diagram project described below) will be required at all levels to make this cross-disciplinary learning possible. This could be the single most important factor in increasing the effectiveness of nano-bio-info teams working together at their various points of convergence.

4. Enrich the art of the 21st century. Human beings do not live by information alone. We make meaning with our entire beings: emotional, kinesthetic, and somatic. Visual art has always fed the human spirit in this respect. And we can confidently predict that artistic communication and aesthetic enjoyment in the 21st century will be enhanced significantly by the scientific and technical developments in visual language. Dynamic visual-verbal murals and art pieces will become one of the predominant contemporary art forms of the century, as such complex, intense representation of meaning joins abstract and expressionistic art as a major artistic genre. This has already begun to happen, with artists creating the first generation of large visual language murals (Horn 2000).

5. Develop smart, visual-verbal thought software. The convergence of massive computing power, thorough mapping of visual-verbal language patterns, and advances in other branches of cognitive science will provide for an evolutionary leap in capacity and in multidimensionality of thought processes. Scientific visualization software in the past 15 years has led the way in demonstrating the necessity of visualization in the scientific process. We could not have made advances in scientific understanding in many fields without software that helps us convert "firehoses of data" (in the vivid metaphor of the 1987 National Science Foundation report on scientific visualization) into visually comprehensible depictions of quantitative phenomena and simulations. Similarly, every scientific field is overwhelmed with tsunamis of new qualitative concepts, procedures, techniques, and tools. Visual language offers the most immediate way to address these new, highly demanding requirements.

6. Open wide the doors of creativity. Visualization in scientific creativity has been frequently cited. Einstein often spoke of using visualization on his gedanken experiments. He saw in his imagination first and created equations later. This is a common occurrence for scientists, even those without special training. Visual-verbal expression will facilitate new ways of thinking about human problems, dilemmas, predicaments, emotions, tragedy, and comedy. "The limits of my language are the limits of my world," said Wittgenstein. But it is in the very nature of creativity for us to be unable to specify what the limits will be. Indeed, it is not always possible to identify the limits of our worlds until some creative scientist has stepped across the limit and illuminated it from the other side.

Researchers in biotechnology and nanotechnology will not have to wait for the final achievement of these goals to begin to benefit from advances in visual language research and development. Policymakers, researchers, and scholars will be confronting many scientific, social, ethical, and organizational issues; each leap in our understanding and competence in visual language will increase our ability to deal with these kinds of complex issues. As the language advances in its ability to handle complex representation and communication, each advance can be widely disseminated because of the modular nature of the technology.

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