Vision for the Converging Technologies

Newt Gingrich

My theme is to argue that you want to be unreasonable in your planning.

I was struck with this at the session Mike Roco invited me to about six months ago, where somebody made a very impassioned plea against promising too much too quickly and not exaggerating. In 1945, Vannevar Bush wrote what was a quite unreasonable article for his day, about the future of computational power. Einstein's letter to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in September of 1939 was an extremely unreasonable letter. Edward Teller told me recently that he got in a big argument with Niels Bohr about whether or not it was possible to create an atomic bomb. Bohr asserted emphatically, it would take all of the electrical production capacity of an entire country. Teller said they didn't meet again until 1944 when they were at Los Alamos and Bohr yelled down the corridor "You see, I was right." By Danish standards, the Manhattan Project was using all the power of an entire country.

Vannevar Bush's classic article is a profound, general statement of what ultimately became the ARPANET, Internet, and today's personal computation system. At the time it was written, it was clearly not doable. And so, I want to start with the notion that at the vision level, those who understand the potential have a real obligation to reach beyond any innate modesty or conservatism and to paint fairly boldly the plausible achievement.

Now, in this case you're talking about converging technology for improving human performance. Perhaps you should actually put up on a wall somewhere all of the achievable things in each zone, in the next 20 years, each of the stovepipes if you will. And then back up and see how you can move these against each other. What does the combination make true?

Think about the nanoscale in terms of a whole range of implications for doing all sorts of things, because if you can in fact get self-assembly and intelligent organization at that level, you really change all sorts of capabilities in ways that do in fact boggle the imagination, because they are that remarkable. If you bring that together with the biological revolution, the next 20 years of computation, and what we should be learning about human cognition, the capability can be quite stunning. For example, there's no reason to believe we can't ultimately design a new American way of learning and a new American way of thinking about things.

You see some of that in athletics, comparing all the various things we now do for athletes compared to 40 years ago. There is a remarkable difference, from nutrition to training to understanding of how to optimize the human body, that just wasn't physically possible 40 years ago. We didn't have the knowledge or the experience. I would encourage you first of all to put up the possibilities, multiply them against each other, and then describe what that would mean for humans, because it really is quite astounding.

I was an army brat in an era when we lived in France. In order to call back to the United States you went to a local post office to call the Paris operator to ask how many hours it would be before there would be an opening on the Atlantic cable. When my daughter was an au pair, I picked up my phone at home to call her cell phone in a place just south of Paris. Imagine a person who, having gotten cash out of an ATM, drives to a self-serve gas station, pays with a credit card, drives to work on the expressway listening to a CD while talking on a digital cell phone, and then says, "Well, what does science do for me?"

This brings me to my second point about being unreasonable. When you lay out the potential positive improvements for the nation, for the individual, for the society, you then have to communicate that in relatively vivid language.

People like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Carl Sagan did an amazing amount to convince humans that science and technology were important. Vannevar Bush understood it at the beginning of the Second World War. But if those who know refuse to explain in understandable language, then they should quit griping about the ignorance of those who don't know. Science can't have it both ways. You can't say, "This is the most important secular venture of mankind; it takes an enormous amount of energy to master it, and by the way, I won't tell you about it in a language you can understand." Scientists have an obligation as citizens to go out and explain what they need and what their work will mean.

I am 58 and I am already thinking about Alzheimer's disease and cancer. The fact that George Harrison has died and was my age makes mortality much more vivid. So, I have a vested interest in accelerating the rate of discovery and the application of that discovery. The largest single voting block is baby boomers, and they would all understand that argument. They may not understand plasma physics or the highest level of the human genome project. But they can surely understand the alternative between having Alzheimer's and not having it.

If you don't want Alzheimer's, you had better invest a lot more, not just in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) but also at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and a variety of other places, because the underlying core intellectual disciplines that make NIH possible all occur outside NIH. And most of the technology that NIH uses occurs outside of NIH. The argument has to be made by someone. If the scientific community refuses to make it, then you shouldn't be shocked that it's not made.

Let me suggest at a practical level what I think your assignments are once you've established a general vision. If you bring the four NBIC elements together into a converging pattern, you want to identify the missing gaps. What are the pieces that are missing? They may be enabling technologies, enabling networking, or joint projects.

Here again, I cite the great work done at the (Defense) Advanced Research Projects Agency ([D]ARPA). Scientists there consciously figured out the pieces that were missing to make computation easy to use and then began funding a series of centers of excellence that literally invented the modern world. You would not have gotten modern computing without ARPA, at least for another 30 years. Part of what they did that was so powerful was start with a general vision, figure out the pieces that were blocking the vision, and get them funded.

The predecessor to the Internet, ARPANET, wouldn't have occurred without two things: one was ARPA itself which had the funding, and the second was a vision that we should not be decapitated by a nuclear strike. People tend to forget that the capacity to surf on the Web in order to buy things is a direct function of our fear of nuclear war.

It helps to have the vision of very large breakthrough systems and some pretty long-term source of consistent funding. I've argued for the last three years that if we are going to talk about global warming, we ought to have several billion dollars set aside for the kind of climatology capabilities that will be comparable to the international geophysical year, and it would really give us the knowledge to move things a long way beyond our current relative guesses. If you look at the difference between the public policy implications of the Kyoto agreement, in the $40 trillion range, and the amount of money you could plausibly invest if you had an opportunity-based atmospheric and climatological research program, the differences are just stunning. For far less than one percent of the cost we would in theory pay to meet Kyoto, you would have a database and a knowledge base on climatology that would be stunning.

That's outside current budgeting, because current budgeting is an incremental-increase pork barrel; it is not an intellectual exercise. I would argue that's a profound mistake. So, it's very important for you to figure out what are the large projects as a consequence of which we would be in a different league of capabilities. I would suggest, too, that both the international geophysical year and its stunning impact on the basic understanding of geology may be the most decisive change in paradigms in 20th century, at least in terms that everybody agreed it was right. I would also suggest to you the example of ARPANET, which ultimately enabled people to invent the World Wide Web. For today's purpose, take the NBIC convergence and work back to identify the large-scale projects that must be underway in order to create parallel kinds of capabilities.

I want to make further points about being unreasonable. Scientists really have an obligation to communicate in vivid, simple language the possibilities so that the President, the Vice-President and the various people who make budget decisions are forced to reject that future if they settle for lower budgets. It's really important that people understand what's at stake. It is my experience that consistently, politicians underestimate the potential of the future.

If we in fact had the right level of investment in aeronautics, we would not currently be competing with Airbus. We would be in two different worlds. Considering all the opportunities to dramatically change things out of nanoscale technology combined with large-scale computing, there's no doubt in my mind if we were willing to make a capital investment, we would create a next-generation aviation industry that would be stunningly different. It would be, literally, beyond competition by anything else on the planet. Our military advantage in Afghanistan compared with the 1979 Soviet capabilities isn't courage, knowledge of military history, or dramatically better organizational skills, but a direct function of science and technology. We need to say that, again and again.

I'll close with two thoughts. First, my minimum goal is to triple the NSF budget and then have comparable scalable increases. One of the major mistakes I made as Speaker of the House is that I committed to doubling NIH without including other parts of science. In retrospect, it was an enormous mistake. We should have proportionally carried the other scientific systems, many of which are smaller, to a substantial increase. I'm probably going to do penance for the next decade by arguing that we catch up. Second, in the media there is some talk that the Administration may offer cuts in science spending in order to get through this current budget. Let me just say this publicly as often as I can. That would be madness.

If we want this economy to grow, we have to be the leading scientific country in the world. If we want to be physically safe for the next 30 years, we have to be the leading scientific country in the world. If we want to be healthy as we age, we have to be the leading scientific country in the world. It would be literally madness to offer anything except an increase in science funding. And if anybody here is in the Administration, feel free to carry that back. I will say this publicly anywhere I can, and I will debate anyone in the Administration on this.

Congress finds billions for pork and much less for knowledge. That has to be said over and over. It's not that we don't have the money. You watch the pork spending between now and the time Congress leaves. They'll find plenty of appropriations money, if there is enough political pressure. Scientists and engineers have to learn to be at least as aggressive as corn farmers. A society that can make a profound case for ethanol can finance virtually anything, and I think we have to learn that this is reality.

Now, a lot of scientists feel above strongly advocating government funding for their work. Fine, then you won't get funded. Or you'll get funded because somebody else was a citizen. However, I don't accept the notion that scientists are above civic status, and that scientists don't have a citizen's duty to tell the truth as they understand it and argue passionately for the things they believe in.

I have this level of passion because I believe what you're doing is so profoundly real. It's real in the sense that there are people alive today that would have died of illnesses over the last week if it weren't for the last half-century of science. There are capabilities today that could allow us to create a fuel cell system in Afghanistan, as opposed to figuring out how to build a large central electric distribution system for a mountainous country with small villages. With satellite technology, we could literally create a cell phone capability for most of the country instantaneously as opposed to going back to copper.

I just visited in Romania ten days ago and saw a project that goes online December 2002 to provide 156 K mobile capability, and the Romanians think they'll be at the third generation of cellular phones at a 1.2 million capability by January of 2003. In effect, I think Romania may be the first country in the world that has a 100% footprint for the 1.2 meg cellphone business.

We ought to talk, not about re-creating 1973 Afghanistan, but about how to create a new, better, modern Afghanistan where the children have access to all kinds of information, knowledge, and capabilities. My guess is it will not be a function of money. You watch the amount of money we and the world community throw away in the next 6 years in Afghanistan, and the relatively modest progress it buys. Take the same number of dollars, and put them into a real connectivity, a real access to the best medicine, a real access to logical organization, and you will have a dramatically healthier country in a way that would improve the lives of virtually every Afghan.

Real progress requires making the connection between science and human needs. Vannevar Bush's great effort in the Second World War was to take knowledge and match it up with the military requirements in a way that gave us radical advantages; the submarine war is a particularly good example. The key was bringing science into the public arena at the state of possibility. Most of the technological advances that were delivered in 1944 did not exist in 1940. They were invented in realtime in places like MIT and brought to bear in some cases within a week or two of being invented.

I think we need that sense of urgency, and we need the sense of scale, because that's what Americans do well. We do very big things well, and we do things that are very urgent well. If they are not big enough and we bureaucratize them, we can often extend the length of time and money it takes by orders of magnitude. Thus, to be unreasonable in our planning can actually be quite realistic. We have entered a period I call The Age of Transitions, when science can achieve vast, positive improvements for the individual and the society, if we communicate the vision effectively.

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