UNESCO: ASIA-PACIFIC SCIENCE CONFERENCE
Major issues for science in the 21st century
2 December 1998
Professor Brian D O Anderson
President, Australian Academy of Science
Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for inviting me today. I have been asked to talk on the Academy's perspectives on major issues and themes for science in the region in the early years of the 21st century.
There are really a huge number of major issues and themes, and in the interests of fitting within the allotted time, I decided to concentrate on two. More on those in a moment.
There are, first, two preliminary comments to make. The first is that science is much more an activity that is global in character rather than regional in character. This is especially true of very broad problems. That is to say, although individuals in nations and individuals in our region are researching science, or use the results of science, there is not a great deal that differentiates the activities and the goals, although there is obviously some local difference. And when it comes to very broad problems, these tend to be problems affecting the whole world, rather than just the region, or a nation. The second broad comment is that progress in science, including its applications, depends on two kinds of drivers. These are scientific research drivers, and economic drivers. Roughly speaking scientific research drivers arise when curiosity-motivated researchers, perhaps after uncovering a very interesting fact, or a new way of attacking a problem, are simply challenged by a massive intellectual problem. Economic drivers arise from applications, where the prospect of earning money for share-holders, owners or governments from the exploitation of new ideas is a powerful spur to the development of these new ideas and their translation into new or improved products and processes.
From time to time, there appears a massive coherence between the intellectual excitement of the science and the financial excitement of the applications potential, and then one typically sees very major developments.
It is two of those stunning developments about which I want to talk today. The first is the development that we call the information revolution, and the second is the development that we call, or soon will call, the biological or the biotechnology revolution.
Let me start with the one that I know more about, because I am by training an electrical engineer, and that is the information revolution.
The information revolution for our society is as transformational as the agricultural revolution was so long ago, and the industrial revolution of the last century. One differentiating characteristic though, is that the revolution is taking place or causing more transformation more rapidly than those earlier two revolutions. The information revolution depends on three enabling technologies, electronics, communications, and computing.
In electronics, we have seen and we will see ever greater packing densities on integrated circuit chips, chips containing millions of transistors. Future development of these chips will depend on improvements in fabrication networks but also design tools; after all it is no simple task to manipulate as part of the design process a million transistors. For fairly obvious reasons there will need to be advances in circuits with self-testing and limited repair capability, there will need to be circuits with decreasing power consumption, and we will see operation at higher and higher speeds and frequencies.
Communication has similarly seen a whole host of changes. Last century we had Morse code. A single cable would allow the transmission of a limited number of alphabetical characters in a minute. Then came the telephone, and then in a series of steps there came cables which could transmit simultaneously a number, say 10 or even 300, telephone conversations.
Nowadays, through the miracle of optical fibres, we have cables which can effectively carry as many telephone conversations as you might like, and indeed we have wide-band cables which can take many television channels simultaneously.
There has been an absolutely staggering reduction in the price of using the telephone. When the first international telephone calls became possible out of Australia in 1935, to the United Kingdom, a three minute conversation cost approximately one week's average salary. Nowadays, that same conversation will cost about a dollar, and that is a reduction in real terms of some hundreds. We have seen one-way radio turn into television, colour television, satellite television with an enormous number of channels, and soon we will have two-way video capabilities to our homes.
We have seen the explosion of wireless and mobile telecommunications which gives an ability to island states such as Indonesia to obtain a connectivity which could never have been dreamt of in earlier years, and the almost-miracle of Iridium, which allows you to make a telephone call from no matter where you are on the planet.
In the computing area, as so many of you would know, the storage and the speed of personal computers have changed by a factor of a thousand over the past decade or decade and a half. It would be impossible to imagine today banking, airline reservations, taxation systems, the operation of supermarkets, or even the operation of cars and washing machines, without the computer. Computers have moved from being manipulators of purely numeric data to manipulators of alphabetic and numeric data to be able to produce information from that data of interest, to offer computer games, spreadsheets, wordprocessing etc. The world wide web was undreamt of, I am sure, fifty or sixty years ago. But the scientific and applications challenges in the IT area for the future remain extraordinary in their dimensions. Let me report just on two as I see them.
Human-friendly interfaces are to a large degree still lacking. You can not really give dictation to a computer, despite the claims of software vendors. You can not really get a computer to do automatic language translation, and you certainly can not get it to do it on-line, or through the telephone system when you are talking to someone in another country if they wish to use a different language. You can not really get a computer to act as predictably as a human in response to natural language spoken commands, except perhaps an extremely limited set of commands. And most people would feel uncomfortable about being asked to cooperate with a robot to do furniture removal, for fear the robot could malfunction and deal them a smashing blow, crush them and so on. So indeed there is a long way to go in the area of interfaces.
There are many other scientific and applications challenges one could lay out for information technology, but let me restrict myself just to one more.
I believe that the truly successful companies in a decade or two will be those that have developed the meta-competence of being able to manage knowledge.
Computers have to this point moved from handling data to handling information, that is organised data. In very limited domains, for example in areas of medicine and law, one could assert that in a sense computers manipulate knowledge, as opposed to information or organised data. No computer in any domain, however, exhibits wisdom, the fourth level in the sequence that runs data, information, knowledge, wisdom. The companies of the future who are really successful will need to base much of that success on having IT systems which are knowledgable. We see the beginnings of this sort of thing in technologies such as datamining. But in addition to requiring the competence of extracting knowledge from vast amounts of data, companies will need a technology for extracting tacit knowledge of their employees, or relevant parts of the experience of the individual employees, and putting it into an organised framework that is systematically accessible by other individuals in the corporation. All these ideas raise the issue that we need a scientific theory of knowledge, which embraces issues of representation, manipulation, and transmission between machines and between machines and human-beings.
The platform for all of this will be electronics, communications, and computers.
To this point, I have been focusing on the non-social aspects of the information revolution, but it is not appropriate to leave social aspects entirely aside, and here we might recall that the information revolution does destroy jobs in some areas, but often creates them in others. There were no people doing the equivalent of writing computer games as of 30 years ago. Now, this is a big industry. Thirty years ago, many people were employed as telephone operators. Nowadays, people are employed in call centres. Virtually every technology, perhaps starting with the invention of the wheel, caused displacements, and society's task is to ease the transition for individuals who may be displaced.
There are many other social consequences linked with the information revolution. Another one that has been in the newspapers lately concerns Microsoft. Here is a company who, in a very short space of time, has built up an absolutely dominant market position. A great many people have an instinctive reaction that Microsoft's position is too dominant to be healthy. We will have to see how the US courts resolve that particular problem. Potentially monopolistic industrial titans have arisen.
Super databases are now a possibility, bringing with them privacy concerns, and worries of the big brother state. But by the same token, a big brother state, particularly a totalitarian regime, ought to feel very threatened by the universality of the fax, and email, which allow the challenging of propaganda, and the free expression of those news items and ideas that the regime might wish to repress.
The world wide web appears to be leading to a disintermediation of individuals like stock-brokers, real estate agents, travel agents, and insurance-brokers and so on. The cheapness of telephone calls seems to have led to a decline in family letter writing, but perhaps the even cheaper and increasingly ubiquitous email will bring back that particular skill.
In the few minutes that remain, I would like to offer a few remarks on the second great revolution, one that has started, but is not yet here with the same intensity as the information revolution. That is the biological revolution. By discipline, I am much less qualified to comment on this, and my judgements are necessarily more cautious.
But I am convinced, especially as a result of talking to individuals more closely involved than I, that it will every bit as transformational for our society as has been the information revolution.
Genetic engineering is at least 20 years old, and in the agricultural area, there are many applications that one can point to. Flowers, cotton, peas, seed oil and grains, the production of all these entities has benefited from genetic engineering. One can point to examples of genetic modification for resistance against pests, or against viruses, or to improve quality, achieving results much more cheaply and effectively than were possible with pesticides, weedicides, and protracted breeding programs.
There is a prospect now of meeting tighter and more demanding market specifications, of feeding growing populations, through better yields, of generating wholly new products and, very desirably, better care of our natural resources. Truly, a virtuous circle is operative here. Further, we are all aware that much of this technology in principle is extendable to animals and even humans.
The genetic counselling of today may well be a precursor of the slaying of scourges like cancer, malaria, and AIDS. There may be a prospect of the future paraplegics walking, and sense-deficient individuals recovering through genetic engineering their lost sense.
But once again there are a host of social issues thrown up. Among these issues, the ones that seem most likely to provoke the strongest public debate are those revolving around human cloning. Individuals, to a greater or lesser degree, can be worried about experimentation with embryos. For some individuals, no programming of the child is acceptable. For many individuals, programming a child to be free of a hereditary disease may be acceptable, but programming them so they are likely to become a Nobel Prize-winning physicist is not. And to virtually every individual, programming a child to be a genetic copy of its parent, would seem repugnant.
People are worried about the danger of release of a killer virus, accidentally, or by a crazed scientist, or a dictator. They are worried about public health accidents, of the Mad Cow Disease variety.
And just as there are problems with aspects of the industrial structure associated with the information revolution, so there may be with the biological revolution. There are a limited number of multi-nationals who have acquired intellectual property of immense potency, that will impede developments where scientists and applied scientists since time immemorial have been used to exercising a free hand.
The information revolution and the biological revolution are two representatives, albeit very large ones, of the way science impacts and challenges peoples lives. They are much more than simply domains for the exercise of scientific research or private sector entrepreneurship. An imperative for all nations is to prepare the future citizens of those nations so that they can react intelligently to these challenges.
So my final observation is to say that the "E" for Educational in the acronym UNESCO is immensely important here. The education process starts in the schools. We want our schools to produce future citizens who are not just literate, not just numerate, but scientifically literate.