Exploring the Frontiers of the Future: "One of the Central Challenges for the Future Is That We Don't Know What We Don't Know." (Science & Technology)

Article excerpt

AS AN AMERICAN on a long trek overseas in 1996, I was surprised at each stop--Italy, Germany, Egypt, Great Britain--to discover that much of the fare on television consists of old American movies, more specifically, old westerns. Each movie was dubbed into the local language, ending with Gary Cooper (or his equivalent) riding off into the sunset. The ubiquity of these images suggests to me that, in any land and language, the American Old West speaks in some important way to the human imagination--notwithstanding all of the evils that accompanied the "taming" of this vast part of the U.S. The lure of the unknown reaches into the human psyche. These' stories of awakening new possibilities and exploring unknown territory engage the human spirit and elicit deep longings. While not everyone wants to blaze a new trail, almost everyone wants to know what the trailblazers find.

The Old West has passed. We have explored the globe and its immediate surroundings in space. As evidence, even in the most remote places of Antarctica or many miles above the Earth, one can find human debris. Still, there remains that deep human longing to explore, to discover that yet unknown, but where are the new frontiers? These opportunities are, for the most part, no longer geographic, but a vast unknown space remains in understanding the workings of the natural world. Our quest to explore this realm will not only yield new insights, but provide applications and technology that will change us and our society.

Exploration today, as over the ages, presents both great possibilities and significant challenges. As we confront the frontiers of the natural world, one of the foremost challenges in the 21st century is the speed at which developments occur. To illustrate, in 1972, when I came to Rice University as an assistant professor, personal computers did not exist. There was no such thing as a World Wide Web, e-mail, a facsimile machine, or Federal Express. Communication was by telephone, mail (using an eight-cent stamp), or face-to-face. We stood then at the edge of discoveries that would revolutionize the way people interact across the globe. These findings emerged from our efforts to understand the natural world in which we live and the principles underlying how things work.

Advances in information technology in the late 20th century fundamentally changed the way we work, with no doubt a great deal more change to come. In the past, personal interaction was confined to one's immediate vicinity. Today, many of us make contacts on a global scale, and these interconnections will expand further and deeper in the world's population as we become able to sit around a table--whether business or personal--in virtual space. Communication is just one arena in which the scientific discoveries and technological developments of the past three decades have been the catalyst for unprecedented social and economic change. Michio Kaku, author of Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century, notes the development of quantum mechanics, discovery of DNA, and invention of the digital computer as the products of the 20th century he believes will impel the most important developments of the 21 st century.

In the past three decades, our increased technological capacity has accelerated the rate of acquisition and transmission of information and knowledge. In the not-so-distant past, master craftsmen would pass on generations of accumulated experience and knowledge to apprentices, who then would pass it on to their professional progeny. At present, information is accumulating so rapidly that we must habitually learn many new things--even take on one or more entirely new careers. As a small illustration, today's desktop computer has 10 times the computing power of the entire U.S. space program during NASA's mission to the moon in 1969. In that same period, has the capacity of the human brain to process information increased tenfold? …