Statistics: The Next Generation

By Straf, Miron L. | Journal of the American Statistical Association, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Statistics: The Next Generation

Straf, Miron L., Journal of the American Statistical Association


The theme of our meeting this year is statistics in an era of technological change. We are fortunate to be alive in this era, to experience the changes brought by new technology--information, communications, biotechnology, and others--and to anticipate the changes that we will surely experience from new technologies, some heretofore unimaginable.

These new technologies will bring many benefits to our lives. But they also will bring risks. Transportation technology has brought us closer together and enabled a global economy. But it has also brought terrorism to our shores. Information and communications technologies have dramatically increased our productivity and expanded our outreach. But our greater reliance on them for economic transactions, health care, transportation, electric power distribution, Fand communications leads to the risks of greater consequences from widespread failures in these complex, critical systems. Biotechnology can enable us to feed the world, but at the same time increases the risks to our environment and sources of food. Genetics promises new medical therapies and a longer lifespan, but it also raises a host of ethical issues, including embryo selection and gene replacement, and portends a loss of privacy of information on our own destiny.

Today we are on the verge of even greater technological change from nanotechnology, robotics, cybernetics (including chips implanted into the human nervous system that can communicate with computers and give us superhuman abilities), and, likely before this decade is out, the ability to determine an individual's genetic sequence overnight (Bier 2000).

Take nanotechnology, for example. With the ability to manipulate individual atoms and molecules, it will be possible to build machines on the scale of human cells or to create new materials having properties that could not be developed with traditional chemistry.

Among the expected breakthroughs are quantum computers that can calculate millions--if not billions--of times faster than today's fastest supercomputers, artificial photosynthesis or clean energy, and human organ restoration using synthetic tissue. Nanotechnology could lead to lighter, faster, less polluting, and safer transportation vehicles. It could improve medicine, agricultural yields, desalination, and water filtration and enable highly efficient solar energy conversion. Can you begin to imagine the many ways in which statistics can contribute to advancing this technology?

From research today on this and other frontiers will come technologies that will forever change our lives. They can bring bountiful wonders, but they also can bring increased risks, disruptions to our society, and even the malevolence of war.


My message to you today is that we, as statisticians, can play a critical role in influencing the paths along which technology will take our society. But it will require us to change--to change our discipline, to change our profession, and to change our ASA.

Why is it that statistics can play such a critical role? All sciences play a role in technological development. But our discipline is special, not only because it advances discoveries across the breadth of scientific disciplines and advances the development of technologies, but also because it has an important connection to the human side of scientific and technological development.

How the needs of our society are measured and articulated, how our businesses and industries respond to those needs with technological developments, how our markets and our political and legal institutions encourage or impede technologies, and how we as a society employ technology and deal with its unintended consequences--these human activities have as much to do with advancing a technology's contributions to society as does the development of the technology itself. …

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