Today’s research investments are essential to tomorrow’s world leadership in information technology (IT). Properly managed, publicly funded research in IT will continue to create important new technologies and industries, some of them unimagined today. Indeed, the field is young, and there is every reason to believe that the best is yet to come. Box 5 provides a few examples of the impacts that can be anticipated from advances in IT in the coming decades. Surely, however, some of the most important impacts will not have been listed, because—as history shows us—many of the technological surprises and major economic disruptions just waiting to happen cannot be predicted today.
The process of innovation will continue to take many years from the inception of a new idea to the creation of a billion-dollar industry. Every step of this process benefits from—and often requires—federal support. Without ongoing federal investment in fundamental research there would still be innovation, but the quantity and the range of new ideas for U.S. industry to draw from would be greatly diminished—as would the flow of people educated at the technological forefront, the most important product of the nation’s research universities.46
The lessons of history are clear. A complex partnership among government, industry, and universities made the United States the world leader in IT, and information technology has become essential to our national security and economic and social well-being. The federal government’s sponsorship of fundamental research in IT—largely university-based—has been and will continue to be essential.
Examples of Advances Expected from Continued Commitment
to Information Technology Research
• Safer, robotics-enhanced automobiles. The creation of a car that “cannot crash” has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives—and many more injuries—annually, while also giving U.S. products a competitive advantage in the automotive market.
• A more scalable, manageable, secure, and robust Internet. Employing protocols that were developed nearly 40 years ago, today’s Internet faces challenges in such areas as scalability, security, robustness, and manageability.
• Personalized and collaborative educational tools for tutoring and just-in-time learning. Although information technology is not a cure-all, it does offer the potential to both enhance learning for all learners and transform the ways in which people learn. Such methods include adaptive tutors, collaborative authoring, learning in context and just-in-time learning, and flexible simulation.
• Personalized health monitoring. Combined advances in processing power, microelectromechanical systems, sensors, and low-power radios are enabling an explosion of opportunities to create “sensors for everyone.” Embedding these sensors in such devices as cellular telephones, wristwatches, and appliances can provide a great deal of important information about individuals’ personal activity patterns which can be used to better advise patients on how to alter behavior.
• Augmented cognition to help people cope with information overload. Although the wealth of information to which people are exposed continues to expand, their ability to absorb, evaluate, and act on it does not. IT contributes substantially to this overload, and it stands to reason that IT should also provide tools for assisting people in absorbing and evaluating information, and calling their attention to information that requires action.
• IT-driven advances in all fields of science and engineering. A new form of computational science—focused on the collection of massive amounts of data from sensors around the world—has emerged. This development is aided by advances in techniques for storing, retrieving, mining, visualizing, and discovering knowledge in these data, and it has the potential to assist in discovering new information about everything from the inner workings of the body to events at the far reaches of the solar system.
SOURCE: Adapted from NRC/CSTB, 2009, Assessing the Impacts of Changes in the Information Technology R&D Ecosystem, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., pp. 36-41.