Administrator Forsees Future of Unified Technologies

By Cheryl Balian
October 25, 2000

Keys to a Technological Revolution:

The integration of three emerging technologies will create a wave of change:

1. Nanotechnology: The creation of useful materials and systems by controlling matter at the smallest scales.

2. Biotechnology: The application of biological models and techniques to pioneer new engineering uses.

3. Infotechnology: The generation of intelligent agents that sense and interpret the environment, and execute solutions.

NASA’s Vision for Spacecraft in the 21st Century:

  • Self-sufficient vehicles with minimal on-board resources
  • Optimal use of mass, power and volume
  • Travel rapidly, safely and at low cost
  • Resilient and adaptable
  • Networks around the earth will exchange information

Building Blocks For A Successful Career:

  • Engineering’s traditional separation of academic curriculum and hands-on training must be overcome, to prepare students for the integrated marketplace.
  • Lifelong education is critical; there will be constant pressure to break new ground.
  • Problems will be solved via "advanced learning environments," with collaboration from all sides.
  • Collaborate, integrate and innovate. If not, you’ll stagnate and evaporate.

"Innovate or stagnate." So said Dan Goldin, NASA Administrator, as he presented a lively vision of technology’s future at the System Design and Management (SDM) Distinguished Lecture Series on Complex Systems on October 16. Goldin, an eight-year veteran of NASA who spent 25 years prior at TRW Space & Technology Group, addressed a packed Wong Auditorium consisting of SDM and LFM (Leaders for Manufacturing) students, faculty, and staff as well as those from across the Institute. His key message was that new technology breakthroughs will occur if traditionally separate disciplines are integrated.

"Your future will be unbelievable," Goldin enthused, drawing a parallel between the rapid evolution of technology and career opportunities in the 21st century. "There will be a tsunami of technological change across the planet. MIT is at the leading edge and the students in this room will help lead that change." In order to achieve this, he said that students should cultivate a career enhanced by continuous learning, as they will be constantly challenged to develop groundbreaking ideas.

Goldin made his presentation as part of a week-long visit to the MIT campus by SDM students who are participants in MIT’s first degree-granting, graduate-level program offered primarily at a distance. These students make regular "business trips" to MIT, which offer SDM distance learning students the opportunity to network, take classes and seminars on campus, and view nearby industrial sites that offer insight into how various industries address complex systems. SDM students at this week’s business trip attended classes taught by MIT Faculty and Research Staff including, among others, Edgar Schein, Joel Moses, James Utterback, Ed Crawley, Dan Whitney, Joyce Warmkessel, Tom Kochan, Jan Klein and Tom Allen. They wrapped up the week with a day-long visit to the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, Rhode Island.

Goldin proclaimed NASA, a partner enterprise to the LFM-SDM programs, to be on the cutting edge of aerospace technology. "In the next generation, NASA will create ultra-efficient, reliable spacecraft, while decreasing costs," he said. "One project we’re currently working on is the transfer of air transport technology’s analog systems to more efficient digital." NASA’s autonomous space vehicles of the future will be able to travel in space for up to two years, resisting adverse climates and conditions. "As ‘thinking spacecraft,’ they will be networked as colonies able to exchange and interpret information, from analyzing a glitch to being able to repair themselves," stated Goldin.

But developing such intelligent aerospace systems will only occur if three "revolutionary" technologies are integrated. "Together, Nanotechnology, Biotechnology and Infotechnology will overturn current patterns," said Goldin. Nanotechnology aims to create useful materials and systems through control of matter at the smallest scales. For example, Goldin called the development of nanofibers, which would replace carbon fibers, as the "holy grail" of nanotechnology. Biotechnology applies knowledge and techniques that mimic biological systems to produce breakthrough engineering applications, like precise molecular control. And greater progress in Infotechnology will enable spacecraft to process data along a hierarchy of knowledge, just as humans do, from sensing the environment to responding accordingly.

"These three disciplines can’t be separate. They must come together to form intelligent, evolvable systems," Goldin emphasized. He offered a situation ripe for benefit from integrated practices: "Presently, there are over 2,000 independent cells in American air traffic control systems, with 18,000 air traffic controllers trying to bring it all together as they guide flights. Wouldn’t a centralized control point in cyberspace be better and safer, rather than a piecemeal system?"

Goldin offered a similar assessment of 21st century education. "The incredible pace of change and economic pressures in high-tech are creating a revolution in engineering schooling. The separate arms of academic curriculum and hands-on training must come together, to mirror market patterns. And lifelong learning will be crucial to professional success." Goldin foresees an "advanced learning environment," consisting of expert-led groups that are more collaborative, e.g., physics-based problems will be solved by building from the atom up.

Goldin concluded his presentation with the mantra, "Collaborate. Integrate. Innovate. If not, you’ll stagnate and evaporate." Faculty, students and alumni responded enthusiastically.

Karl Pilon, Team Leader at Sikorsky Aircraft and a second year SDM student, said, "This was a terrific look at what’s coming in the aerospace industry. Sikorsky shares the same goal as NASA of converting air traffic control from analog to digital. It’s reassuring to know we’re working on the same challenges."

"Dan Goldin paints a vision of the future that serves as an incentive to our students in their education and careers ahead," said Paul Lagace, LFM-SDM Co-director. "The possibilities that the understanding of such technology brings to society are remarkable and those in attendance here today responded appreciatively to his challenge to them to play a major role in making these visions a reality."

Tom Magnanti, a co-founder of the SDM program and current Dean of MIT’s School of Engineering said, "The revolutionary technologies Dan Goldin outlined as key to our future resonates beautifully with the School of Engineering’s strategic thrusts in bioengineering, engineering systems, tiny technologies, and information, computation, and communication. Indeed, it is reassuring to observe so much convergence in our thinking about what technologies will be critical to society’s future prosperity."