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Futuristic Focus

The current tech slump hasn't fazed scientists at MIT. President Charles M. Vest sees several key technological advances in the decades ahead.


The technology industry may be mired in recession, but a sense of optimism still pervades the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The scientists and engineers on MIT's campus in Cambridge, Mass., aren't paying much attention to the current tech slump. Instead, they're looking decades ahead.

"This is an incredibly exciting period of science and technology ahead of us," said Charles M. Vest, who has been president of the famed engineering school since 1990.

Though Vest acknowledges the shortcomings of technology, his experience as a mechanical engineer has taught him not to dwell on problems and instead to focus on solutions. Vest describes his vision for the future and MIT's role in creating it.

Question: What's the next frontier in technology?

Answer: There is a tremendous amount of work across MIT and other leading science and technology schools in all things that involve nanoscale science and technology. This is an area where government funding has increased--and ought to increase--because really bright young people are asking themselves how they can take advantage of our new capabilities in manipulating matter, structuring it and organizing it right down to the level of individual atoms.

We just won a competition to set up something for the Army called the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology. Some people think it's science fiction, but this program is built around designing soft materials, like fabrics. We want to reduce the amount of weight a soldier has to carry from about 150 pounds to around 45 pounds.

Q: Why 45 pounds?

A: That's what a Roman centurion used to wear. One of the ways of doing this is to design materials that have multiple functions, such as a material that suddenly becomes rigid by passing electric current to it. If you break your arm, you've got an instant cast. Then there are materials that sense biological agents, or things that can change color so you have a chameleon-like camouflage.

Q: What other areas do you see as key?

A: A second area that we believe is a great scientific adventure for the next several decades is understanding the human brain. We now have a very detailed understanding of how cells function. Simultaneously, we have this great advance in functional magnetic resonance imaging. You get detailed looks into what's going on chemically in the brain as it reacts to various stimuli. That could help us understand diseases such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer's. On top of this come the enormous capabilities in computing power and our increasing understanding of how you think about complex systems. If it all works, hopefully we can get the same kinds of advances for emotional illnesses that we have made in the last 20 or 30 years for more physical kinds of illness.

There are two more areas I'd like to point out. After the sequencing of the human genome, there's a whole new world of biology and biotechnology. It's made possible by the combination of truly massive computing power and our ability to understand biology down to the level of proteins. It's going to lead to new mechanisms for drug discovery and so forth.

The last thing I would point to is the area of energy and the environment and what sustainable development means to society. That's going to be very, very important. We're trying to get away from the remediation view of the environment and do a better job of stewarding our resources while still enabling countries to climb up the economic ladder.

Q: What do you think is the cause of the chronic shortage of scientists and engineers in the U.S.?

A: I think we're at a kind of shift in social values that does not encourage people to go into areas such as science and engineering. In my generation, you had people growing up wanting to be part of the space program and sending people to the moon. Today, there are fewer and fewer young people who want to devote themselves to anything that takes long years of intense work to accomplish.

When we first started seeing so many young people taking technical and scientific degrees and then going to work on Wall Street, I started to talk to them. When you get right down to it, the bottom line is instant gratification. They want to do things where reaction follows action really quickly. Of course money has a lot to do with it. But I honestly believe the ability to see results happen so quickly is at least as big a factor.

Q: There's also been a hue and cry over the shortage of technology managers. Is there something fundamentally flawed with technology that requires this much labor?

A: The basic answer is yes. Everything is simply too complicated. I think on the whole, technology's been rather good to society. But the need to educate people to manage technology is something that universities by and large have not been doing. The primary reason is that business schools and engineering schools have not talked to each other.

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