1993 Discover Awards: Introduction

By Al GoreOct 1, 1993 5:00 AM


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TechnoIogy is a powerfuI engine driving economic growth. It makes possibIe new products, more efficient methods of production, and greater environmental protection, which inevitably lead to new high-skill, high- wage jobs. The economic health of the United States depends on the supply of new technologies reaching the marketplace. In fact, economists tell us most of the economic growth the United States has experienced during the past 40 years was due to new technologies. Technological innovation is an essential ingredient of economic success--some would say the most essential ingredient.

So how can we sustain the pace of technological innovation? How can we keep ahead of foreign competitors, like Japan and Germany, that are concentrating their resources to become world leaders in high-technology industries such as computing, telecommunications, and biotechnology?

America must start with a strong commitment to continuing basic research and development and to investing in the new technologies that will lead us into the twenty-first century. We must recognize the strength and potential of America’s scientific and technological resources to change and improve the quality of our lives. And we must act on that recognition now.

One of the first initiatives President Clinton announced after taking office this year was a comprehensive new technology initiative: Technology for America’s Growth, A New Direction to Build Economic Strength. It is a blueprint to focus American technology around three central goals: long-term economic growth that creates jobs and protects the environment; a government that is more efficient and responsive; and world leadership in basic science, mathematics, and engineering.

The initiative focuses on the deveIopment of a National Information Infrastructure created by legislation I introduced while serving in the Senate. It encourages the development of a national high- speed computer network, or information superhighways, to increase access to this high-performance computing.

It would also bring the advantages of high-performance computing to our schools, businesses, and health-care facilities. The initiative commits the United States to developing new applications for high- performance computing and networking in health care, lifelong learning, and manufacturing, as well as creating pilot projects to demonstrate these new technologies in schools and other nonprofit entities.

New ideas do not form in a vacuum. Just as innovation feeds technology, information feeds innovation. That’s why the National Information Infrastructure is so critical to America’s success in the technological revolution. For example, scientists and engineers have always relied on the work of their colleagues to educate themselves and create new ideas. They combine their colleagues’ data and techniques, analyze and examine theories, compare and contrast information in an effort to make new discoveries. But now the problem is information overload. As scientific enterprise becomes ever larger and more complex, individual researchers cannot keep pace with the flood of information from laboratories here in the United States and around the world.

The need to share information has meant that innovation is becoming more of a team sport. No one person can understand every aspect of a particular technological problem, so innovators with their different areas of expertise are teaming up to find new solutions and new approaches to fill in the gaps. Whole new fields are being created in the interstices between traditional scientific disciplines.

New advances in information technology have made such collaboration much easier and more common. Indeed, new advances in computer networking and advanced computing are quietly changing both the style and pace of technological innovation throughout the country. The Internet high- speed computer network provides millions of researchers and educators throughout the country with access to thousands of digital libraries. Computer data bases containing thousands of books, journals, and articles in electronic form allow them to locate the information they need in seconds rather than days. Then, using sophisticated software, researchers can quickly sort the information in order to pull out the data they really need.

Part of our responsibility in implementing a successful technology initiative will be to make sure we can use all the data provided by the National Information Infrastructure. High-speed networks and digital libraries will give us access to infinite amounts of information. Researchers are developing ways to help us distill this information into a useful form. And then, with lots of help from the human brain, we can transform that information into wisdom.

Already there are software programs, called knowbots [see Computer Watch, DISCOVER, April 1991], that can cruise over networks and search dozens of data bases in order to find needed information. There are programs that can scan images, looking for a particular feature. Systems like LEXIS-NEXIS and the Wide-Area Information Server can scan a year’s worth of a particular newspaper in seconds, saving journalists, lawyers, scientists, politicians, and others millions of work hours a year. New systems under development will be able to scan even larger data bases and provide specialized services to people working in almost every sector of the economy--from agriculture to construction to health to manufacturing.

Equally important, high-speed networks like Internet are allowing researchers to collaborate with their colleagues throughout the country as easily as if they were in the same building. These networks are enabling scientists and engineers to create co-laboratories--virtual laboratories in which researchers linked by computers can share data, images, and new ideas. Brainstorming electronically with colleagues, scientists and engineers, among others, will be able to develop ideas into new technologies much more rapidly than they could on their own.

This new style of computing and telecommunications will transform our lives in thousands of ways we can count today and thousands more we can only imagine for tomorrow. Networks can bring new jobs to rural areas and inner cities. Computer technology can assist doctors and teachers, allowing them to reach more people and provide better services. Computer data bases and networks can provide companies with the competitive edge they need to innovate faster and manufacture better--and at less cost. Information systems can provide the government with the tools it needs to improve itself so that it can serve its customers, the American people, more quickly, more effectively, and, most important, at less cost.

In many ways, computers and the national telecommunications network that link them constitute a new type of infrastructure that will eventually be even more important than traditional forms of infrastructure such as highways and railroads. This national network will one day be as ubiquitous and as easy to use as the telephone system, but it will be much more versatile and powerful. It will be able to deliver an encyclopedia’s worth of information in seconds, provide any one of thousands of different video programs on demand, and allow users to teleconference with friends and business associates around the country.

Just as government pIayed a key roIe in stimulating development of the railroads and highways, government has a key role to play in working with the private sector to develop this information infrastructure. This administration is dedicated to giving Americans access to the information they need, when they need it, to foster the technologies that will improve our economy and keep us the most creative, inventive country in the world.

On the pages that follow, you will find a compendium of some of the most exciting and innovative new technologies developed by the world’s most inventive minds. The scientists and engineers honored in the fourth annual Discover Awards for Technological Innovation are the unsung heroes of today’s age. You may not know their names, but their technologies will surely transform your life.

For two years I served as a judge for the Discover Awards. This year, as vice president, I chose to remove myself from the judging process in order to better celebrate all technological innovation.

For the 1993 Discover Awards program, the magazine’s editorial staff selected 36 finalists from a field of more than 4,000 nominees submitted by companies, research institutions, and DISCOVER readers. The winners in each of the seven categories were then selected by an esteemed panel of independent judges, each a renowned expert in his or her field.

And the winners are . . .

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