Looking back, looking forward


To greet the year 2000, the News Office asked a variety of professors to think about the past and future of their fields. They were asked two questions: What are your predictions for the 21st century with respect to your own field, or in general? And what were one or two of the most important pieces of work in your field in the 20th century? Below are their responses.

Brody cites Chekhov, Peter Brook

Alan Brody
Associate provost for the arts and a professor of theater arts

20th-century advances -- Everything Chekhov ever wrote, Peter Brook's Marat/Sade, Grotowski's Apocalypsis Cum Figuris. I should also point out that the two major operas of the last year of the 20th century were composed and had librettos by MIT faculty: John Harbison's The Great Gatsby, and Tod Machover's Resurrection with libretto by Laura Harrington.

Predictions -- Harold Clurman, the great American director, was once asked that question about the theater. He said, "Trouble! That's my prediction! The theater's been in trouble for the past five thousand years, it'll be in trouble for the next hundred!" Of course, that doesn't mean it won't also still be doing its job, which is to tell the truth about who we are and what it's like to be alive now -- whenever now is. I think there will be more forms of mediated theater art and greater interventions with technology, but there will always be the impulse to tell stories with our bodies and voices and imaginations to people who are present around any empty space we can find.

Resistance to computers will fade

Justine Cassell
AT&T Career Development Professor of Media Arts and Sciences

20th century advances -- Well, my "field" is the intersection of several fields: psychology, linguistics, anthropology, computer science. So perhaps the most important pieces of work have been those that arose from the various constellations of these fields in the 20th century, from early cybernetics to artificial intelligence to the new media arts and sciences. The new field of embodied conversational agents -- relying on theories of social and conversational intelligence -- is my own nexus within those fields.

Predictions -- Some of the fear surrounding the use of computers in schools and in the home will subside in the 21st century (as fear surrounding the telephone, the radio, and television subsided in their time). This will allow people to take a clearer look at the role computers really can play as actors in our social world -- as agents, allies, advisors.

One effect of this change will be to allow scientists like myself to meet less resistance as we design computers that have the kinds of social and conversational intelligence that humans do, in order to support human abilities (rather than supplant them). With respect to my own field, I hope that the 21st century will see computers and computationally enhanced objects and environments acting as a support for some of humanity's oldest kinds of culture: rich conversation and storytelling.

Machines will serve people, not vice versa

Michael L. Dertouzos
Director of the Laboratory for Computer Science and professor of computer science and electrical engineering

In the 21st century, information technology will be used to make machines serve people rather than the other way around -- which is what happens today, when noble educated humans like you obediently press phone buttons in response to a litany of queries dispensed by hundred-dollar computers.

Today, whether you are browsing the web or dealing with e-mail, you spend too much time "shoveling" with your eyes and brains, instead of having machines work on your behalf. And the complexity of computer systems is increasing daily as thousands of new features are added, way down near the machine level, further complicating our lives.

The Information Revolution will earn its title when it succeeds, as I believe it will, in penetrating much of what we do, helping us achieve easily and rapidly ancient human quests with modern information-age tools.

In the 21st century, we'll also be surprised by a slew of technological innovations that we cannot predict. And maybe one of these, perhaps merging molecular biology with information technology, or prototyping a successful machine "brain" that can learn from experience, will become as big a breakthrough as was the 20th-century World Wide Web, bringing a comparably huge change upon our world.

Cultural, political issues seen as biggest constraint on progress

John M. Deutch
Institute Professor and professor of chemistry

In the December 1999 issue of Boston magazine, Professor Deutch made a number of predictions for the coming century. Below are excerpts:

Science and engineering -- "Science (the discovery of new ideas) and engineering (the application of these ideas) will merge into a single technical activity because of the increase in the speed and facility of innovation. The question is whether the political, economic and social aspects so critical to successful application of new technology will advance as rapidly."

The environment -- "It is quite possible that human exploitation of resources will result in an unanticipated and irreversible change to the environment that will make the world uninhabitable. Global warming is a current example. Or we may pollute our air or fresh water to an extent that life as we know it cannot continue on this planet."

Human health -- "Our knowledge of human health and behavior is likely to reach the point where we are in command throughout the entire life span. After a period of intense debate about 'genetically modified organisms,' we will learn how to take advantage of this awesome new power."

Conclusion -- "The constraints on progress during the next millennium are cultural and political; the means will not be an issue, but rather the ends: what we are trying to do and how we can do it in a way that is fair and respects the dignity of the individual."

Air flight to space flight

R. John Hansman Jr.
Professor of aeronautics and astronautics

20th-century advances -- The three most important innovations in aerospace were the invention and realization of the airplane by the Wright Brothers in 1903, the development of jet transportation in the 1950s, and the Apollo program to land a man on the moon in the 1960s.

Predictions -- The integration of information technology and air transportation will drive globalization to a new level. The challenges will be to make sure that all regions of the world benefit and to maintain the safety and performance of the air transportation system in light of capacity and environmental pressures.

Automobiles to further progress as 'smart' machines

John B. Heywood
Director of the Sloan Automotive Laboratory and the Sun Jae Professor of Mechanical Engineering

20th-century advances -- In my field, automotive technology, a whole series of engineering advances throughout the past hundred years has led to this important end result: every household in the developed world owns and uses a car. This has profoundly altered every aspect of our lives: how individuals live and work and play, and more broadly, our land use patterns and critical components of our economy. What has enabled this to happen? Many, many advances such as Henry Ford's Model-T assembly line, inventions like the electric starter, ever better fuels, and incorporation of technologies such as catalytic converters for emissions control.

Predictions -- The motor vehicle will remain the major component of our total transportation system. It will, however, be increasingly "managed." Our infrastructure will not be able to cope with growth in people, cars and driving without managing how and where we drive.

Cars will become smarter -- they will automatically optimize their performance, efficiency and emissions for given driving conditions to minimize their impact. They will be managed for safety -- sensors to control vehicle to vehicle separation, night vision aids, collision avoidance procedures, smart interior restraints. They will be managed for convenience -- sophisticated navigation aids, in-vehicle communication systems, automatic interior climate control. And their use will be managed -- more restrictions on where and when we can drive, how much we pay for using certain roadways, etc.

Medicine to see better drugs, less empiricism

William M. Kettyle
Associate medical director of the MIT Medical Department and assistant clinical professor of medicine in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology

Understanding cellular function at a molecular level is a process that began in the 20th century and will continue well into the 21st. The clinical benefits of a molecular understanding of cell function in both health and disease states will be more clearly and fully expressed in the new century. Although the molecular basis of diseases like sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis has been known for a number of years, that knowledge has yet to be translated into clinically effective and useful treatments.

During the next century, the practice of medicine will continue the transition of its foundation from serendipity to science. Empiricism will be gradually replaced by "designer" drugs and other treatments. Molecular biology, biotechnology and clinical care will coalesce, improving the health and wellness of the world.

Listening and caring will remain the most important tools for the effective practice of medicine, but the evolving understanding of the cell and its function in health and disease states will magnify the effectiveness of the physician in the 21st century.

Democracy, human rights to appear slowly in Mideast

Philip S. Khoury
Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Science and professor of history.

20th-century advances -- The most influential book to appear in Middle East studies in the past two decades is Edward W. Said's Orientalism, published in 1978. It rocked the profession by arguing that European scholars who studied the Middle East and wider Islamic world were the intellectual pioneers of European colonialism and imperialism.

Predictions -- Some predictions for the 21st century in the Middle East include: the continued importance of the Middle East as the world's leading source of energy, at least for the coming 20 years; a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, though not necessarily lasting peace in the region; a diminution in the power and influence of movements of Islamic resurgence; the expansion of women's rights and of human rights more generally in the region; and the slow and not necessarily peaceful erosion of authoritarian systems of rule and the equally slow introduction of democratic institutions in their place.

Researchers in the field of Middle East studies will be especially interested in the role of the Internet and other interactive technologies in tying the Middle East more closely to the rest of the world and in undermining the abilities of states in that region to control the flow of information to its citizens.

Tissue engineering to expand

Robert S. Langer Jr.
Kenneth J. Germeshausen Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering and 1998 winner of the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for outstanding inventiveness and creativity

20th-century advances -- The practical development and understanding of a wide range of synthetic polymers.

Predictions -- I'd like to think that by the end of the 21st century, tissue engineering of many tissues will become routine surgical procedures.

Invention of transistor key to physics

J. David Litster
Vice president and dean for research and professor of physics

20th-century advances -- In my field, condensed-matter physics, I believe the work that has had the greatest impact on society has been the invention of the transistor by Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley. Of course, this relied -- as do most scientific advances -- upon prior work by others. The discovery of quantum mechanics was extremely important for all of physics and chemistry, and its application to understanding the solid state was a precursor to the invention of the transistor.

I would also like to go outside of my field, to biology, where I think the elucidation of the double-helix structure of DNA by Watson and Crick is clearly the discovery of the century.

Predictions -- People who will tell you what the 21st century is going to bring will probably lie to you about other things as well. With that caveat, I think it highly likely that we will be astounded by great discoveries in biology, including a much better understanding of how the human brain works. These complex problems are at a stage of development where physicists should be able to make significant contributions to their solution. To me, that will be the interesting frontier for condensed-matter physics in the next century.

Computer to simulate brain more closely

Joel Moses
Institute Professor and the Dugald Caleb Jackson Professor of Computer Science and Engineering

20th century advances -- Only one or two major results? Surely you jest. (1) The design of the early computers. (2) The development of the first general-purpose high-level languages. (3) The microprocessor and related integrated circuit technology. (4) The personal computer technology developed at Xerox PARC in the 1970s. (5) The Arpanet/NSFnet/Internet.

Predictions -- Many people have called the 1990s the decade of the brain. In fact, significant progress has been made in understanding the architecture, local processing and learning mechanisms of the brain by molecular biologists, neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, linguists and others. Much more progress in this area can be expected in the coming years. My prediction is that by creating computer simulations of such mechanisms we will be able to design systems that exhibit learning and problem solving of a very high order. Many of the dreams of the founders of artificial intelligence will be realized in this manner.

First Hubble: soon, Mars

Dava J. Newman
Associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics

20th-century advances -- The most important milestones were the Apollo program and the advances in space science under the Hubble telescope.

Predictions -- Humans will travel to and inhabit Mars.

Sciences of mind to draw closer to other disciplines

Steven Pinker
Director of the McDonnell-Pew Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and a professor of psychology

20th-century advances -- (1) The cognitive revolution of the 1950s, in which George Miller, Herb Simon and Allen Newell, and our own Noam Chomsky and Marvin Minsky, demystified thinking and language by analyzing them as forms of information processing or computation. (2) The revolution in evolutionary biology of the 1970s, in which William Hamilton, Robert Trivers and John Maynard Smith laid out the logic of natural selection as applied to the social lives of organisms, including human beings.

Both revolutions held out the hope of bringing psychology into the sciences, and both led to explosions of research on countless aspects of thinking, perceiving, feeling and acting.

Predictions -- The sciences of mind will become more closely tied to biology, through research in behavioral genetics, cognitive neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology. This will eventually allow the sciences of mind to serve as a bridge between the sciences and the social sciences, humanities, and arts.

Plasma science to realize process for creating 'clean' fusion power

Miklos Porkolab
Director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center and a professor of physics

20th-century advances -- In the 20th century, the field of high-temperature plasma physics was born. The development of the science of plasma physics was motivated mainly by the quest to convert thermonuclear power into a source of energy for the benefit of mankind ("fusion power").

The major achievement of the 20th century is the laboratory demonstration of plasma conditions (temperatures and pressures) that are required in a future fusion reactor. However, sustained thermonuclear burn has not been demonstrated in the laboratory. The most promising approaches to controlled thermonuclear power are to heat plasmas to thermonuclear temperatures (about 200 million���C) in "magnetic bottles," or to bombard capsules of plasma with high power lasers.

Predictions -- Self-sustained thermonuclear burn -- a process key to the development of thermonuclear fusion as an energy source -- will be demonstrated in the laboratory. Prototype fusion plants will be developed, and commercial fusion reactors providing environmentally acceptable "clean" electric power will be deployed throughout the world.

The physics of plasma (the electrically charged gas used to create fusion) will be understood. This knowledge will also help us understand a variety of astrophysical observations, since more than 99 percent of the visible universe is in the plasma state. Plasmas will also be used in numerous commercial applications, from environmental cleanup to materials processing.

Environmental hazard prediction should improve

Ronald G. Prinn
Head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and the TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry

20th-century advances -- The 20th century has witnessed major discoveries about the way the Earth changes over time. The slow but powerful processes of plate tectonics that move and deform the great continents and continuously bury parts of the ocean floor have been discovered, mapped and studied. We now understand most of the complex fluid dynamics that determine weather and have learned (from the remarkable work of MIT's Ed Lorenz) that these dynamics are chaotic and fundamentally limit accurate weather predictions to a week or so. The fragility of our atmosphere has been dramatically demonstrated by the discovery by Mario Molina of MIT, Paul Crutzen and Sherwood Rowland that the ozone layer that protects us from damaging ultraviolet radiation is susceptible to depletion by tiny amounts of man-made and natural chemicals.

Predictions -- The multiple global pressures of growing population and growing energy and agricultural demands will surely strain the environment of the 21st century. We need better predictions of environmental hazards. I am personally optimistic that scientists can "nail" the problem of climate forecasting given the right tools and resources over the next few decades. Reaching this goal will require better measurements and better understanding of present and past climates, and application of ever faster computers. I can paint a similar picture for earthquakes and severe storms. Global change rightfully joins the ranks of "big science" issues for the 21st century.

Scientists will unravel certain diseases and develop therapies

Peter H. Seeberger
Firmenich Assistant Professor of Chemistry and one of six MIT faculty members on the TR100, Technology Review's 1999 list of the world's best young innovators

20th-century advances -- The three most important pieces of work in my field on the chemistry-biochemistry interface or in biotechnology in the 20th century were:

  • The recombinant DNA technologies pioneered by Paul Berg, Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen. Having access to enzymes that can cut, join and replicate DNA made it possible to create new combinations of unrelated genes in the laboratory. These combinations can be cloned, amplified, transcribed and translated in a suitable cell to produce a desired protein. Recombinant DNA's impact on biomedical research and new diagnostics and therapies has been immense.
  • Chemical contraceptives or "the pill." While certainly not the greatest development with regard to the chemistry involved, the impact on society and the lives of billions of women has been almost unparalleled.
  • The Haber-Bosch process, which allows the large-scale production of ammonia, an important starting material for fertilizer (and explosives). The use of fertilizers produced by this process allowed a tremendous increase in efficiency of food production and met the rising demand of a rapidly increasing world population.

Predictions -- The two most important pieces of work in my field in the 21st century will be understanding the molecular basis of cancer and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and creating specific, tailored therapies to cure them; and the development of vaccines against diseases such as cholera, malaria and HIV.

Biology to be 'most active and profound' area

Phillip A. Sharp
Institute Professor and 1993 winner of the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine

20th-century advances -- The discovery of the past century in biology was the double-helix structure of DNA by Watson and Crick. This discovery marked the beginning of molecular biology as a subdiscipline of biology and led to the development of genetic engineering, biotechnology and the sequencing of the human and other genomes.

Predictions -- The 21st century will see the maturing of biology into the most active and profound area of science. Biological science will combine further with chemistry to make new products and processes and with computer science to understand the nature of the storage, transmission and use of information in regards to evolution and neurosystems. As we explore the human organism at a molecular level, new insights will influence changes in society and culture. The same will be true of other areas of investigation but probably more so for biology because of recent rapid advances in the science.

Sheffi sees end to fixed prices

Yossi Sheffi
Director of the Center for Transportation Studies, professor of civil and environmental engineering and professor of engineering systems

Obvious trends include the explosion of information technology and its convergence with media, and the explosion in life sciences know-how, which will alter medicine and life expectations, triggering massive political and social changes. The next century will also bring:

  • The end of fixed prices and fixed interactions. Auctions and exchanges will come to dominate commercial and other interactions. Thus, every transaction will be preceded by negotiations at both the consumer and commercial level, whether buying a teddy bear on Amazon.com or ordering a movie through the cable system. Even areas where we do not think about negotiated settlements will come to operate this way: at traffic lights, cars will negotiate with each other, at the speed of light, for the right of way. Also, representative democracy may change fundamentally as direct negotiations and resolutions among millions of participants replace Congress and parliaments. These negotiations will be enabled by information technology "bots" that will operate according to (negotiated) rules and will be automated to the extent each user desires.
  • ������The development of systems science, including yet-undiscovered principles of dealing with massively complicated systems, including large software systems, large machines (e.g., airplanes) and most importantly, systems that include interactions between technology and society. To that end, the new science will be able to internalize marketing, policy, environmental, safety and other "external" considerations in the design process, converting these issues from constraints to variables in the design objective function.
Computing to be commonplace as motors

Lynn A. Stein
Associate professor of computer science and engineering

20th-century advances -- My field really didn't exist prior to the 20th century, so its invention would probably have to be the most important piece of work in the field.

Predictions -- Computing will fade from its current role on center stage, but it won't go away. Instead, computing will become as much a taken-for-granted part of everything as motors are now. Almost everything that you touch will have computation in it. This means that everything -- from pens to cookware to toys to dog collars -- will be customizable, upgradable and in communication with other things around it.

Brain's workings to be probed

Mriganka Sur
Head of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and the Fairchild Professor of Neuroscience

20th-century advances -- Triumphs of the 20th century in the discipline include the discovery of mechanisms by which neurons work, the localization of specific brain functions and the rules of language.

Predictions -- The 21st century may resolve the brain and cognitive sciences' deepest mystery -- what is consciousness and how is it embodied in the brain? As a crucial step towards this goal, we will need to fully understand how information is represented and transformed in the brain, and how large numbers of neurons wired together have properties that are not simply a linear combination of individual elements.

In the next century, we should be able to specify the steps from sensation to perception and volitional action. We would have discovered the processes by which alterations in neurons and neural networks lead to learning and memory, and the way in which memory is woven into the fabric of all brain function.

We shall have a comprehensive description of the genes and molecules that make neurons work well under normal conditions and poorly in many diseases. We shall learn how nature and nurture together lead to neural and cognitive development. The neural bases of language will be uncovered.

Eventually, the distinction between brain and mind -- a holdover from the 19th century -- will disappear. We will have a comprehensive theory of cognition that seamlessly links molecules, neurons, networks and mind.

Protein, polymer advances seen

Toyoichi Tanaka
Otto and Jane Morningstar Professor of Physics

In spite of the dramatic advances in biotechnology and molecular biology, the basic principles of life have not been solved. Although the Human Genome Project will allow us to read all the nucleotide sequences in human DNA, the general principles by which such a sequence was designed will not be solved from the project. The essential questions are: what is the physical principle that allows the tiny molecules of proteins to do their marvelous functions, how can they be designed from first principles, and how can they be synthesized?

Proteins are miraculous molecular machines that can memorize conformations, recognize molecules, catalyze chemical reactions, and create forces and motions. Proteins challenge conventional thermodynamic views by operating in a machine-style fashion and avoiding energy dissipation while in the thermally equilibrated environment. These functions are the ultimate manifestations of the material properties of polymers on the one hand, and, on the other, of the one-dimensional molecular information of biological origin.

In the early 21st century, such principles will become clear. Polymers will be designed and synthesized that can do everything that proteins in our body can do. This is also what I hope our group will achieve in the early 21st century.

Fossil fuel progress, concerns go hand in hand

Jefferson W. Tester
Director of the Energy Laboratory and the H.P. Meissner Professor of Chemical Engineering

20th-century advances -- Advances in technologies for locating, extracting, refining and utilizing fossil fuels, particularly oil and gas, have dramatically increased performance and lowered costs for providing reliable energy services. One could argue that the combined effect of these improvements has been the major driver of economic growth in the 20th century. Advanced seismic and other geophysical prospecting methods, new capacity for directional drilling, and internal combustion engine and gas turbine technologies have evolved to a very high level. The development of nuclear fission power reactors is another major achievement in the energy area for reliably supplying emissions-free electricity. MIT faculty, students and research staff have made major contributions to all of these.

Predictions -- Concerns over fossil fuel emissions (nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulates and carbon dioxide), not the scarcity of fossil fuels, are forcing us to contemplate major shifts in the way we provide primary energy. Nuclear energy with more robust, safer, low-cost designs will resurface. Also, technologies for capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide generated from the combustion of fossil fuels will get serious consideration as will alternative energy systems. Of these, renewable energy alternatives (solar, wind and biomass) and geothermal resources will grow in importance in the 21st century as the true environmental and health costs associated with fossil fuels are established with firm quantitative scientific evidence.

Nanotechnology to have 'major impact' in everyday life

Jackie Y. Ying
Raymond A. and Helen E. St. Laurent Career Development Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering and one of six MIT faculty members on the TR100, Technology Review's 1999 list of the world's best young innovators

20th-century advances -- The most important work in my field in the 20th century includes:

  • The development of approaches for the synthesis of nanocrystalline materials with crystallite sizes of less than 100 nanometers. These materials exhibit unique size-dependent properties and quantum confinement effects. They have tremendous impact on the design of materials and devices for chemical, catalytic, structural, electronic and magnetic applications.
  • The discovery of supramolecular templating for the systematic derivation of novel nanoporous molecular sieves. We are now able to achieve well-defined porous nanostructures with well-defined pore dimensions for use in catalysis and separations applications. In addition, these nanoporous materials can be synthesized with a great deal of compositional flexibility to tailor their surface chemistry and electronic structures.

Predictions -- I predict that nanotechnology will make major impacts in our everyday life for the 21st century. It will provide the basis for nanoelectronics for faster and smaller computers, for creating better pharmaceuticals and more effective drug delivery systems, for powering fuel cell technology in electric vehicles and home heating (mini power plants), and for more efficient conversion of raw materials into valuable chemical products.

Human exploration of Mars predicted

Laurence R. Young
Director of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute and the Apollo Program Professor of Astronautics

20th-century advances -- Apollo 11 and getting the shuttle back to operation after the Challenger disaster.

Predictions -- Humans will explore Mars in the greatest peacetime international engineering effort of the 21st century.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 15, 1999.


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