Email Print Share


Photo of Dr. France A. Cordova

Dr. France A. Córdova
U.S. National Science Foundation


Before the
Science and Technology in Society (STS) Forum
Plenary Panel
"Lights and Shadows of Science and Technology"

October 7, 2018

Photo: NSF/Stephen Voss

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

The Honorable Koji Omi, esteemed colleagues, happy 15th birthday STS!

Thank you for the invitation to speak today, on behalf of the U.S. National Science Foundation. I have attended several STS Forums in the past, and always derive much benefit from them, including being inspired by the wealth of ideas, and making new global friendships.

The STS theme of Light and Shadows is an important one, as new technologies present us with both opportunities and challenges.

For example, new tools to communicate have transformed the way we work, the way we shop, and the way we care for children or aging parents. This has also disrupted governments and industries and raised important questions about privacy and security…The light and the shadows.

With new technologies, we have learned much more about our own genome. As we explore our roots, we find joy in discovering new relatives. Yet we may not want to know our propensity for certain diseases, or all the bad apples on our family tree…Again, light and shadows.

Today, with new telescopes and sensors on the ground and in space, we know much more about the natural world. We have detected planets orbiting distant suns; gravitational waves from colliding black holes and neutron stars; neutrinos and high-energy gamma rays from the jets of brilliant galaxies. And we now know of the existence of dark energy, and that it comprises a whopping 75% of the known mass-energy content of our universe.

Yet instruments that look up in wonder have the capability, too, of looking down, at the changes happening on our own Planet Earth. We can compare photos over the last two decades of the changes in vegetation and land usage…reminding us of our need to be watchful of the only living planet that we know of…again, light and shadows.

We've been building up the field of quantum science for more than a century, defining the electronics that we use today. Presently, we 're envisioning a new quantum age, where we put our more recent quantum discoveries to use. Quantum – with properties like squeezing and entanglement – is the future.

This next quantum revolution will allow us to move past Moore's law. We will see vastly more powerful computers, and the prospect of truly secure communications.

Recently, NSF provided funding for the creation of the first-ever practical, fully-connected quantum computer, an important step that would take quantum computing beyond the proof-of-concept stage. We are also funding a project to develop algorithms optimized for the smaller quantum computers expected in the future. And we are working with our Air Force on quantum materials.

Two weeks ago the White House released its "National Strategic Overview for Quantum Information Science." This national effort will focus on a science-first approach to achieving both scientific and industrial progress. The strategy includes continuing to develop international collaboration and cooperation. In fact, today NSF staff have come to Japan to talk about collaborative opportunities in broad-based quantum research with Japanese researchers.

Light and shadows. We wish to build a quantum-ready workforce. Where will the workforce of the quantum future come from? Among our country's efforts are programs like computer science for all, and NSF's advanced technological education (ATE) program in community colleges, but we will need much more.

Perhaps there is no more interesting example of light and shadows than artificial intelligence. Two weeks ago, the U.S. government, under the leadership of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, asked for public comment in updating its 2016 national strategic research plan for AI research and development. Is it a comprehensive approach to growing research and development? To improving the economy and the lives of citizens through AI?

This draft plan has 7 strategies:

  • Make long-term investments in fundamental AI research.
  • Develop effective methods for human-AI collaboration.
  • Understand and address the ethical, legal, and societal implications of AI.
  • Ensure the safety and security of AI systems.
  • Develop shared public datasets and environments of AI training and testing.
  • Measure and evaluate AI technologies through standards and benchmarks.
  • Better understand the national AI R&D workforce needs.

AI has the opportunity to bring light to the future of work – in the classroom, in the factory, and in our homes. Yet AI brings shadows too. AI brings concerns about safety and security, ethics and responsibility, and, of course, the changing nature of jobs. We need to come together and agree on a standard for harnessing and archiving data and insuring its quality and security. Data, after all, is the basis for all AI.

Only last weekend I attended a G7/Carnegie meeting hosted by Canada. We discussed disruptive technologies like AI. One of the common goals expressed is to build an ethical, legal, and societal framework around our new inventions, to insure their usage for good. We heard, "The way we approach AI will define the world that we live in."

NSF has long enjoyed close collaborative relations with Japan in science. We worked together at the Carnegie meeting. Our countries agree that the rewards of evidence-based research illuminate the path to a promising future — if we work together. Global venues in which policy makers and scientists work together, such as STS, can bring light to the shadows that new technologies portend.

There have never been so many and such complex challenges, but the solution space has also grown and offers hope.

We can make much progress on grand challenges by accelerating convergence – bringing together people from across disciplines to attack specific, large-scale challenges.

We can reup our investment in research and in developing new technologies and devices.

We can make progress through partnerships among businesses, large and small, with government and academia.

We need to embrace the public's curiosity, through outreach about science and its discoveries and potential; through hands-on experiences in museums, science expositions; through online learning and engagement like citizen science projects.

We will continue to need the thoughtful engagement of political leaders in learning best practices from each other and formulating wise policies that result from deliberative engagement with the public.

We can make progress by broadening participation of women and minorities in STEM, making science welcoming and inclusive. Our worldwide innovation has spawned a race for talent, and we need to thoughtfully develop local talent from an early age and prepare our citizens for lifelong learning. Likewise, we need to encourage programs to reskill our workforces, and we need to develop machines that complement, rather than replace, workers.

All of this can be the common focus of our nations. From space, the Earth has no borders… there is only light – and transient shadows.

Thank you.