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Brochure cover, with text: KDI, Knowledge and Distributed Intellience, National Science Foundation

K D I :
Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence


"Imagine a new century, full of promise, molded by science,

shaped by technology, powered by knowledge."

-- from "Science in the 21st Century," President Bill Clinton's commencement address at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 18, 1997.


Twenty-five years ago, few homes had computers. Most office workers used electric typewriters to write letters. The Internet was still an obscure experiment at university computer science departments. Researchers wanting to keep abreast of developments in their fields had to read journals, attend conferences or travel to special research sites.


Today, personal computers and other home information products (software, modems, and more) outsell television sets, VCRs, and other home entertainment goods. Schoolchildren of all ages log onto the Internet, and even preschoolers play and learn with computers. Using computer-aided design (CAD) tools, engineers develop new models of airplanes and automobiles and new computer chips that were impossible to achieve without CAD. Computer simulation is coming into its own as a new way to do science. Researchers operate instruments in space and collaborate on complex, international projects like gene mapping without leaving their home laboratories.

We live in a world that is being transformed by advances in high-speed computing, communications, and information technologies. These technologies connect people to people, people to powerful databases and instruments, and people to institutions around the globe. This connectivity is enabling more people to become knowledge workers, and it has helped produce astonishing developments in science, engineering, medicine, business, and learning.

And yet, most scientists and engineers say today's offerings are just a glimmer of the rich possibilities of the information age. Future leaps in computational power, connectivity, and our understanding of the processes of learning and creativity lie ahead. These advances could become powerful multipliers of progress in a wide range of social and economic endeavors.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is investing in fundamental research and education designed to realize the full potential of this emerging era. Taking shape within an ambitious, Foundation-wide effort called Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence (KDI), these investments are focused on deriving human knowledge from intelligent access to information, wherever it occurs and in whatever form it is to be found. KDI efforts aim to improve our ability to discover, collect, represent, transmit, and apply information, thereby improving the way we conduct research and education in science and engineering. These efforts promise to change how we learn and create, how we work, and how we live.

Why emphasize "knowledge and distributed intelligence?" We do it because KDI-related research will produce knowledge that is essential for our long-term understanding of the universe and our place in it. These efforts also will help us discover technologies that can make this a better world. Other reasons for pursuing KDI research are more immediate. First, planned activities focus on the need for fully accessible, distributed information systems. High-capacity networks and advances in computational science will facilitate research and educational activities, enabling expanded collaborations across disciplines, across geographic locations, and across language and other barriers. The objective is to create networked systems that can make all kinds of knowledge available to anyone, located anywhere, at any time.

A second and equally compelling reason for investing in KDI is the need to develop a better understanding of the nature of intelligence -- how humans learn and create; how animals, plants, and machines receive, store, and process information. In order to develop new systems and technologies to intelligently access information, we must know more about the nature of learning. At the same time, work in these areas will help us to improve our educational methods and gain a better understanding of human thought and creativity.

A third reason for the KDI focus is that knowledge, especially knowledge from science and engineering, drives economic growth. KDI seeks to develop what's needed -- new tools, new models of collaboration across fields and disciplines, and new approaches to discovery -- to help those who advance knowledge. This knowledge is expected to lead to entirely new applications, enterprises, and markets -- many of which cannot even be imagined at this time. If the past is any indicator of the future, the effects on the nation's workforce in terms of the creation of new, high-quality jobs and valuable know-how could be substantial.

Finally, KDI responds to -- in fact was spurred by -- the needs and desires of scientists, engineers, educators, and students to do their work better. The idea of multidisciplinary, "knowledge" investments emerged from a series of NSF-sponsored workshops. Held over a period of several years, the workshops convened leading researchers and educators from different backgrounds -- academe, the private sector, and government -- and from a great array of disciplines. They assessed promising areas of research and education and made recommendations for the future.

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Is the Past Prologue?

America's commanding lead in computer-communications technology is the result of extraordinarily productive, long-term partnerships among government, industry, and academe. Pioneering research in databases, data communications, cognitive science, and other subjects from the 1960s onward has revolutionized the use of computers in science and engineering, and led to the creation of multibillion-dollar strategic industries. Much of this research and development took place at universities, and was sponsored by NSF, the Department of Defense (in particular, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA]), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Energy, and other federal agencies.

Examples of projects and other developments on which KDI builds include NSF's Grand Challenges Program, the interagency High Performance Computing and Communications (HPCC) initiative, NSFNet, and Mosaic. The Grand Challenges Program advanced solutions to fundamental problems that had broad scientific, engineering, and economic impact by creating high-performance computing techniques and resources. HPCC led to rapid advances in computer visualization, software development, and very high-speed data communications, and to test beds that explored the research applications of these advanced networks. NSFNet, established by the Foundation in 1985 to carry research and education electronic traffic, demonstrated the feasibility of networking outside specific, dedicated networks. Together with NSF's support for the development of regional networks, this backbone service provided the impetus for the tremendous proliferation of networks that today comprise the global, virtual community of the Internet. Web browsers such as Netscape's "Navigator" are based on Mosaic, a browser developed by a student working at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, the NSF-funded supercomputer facility at the University of Illinois.

Another development of profound significance to KDI is the World Wide Web, a well-utilized adaptation of the Internet. Created by researchers at CERN, an international physics laboratory in Geneva, the Web is an Internet-based hypertext system. It consists of documents linking to other documents and enables users to access a global system of multimedia (text, graphics, sound, and video) information.

Will we be able to sustain this pace of progress into the future? Computer processing power continues to increase exponentially, and the impact to date has been dramatic. In 1946, the ENIAC, an early programmable computer, stood 10 feet tall, stretched 80 feet wide, and included more than 17,000 vacuum tubes. It weighed about 30 tons. Today, a silicon chip in a musical greeting card or a child's hand-held game equals or surpasses the ENIAC's computing power. Ongoing development of smarter software is speeding processing even further. This translates into smaller, faster, more portable machines. These advances are expected to continue in 1998 and beyond, affording increasing access to information. Other promises of the information age, however, are less assured.

  • Will tomorrow's computer-communications networks offer richer learning experiences to students than textbooks did to 20th century students?

  • Will tomorrow's researchers be able to tap the enormous potential of high-powered, distributed computing for studying vastly more complex systems than are possible today?

  • Will we be able to absorb, analyze, and glean useful knowledge from massive amounts of data, provided in varying forms, including text, images, sound, and video?

  • Will the KDI age be hospitable to every citizen? Will such values as privacy and security be upheld across new generations of technologies?

KDI was envisioned to address these and related challenges. Activities under this effort should lead to tremendous increases in scientific understanding of the roles of intelligence in complex systems, including both natural and engineered systems. Another critical impact of KDI will be enhanced human interactions across disciplinary boundaries. Advances on the frontier of one discipline often create new opportunities within other areas of science and engineering. KDI efforts resulting in expanded information flow and the adaptation of prototype technologies to new areas of science and engineering could help researchers to better exploit these new, interdisciplinary opportunities.

In the future, the areas of focus for KDI research and education efforts will evolve in order to take advantage of the most important and promising new opportunities. Currently, there are three, interrelated areas of focus:

  • Knowledge Networking

  • Learning and Intelligent Systems

  • New Computational Challenges

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Knowledge Networking: Better Connections

KDI's Knowledge Networking (KN) focus seeks to build the scientific basis for transforming today's environment of relatively restricted access to information into a much more open and content-enriched environment for online interactions among people, organizations, and communities. KN efforts should make accessing desired information -- be it words, sounds, numbers, or images -- more convenient and timely, and more enriching. If one wants to find a line of poetry by Keats, the latest graphic on Milwaukee labor statistics, or an explanation of why ice floats, the technology should deliver exactly the information that is sought. It is important to note that KN research goes beyond efforts to increase access to information. It also focuses on developing more effective ways of creating, collecting and organizing information to glean useful human knowledge. In addition, KN efforts seek to illuminate issues of ethics and access, as well as other technical, social, and economic problems that attend the spread of new technologies. Data security, for example, is an emerging concern for a fully networked world. Research into validation, authentication, and other aspects of security is needed to ensure the privacy and credibility of bank accounts, health records, telephone calls, and other sensitive information.

Examples of selected outcomes of KN activities could include:

  • Increasing capabilities of high-speed, high-capacity networks, and the development of principles for future network design.

  • Building and linking complex data repositories that integrate widely scattered sources of information in disparate forms.

  • Creating Internet-based "collaboratories" that enable multidisciplinary teams of researchers and educators, participating from their home laboratories, offices, and classrooms around the world, to work together as if they were meeting face-to-face. Participants would be able to interact with each other, control remote instruments, select and screen data, observe experiments and phenomena -- all on a live, real-time basis.

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Learning and Intelligent Systems:
Learning about Learning

To maximize the potential of the information age, we will need to understand better the nature of intelligence in general, and the human mind in particular. KDI's Learning and Intelligent Systems (LIS) focus brings together researchers and educators from a variety of fields in collaborative groups to explore new concepts of learning and intelligent behavior. Key to this focus is work that enhances human learning, creativity, and productivity by developing a deeper understanding of how learning occurs in humans, animals, and artificial systems; integrating this understanding with existing theories, concepts, systems, and methodologies; stimulating the testing and evaluation of the integration of diverse concepts related to learning and intelligence; and supporting the development and use of information technologies in classroom teaching across all levels in all fields of study, and in workplaces and other life-long-learning situations.

The other facet of the LIS focus is intelligent systems. The applications of LIS research into how machines, animals, and humans "think" are wide-ranging, and include robotics as well as smarter instruments. Today's computers must be told what to do, step by step, in minute detail. When it comes to the ability to process perceptual information, a bird can recognize a worm among twigs much better than any computer. Better sensors and related software developments are expected to lead to advanced tools that process what they "observe" and quickly undertake appropriate responses. In the future, computers may be developed that are able to make small decisions that are not entirely dictated by programming. These and other smart instruments would optimize productivity in science and engineering, manufacturing, and other areas.

Selected examples of LIS research and education efforts include the following:
  • Understanding the functions of the brain -- how it handles complex information and computations, as in learning science and mathematics; how it acquires, comprehends, and produces language; how it represents and operates upon sensory information, as in spatial navigation; and how it produces actions, as in reaching for and grasping objects -- and applying this understanding to efforts to enhance human learning and develop intelligent systems.

  • Combining experimental procedures for training in skills, computational modeling, mapping of brain functions, and automated tutoring to develop more effective approaches to teaching people to read.

  • Supporting learning technologies research centers. These centers would promote the transfer of advances in learning technologies from the lab to the classroom, and train multi-disciplinary learning researchers.
  • Creating machines that can present information in a way that best meets the needs of a user. For example, if a machine "senses" (from reaction times or even observed facial expressions) that a student is bored, it might respond by switching from a theoretical approach to one that is more experiential, offering illustrations that incorporate the person's known hobbies and interests.

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New Computational Challenges:
Tackling Bigger Questions

The New Computational Challenges (NCC) focus of KDI seeks to create knowledge across many frontiers by advancing the leading edges of computational science, mathematics, and engineering. Building on the key role of computer tools in discovering new knowledge, NCC research focuses on solutions to very complicated scientific and engineering questions -- problems that are computationally expensive, data intensive, and traditionally difficult to represent. NCC efforts are expected to lead to the development of better computer languages and algorithms to handle complexity, especially multiple representations, and different scales and structures. Equally important, NCC research is expected to accelerate our ability to model and simulate complex, multi-scale systems, such as the oceans or the brain. Better modeling should enable us to understand, predict, and control complex systems at a level never before possible.

Looking even further into the future, entirely new approaches, such as biological and quantum computing, will need to be explored.

Selected outcomes from NCC research could include:

  • Development of new algorithms for modeling phenomena involving multiple scales and enormous complexity (such as species invasions in an ecosystem and the consequences for conservation biology, biological control, and agriculture).

  • Enhanced technologies for storing, organizing, and searching digital libraries and databases to provide wider, faster, and more effective access to knowledge. New techniques for encoding maps, videos, and other images, and new search methods for accessing data in image form, such as electron micrographs, specimen photographs, and molecular models, could result.

  • Advances in pattern recognition and datamining -- that is, discovering "unusual" items in a massive set of data. Today's methods of datamining are appropriate only for modest-sized databases. Enhanced pattern recognition technology holds tremendous promise for reliably and effectively screening mammograms or pap smears for abnormalities and for mining biological databases to gain a better understanding of the function of genes.

  • Expanded availability of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) videos in real-time.

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    Program Fundamentals and Milestones

    In addition to the planned activities described above, NSF is participating in the Next Generation Internet (NGI), a five-year, multi-agency project promoting research and education in the near term by enhancing Internet capabilities at U.S. institutions. The Foundation's NGI efforts, which cut across all three KDI foci, build on progress in networking and infrastructure development, and promise to keep academic science and engineering at the leading edge of computing and networking technologies.

    Put simply, all three areas of focus -- KN, LIS, and NCC -- will lead to the discovery, application, and distribution of scientific knowledge. From Knowledge Networking, advanced high-performance networks will make knowledge easily and powerfully accessible to others and in turn, lead to the discovery of new knowledge. From Learning and Intelligent Systems, research into our mind's processes and smart systems will lead to discoveries about thinking and learning, and these findings will enable all humans to make better use of powerful combinations of knowledge and tools. And, from New Computational Challenges, advanced computation will provide better tools for understanding complex systems and for developing and exploiting information resources to discover new knowledge. Some KDI research may address two or all three foci.

    Because knowledge and distributed intelligence will permeate society's future endeavors more than ever before, KDI's spin-offs are likely to be profound. The electronics, pharmaceuticals, automobile, and software industries are leading economic sectors. All four stand to reap enormous competitive advantages in a global economy from a better knowledge infrastructure. Agriculture and other economic sectors, from construction to apparel, will also benefit.

    KDI research is taking place at and across the frontiers of science and engineering, making specific outcomes within prescribed timeframes difficult to predict. Indeed, this is always the case with research at its most fundamental level. However, based on past experiences, we can be confident that these investments will lead to a better understanding of the nature of creativity and learning, increased research productivity and depth, and expanded and more powerful use of highly interactive networks for the discovery of new knowledge and its easy assimilation throughout society.

    The Foundation awarded grants worth more than $22.5 million for LIS research and education activities in 1997, and is conducting a competition worth approximately $50 million for all three KDI foci in the 1998 fiscal year. All seven directorates -- Biological Sciences, Computer and Information Science and Engineering, Education and Human Resources, Engineering, Geosciences, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, and Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences -- and the Office of Polar Programs are involved in proposal review and decision making. The KDI effort builds on a base of existing, related NSF project support in many disciplines of science and engineering and in emerging interdisciplinary areas, amounting to more than 10 percent of the Foundation's annual budget.

    Because KDI is critical to realizing the full potential of the age of information, NSF expects to maintain a major commitment to these efforts. Complementing NSF's ambitious KDI plans, others -- including states, universities, institutions, and industry -- will invest in KDI work. By doing so, these entities will play leading roles in advancing the frontiers of learning and discovery, which will translate into even greater gains for our society as a whole.

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    KDI and a Robust Future

    In the next century, more and more Americans will need to become "knowledge workers." Harnessing the power of the information age will be pivotal to the nation's economy, society, and future. Through its KDI research and education efforts, NSF is preparing a solid foundation to ensure the construction of a bright future amid great technological changes. Continued federal investment in knowledge and distributed intelligence is an essential response to a 21st century that will be molded by science, shaped by engineering, and powered by knowledge. It's a vision that holds promise for all.

    Why the NSF

    NSF is an independent federal agency created by the National Science Foundation Act of 1950, as amended. Its aim is to promote and advance progress in science and engineering research and education in the United States. The idea of such a foundation was an outgrowth of the important contributions made by science and technology during World War II. From its early days, NSF has had a unique place in the federal government. It is responsible for strengthening the overall health of science and engineering across all fields. In contrast, other federal agencies support research focused on specific missions, such as health or defense. The NSF focus on basic research supports these and other missions, as well as the advance of fundamental knowledge for humankind. The Foundation is also committed to helping ensure the Nation's supply of scientists, engineers, and science educators.

    NSF funds research and education in science and engineering. It does this through grants, contracts, and cooperative agreements to more than 2,000 colleges, universities, and other research and education institutions in all parts of the United States. The Foundation provides more than 20 percent of all federal support to academic institutions for basic research.

    Out of every dollar of NSF funding, approximately 95 cents goes to fund merit-reviewed research and education projects. NSF provides more than $3 billion each year to support almost 20,000 awards for research and education. NSF accounts for just 4 percent of total federally sponsored research and development, but nearly one-half of non-medical basic research at colleges and universities. Not only does NSF-sponsored research result in new knowledge and technologies, it also helps to educate future generations of scientists, engineers, educators, and other technically-trained professionals.

    Through its investments -- in future generations, in merit-reviewed research and education projects, and in the extensive distribution of new knowledge -- NSF is committed to enhancing the nation's capacity for achieving excellence in all fields of science and engineering, ensuring new sources of prosperity and opportunity for all Americans.

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    Publication credits:
    Neal Lane, Director
    Joseph Bordogna, Acting Deputy Director
    Writer: John Adam
    Editor: Ellen Weir, Office of Legislative and Public Affairs

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