I was intrigued by a “Future of the University” discussion, which postured that the University now has three fundamental responsibilities: education, research, and—surprisingly—data preservation. The discussion centered around the fact that as we move further and further to the Internet of Things and all things digital we may now be entering an era where universities become required by moral obligation to be the preservationists of a vast portion of the world’s digital knowledge base. The quote was, “If not us, then who?” Because I had also been attending sessions on Big Data, and I2’s Innovation Platform, it was easy to see how apt this was. Universities and the R&E community have embarked on a historic construction of an infrastructure that will be the ground floor of one incredible knowledge center. It is not the amount of data that intrigues me most, it’s the complexities involved in preserving that data for generations to come. We have all seen computer languages come and go. For this task of preservation we need languages that will live on forever to enable, for example, the search engine of the future to comb databases of the past.
The keynote for this session was Dr. Shirley Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). To say that she was impressive is an understatement. Dr. Jackson is a theoretical physicist and former Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and serves on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Her grasp on the deepest technical aspects of a wide swath of science was impressive on its own, but her ability to connect it to the human condition was something else entirely. She described a project at RPI to make Lake George in NY the “smartest” lake in the world. To achieve this, scientists have created a massive sensor overlay to analyze in real time an enormous range of conditions. The breadth of knowledge gained from this one project cannot be underestimated.
One of the other themes of this talk was the concept of breaking down the walls between research disciplines. What we are finding out more and more are the interdependencies and links between branches of science heretofore unknown. This is classically revealed in biotechnology, where computer science and biology are becoming increasingly connected, but this concept extends all over. One of the barriers recognized is the need for better communications as we tend to have our own way of relating to each other within the walls of a given research discipline.