Johns Hopkins Magazine - September 1994 Issue


The Eureka Factor, etc.

Faster than a speeding microchip

One characteristic of the industrial era, which began in about 1800, is increasing speed of technological change, as compared with previous human history. Julius Caesar and George Washington lived in quite similar worlds, points out Philip Curtin, Hopkins historian, Africanist, and MacArthur fellow. For both, long-distance travel was by horse, long-distance communication by letter. Agriculture was the dominant human enterprise, and technologies remained much the same for centuries.

That had been true throughout the agricultural era, beginning some 12,000 years ago, Curtin notes. For example, the stone ax was "a great breakthrough, and it persisted for thousands of years before the bronze axe replaced it." New technologies and newly domesticated animals and plants spread--but slowly. "Most people lived in bands of hunters or fishermen, 20 to 30 people," says Curtin. "They didn't have enough contact to bounce new ideas around very much."

After the development of literacy, faster communication led to faster technological change, especially after 1800. And today, with instant communication available around the globe, a "generation" of computers may hold sway for as little as five years.

Curtin finds the speed of change worrisome, because the human being is much the same as ever. "Just because we have computers and print out our papers doesn't mean we're any smarter or more moral. We are neither." --EH

The Eureka Factor and meta-tools

Paul Hazan works at the Applied Physics Laboratory, where he is assistant to the director (read big-thinker-in-residence) on advanced computer technology. Twenty years ago, at a time when microprocessor, byte, and chip were alien words even to many scientists, Hazan was saying this new technology would change the world. He was right.

Today, he's working on computer visualization (of which virtual reality is one aspect), and he says that will change the world, because it will allow scientists to explore the utterly unknown. They'll be like Magellan--they won't have to know what they're looking for, won't have to know enough to ask a question. Rather, using computer-aided multimedia visualization, they can simply sally forth and look for something interesting. "This is where we can accelerate the rate of discovery," Hazan says enthusiastically.

He calls this power to search the unknown the Eureka Factor, and he bubbles about it. "Now there's a whole generation of tools that help us visualize things. We're actually expanding human creativity!"

He continues, "If you had to be an internal combustion expert in order to drive a car, how many people would drive? But in the early times, you pretty much did need to know, because the car stalled all the time." The new computer tools, says Hazan, are like the modern car--so advanced, they're simple. These are what he calls meta-tools--"tools that essentially raise the level of abstraction so that the user has no need to understand the details." Today's accountant, for instance, can concentrate on accounting and think very little about how her computer does it.

As well as acknowledging the inherent difficulty of any rapid change, Hazan emphasizes that today's change is multifactorial: Everything is changing, all at the same time, faster than we can understand what's happening. "The problem is," he says, "things are getting so complex that you need a long time to understand them, so you have to specialize. At the same time, most changes involve multiple disciplines, so we need to generalize--and you know the old saw. A specialist is a person who knows more and more about less and less, until he or she knows everything about nothing. Conversely, a generalist is a person who gets to know less and less about more and more, until he or she knows nothing about everything. And that dilemma really is what we're facing."

Advancing computer technology will help, Hazan believes. In medicine, technology, and business--in every field, in fact--he says the new meta-devices do so much to maximize the abilities of the user that people can now re-integrate their thinking at a very high level. With computer help, they'll be both generalists and specialists, and they'll do it well.

Hazan is not a blind partisan. Does he think computers will be abused? No doubt. Can we expect privacy problems? You bet. Furthermore, he says, the employment issues brought about by computers are about to become global and white-collar, because now that the world is interlinked, programming and many other computerized chores can be done anywhere in the world. Presumably, they'll be done wherever it's cheapest. "India has a great many computer programmers," says Hazan.

Here again, however, the engineer thinks computers leverage human ability enough to compensate. "What is the greatest resource we have available to us? People! And when we say people we mean people's minds. And all the things we're talking about basically deal with cultivating and communicating with--integrating if you like--people's minds. So we're leveraging our ability to change, to cope, to enhance the quality of life. That's what's on the other side of the scale. So am I optimistic? Very." --EH

The information glut

The computer revolution has made the global transfer of data easy. Too easy? Ron Brookmeyer, a biostatistician in the School of Public Health, wonders about that. "Computers not only put data in everyone's hands, but also give them the power to massage it and try to reach some conclusions. And that's good," he says. Yet Brookmeyer is concerned. Too often, he says, one has no idea how data on the Internet was collected, if or how it was checked, or whether it's been peer-reviewed. "Numbers take on a life on their own," says Brookmeyer, soberly. --EH

Entering the realm of virtual reality

Imagine that you could shrink to a microscopic size that allowed you to see and manipulate molecules. Mathematician John Sadowsky recently did--or at least felt as if he had. At a recent conference on synthetic environments, Sadowsky donned a virtual reality headset, gripped a "spaceball" (a three-dimensional "mouse"), and then "flew" through a field of molecules, stopping as he went to try to fit together molecules according to their shapes and valence charges.

The program could help biochemistry students studying molecular structure, says Sadowsky, and similar applications will soon dramatically transform the classroom and research lab. The Office of Naval Research is developing virtual reality systems for testing ship designs, he points out. Virtual reality is also being used to grant mobility to disabled children. And NASA has used virtual reality programs to help design corrective optics for the Hubble Space Telescope.

Sadowsky and several colleagues at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory are creating "a three-dimensional blackboard," a virtual reality headset that displays graphics and video images of three- or four-dimensional objects. "When I was studying topology, there were certain types of spaces I had a very difficult time visualizing," says Sadowsky. Now teachers will be able to show students three-dimensional models rather than draw two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional objects. And they'll be able to demonstrate four-dimensional objects--like Klein bottles and lens spaces--that often baffle students of topology.

The "holy grail" for scientists in the field, says Sadowsky, "is to eliminate the computer as we know it, or the computer as interface, so that you're interacting with an environment." Out go the objects that remind you you're using a computer, like the keyboard, computer screen, and mouse. Instead, explains Sadowsky, "the computer produces all the signals necessary to sense the environment and picks up our responses so we're interacting." In an architectural design program featured at the conference, Sadowsky walked around a virtual reality kitchen (actually an empty room), rearranging cabinets, furniture, pots, and pans (that he visualized through his headset) by manipulating a spaceball. His location was tracked by three infrared cameras on his headset that sensed light-emitting diodes in the ceiling; as he moved through the empty room, his headset revealed different views of the "kitchen." --MH

As higher education goes higher-tech

Higher education is undergoing a "sea change" that rivals in magnitude the one that occurred just over a century ago when the modern research university was born, says Joseph Cooper, university provost and vice president for academic affairs. Then, lectures and seminars became the standard way of imparting knowledge, and "we went 100 years without anyone questioning those modes of delivery. Now," he says, "we're going to have to invent a whole new set of pedagogies based on technology."

For instance, says the political scientist, "what is 'remote' is going to have to be redefined." Already, students can gain access to databases and library holdings across the world from the (relative) comfort of their dorm rooms. Thanks to the latest software packages for foreign languages, students can experience what it's like to talk with native speakers, while budding mathema- ticians can actually visualize four-dimensional shapes. Ongoing advances in CD-Rom, video conferencing, and (eventually) virtual reality, will only expand the possibilities, Cooper says.

He's optimistic, though cautiously so. "We have to be sensitive to what it is we want to accomplish. It's not so terrible if you don't have lectures or textbooks anymore. The truth is, the lecture method and the seminar method never fully worked as they were originally intended.The trick is to preserve the face-to-face relations with faculty members that are such an integral part of learning, while also getting away from the disadvantages of trying to teach 400 students in a lecture hall."

"If we do this right, we have a chance to re-customize education to the individual," says Cooper. The new technology means that students will be able to work at their own pace, he points out. And they'll be able to interact with their instructors in ways--and at times--that they never could before. For instance, some Hopkins students have already begun using e-mail to ask questions of professors and get feedback on their papers. The electronic interaction offers speeds of response that aren't available through once-a-week office hours.

How will universities go about adapting to this sea change? For one thing, thanks to advances in communication, "size is not going to be the kind of critical factor it used to be," Cooper says. Universities will collaborate more, he predicts, so "it won't matter so much if your department has 15 faculty members rather than 40." Rather than maintain broadly-equipped (and expensive) departments of foreign language, say, University X might share its instructor of Cantonese with University Y, who in return would share its instructor of Portuguese. "Universities will have to decide where they're going to focus and spend their resources," says the provost. Collaboration will also occur (and already is occurring) among university libraries, so that "those with huge holdings won't be at such an advantage anymore."

Further, Cooper foresees universities forging new partnerships with businesses. These days, thanks to the speed of technological change, keeping up with your field--or learning a new one--has become a lifelong challenge. That opens up whole new constituencies for universities, says Cooper. At Stanford, for instance, the Instructional Television Network offers over 250 courses annually to 5,000 enrollees at over 200 corporate sites. --SD

A "miracle" boomerangs

Since the 1950s, the middle has dropped out of U.S. agriculture: few remain of the mid-sized family farms that used to dominate. Rather, we have very, very big farms (agribusiness), or very, very small ones (like the computer programmer who keeps bees and grows 10 "heritage" fruit trees).

Mechanization and agrichemicals, says Helen Wheatley (PhD '93), were the new technologies that drove this speedy shift, to the surprise of all. Wheatley, a historian at Seattle University who wrote her thesis on 20th-century cotton farming, says that mechanization was expected to ease the farmer's labor, the miraculous new chemicals to multiply his yield--as they did. But buying machines and chemicals requires a lot of money, year after year after year, which favored the deep pockets of business over the individual farmer. Furthermore, the historian points out, the bigger a farm, the bigger its subsidy. So ultimately, the farm subsidy program benefited agribusiness more than the family farms for which it had been established.

Another unexpected effect: agri- business has proven quite destructive to the land, which it is often said to "mine." Says Wheatley, "You go in and use the land and use the water until there's none left. Then you get out."

The new methods were especially problematic in cotton farming, for two reasons. One has to do with pesticides. Wheatley says, "The cotton farmers kept pouring on the pesticides because they just thought it had to work, since pesticides were so great for other types of farming." Unfortunately, in cotton, the worst of the pests are tucked up snug inside the boll, safe from sprays. From the frequent spraying, the pests quickly evolved resistance, and everywhere that cotton has been grown, from the U.S. to Australia, "extraordinary doses of pesticide show up in entire watersheds."

The other unexpected evil came with irrigation. When U.S. cotton farming moved into the arid Southwest, irrigation became a must. What no one had thought about was that desert soil, not having been leached by the frequent rain of other areas, contains eons worth of concentrated trace elements, such as selenium. Washed out by irrigation, to everyone's surprise the excess selenium began to poison stock and waterfowl.

"We change our technology faster than we can understand the ramifications," comments Wheatley. The sorry side effects of modern cotton farming are in brutal contrast to the buoyancy people first felt about this changing technology--"the promise of it, the excitement people felt about irrigation, these wonderful chemicals, new and wonderful ways the state could intervene to help the farmer. But they found that solving old problems just created new ones." --EH

Presto! Genetic sequencing information at your fingertips

In the olden days (meaning just a few years ago), scientists would spend weeks searching the library for gene sequence and protein information, says David Kingsbury, the new associate dean for information science at the School of Medicine and director of the William H. Welch Medical Library. Now, however, thanks to the Internet-- an international network of databases--scientists can access at least 15 databases of technical information on the structure, sequence, and function of genes and proteins. They can get the answers they need in minutes, rather than weeks.

Kingsbury explains how it works: Suppose you wanted to know more about a particular gene that you have sequenced. After typing in the sequence, you can ask Prot-Web (a Hopkins application that allows you to navigate through the databases)to retrieve other similar sequences from GenBank, a database run out of the National Institutes of Health that stores all identified genetic sequences. The system will tell you how closely your sequence matches those, as well as the names of proteins the genes code for.

You can then search Protein Information Resources, a database run out of Georgetown University in Washington D.C., for the amino acid sequences of those proteins. Or tap into the Protein Database, in Brookhaven, New York, for an image of the protein's three-dimensional structure. Each search takes less than a minute.

"A number of people using Prot-Web have told me it has accelerated information," says Kingsbury. "They've discovered things they didn't know were out there, things they otherwise wouldn't have seen. People check in every few days just to see what's new. When you don't have to wait a year getting published in a peer-reviewed journal it helps."

Some people have expressed concern that without peer review, the databases will perpetuate mistakes. But according to Kingsbury, much of the information has already been published in peer-reviewed journals. In any case, peer reviewers don't usually check to see that the hundreds of nucleotide bases in a genetic sequence are correct. "There's no way a peer reviewer is going to know a sequence," he says. "The literature is full of incorrect observations. The issue is vexing, but it's nothing new." Furthermore, he says, the electronic databases may even reduce errors because more people have access to the information and can discover inaccuracies. --MH

To know or not to know

"The spinoff has started already." These words, about the Human Genome Project, come from Victor McKusick with some quiet pride. The grand old man of genetics at Hopkins, McKusick has been working in the field since the '40s--since before Watson and Crick unraveled the double helix. His genetic catalog, The Mendelian Inheritance of Man, is regarded as the classic text. And today, central figure of the national Genome Data Base, McKusick is actually able to see applications, like the genetic test for cystic fibrosis, helping actual people. Tests for genes involved in many cases of colon cancer are also available, "and a breast cancer gene, on chromosome 17, is just around the corner." He says, "People are pounding down the trail to isolating the gene."

Today's genetic tests are only the beginning. All fields of medicine, McKusick says, are using the genomic approach to their most puzzling ailments, an approach that--as he tells it--is simple: "We map the gene, walk in on the gene, and find out what it does normally. Then we find out what particular derangement appears in this particular disease."

McKusick sees two generic hazards: "One is, the Human Genome Project has the effect of increasing the gap between what we know how to diagnose and what we know how to treat." For example, physicians can now predict Huntington's--but cannot prevent or treat its onset. "And this will be more and more the case." Also, he believes the project "runs the risk of increasing the gap between what we think we know and what we really know." Issues of employability, insurability, and confidentiality are also a subject of "rightful concern."

None of that diminishes his pride in the advances of his life's work. "We'd better go into this with our eyes open," he says, "but it is a matter of faith with me that in the long pull, it is better to know than not to know." He repeats the words, with some emphasis. They matter to him: "In the long pull." --EH

Changes in store for the concert hall

Peabody Conservatory faculty member Geoffrey Wright sits in a studio with a keyboard, which is unremarkable for a composer. What is striking is the looming array of electronic and computer components that dwarf the musical instrument. They're all of a piece to Wright, though. In his hands and mind, all of this stuff is a musical instrument.

Wright is a composer in Peabody's electronic and computer music department, a man with a deep fascination for the application of technology to music. For him, the most significant change in music that he is witnessing--and participating in--is the rapid development of musical intelligence in computers.

"Musicians are struggling very hard to find ways to represent the entire musical process digitally," Wright says. "We're trying to find a way to capture the essence of music and store it on a computer."

Computers have been able to mimic the sounds of instruments for a while now, he says. What artists and researchers want to do is go further: to have computers engage in what amounts to musical thought--to create a computer that can respond to a human musician not like a machine simply following instructions, but like another musician.

"Over the years," Wright says, "people have attacked technology in the arts as cold and dehumanizing." The early creators of computer music did little to change that impression, he says, because their compositions tended to leave the performer out of the performance. Musicians didn't "play" computer music; it existed only on magnetic tape, which the composer then played for the audience. "The sounds were often wonderful, but the audience got restless," he says. People wanted to see musicians, not go to a concert hall to listen to a tape deck.

Next, composers tried having a musician play along with a tape, but the computer couldn't respond to the musician, who was in effect playing along with a stereo system, albeit an expensive one.

"Now," says Wright, "we're able to change that process and have the computer 'watch' the performer, and respond." For example, if the performer speeds up during one section of a piece, so does the computer. If the performer skips a passage, like a good accompanist the computer will skip ahead, too. "What we're dealing with is real-time feedback," Wright says.

Technological change is hardly new to music, Wright points out, from the piano to the phonograph. And as a composer working with computers, Wright does not feel disconnected from the creators of string quartets or concertos. "Some of the issues we face are the same issues Bach faced," he points out. "What note comes next?"

Wright is seeing increasing numbers of students enrolling in the electronic music department. "Students see technology in music as creating new career paths"--career paths that are desperately needed, he says, at a time when a single orchestral opening routinely attracts 1,000 applicants. New forms of composition and performance may create new opportunities for students as programmers, engineers, and performers on new instruments. --DK

The way the future wasn't

What about technological revolutions that didn't happen? asks John Sommerer, deputy director of the Milton S. Eisenhower Research Center at the Applied Physics Laboratory.

Back in the 1950s, says Sommerer, many people envisioned we'd be traveling to work in personal helicopters and riding between cities over skywalks. Those dreams have fizzled. Likewise the prediction that we'd have electricity from nuclear power--electricity so cheap that it wouldn't be worth metering. "We saw only one part of the equation," says Sommerer. "We ignored the fact that it is quite expensive to deal with the waste products of nuclear power." Also, if electricity were free, people might use so much of it that we'd suffer the environmental consequences of another by-product of electric power--heat--which would amplify global warming.

"It's very easy for people when they're trying to be visionary to look only at small parts of a problem, and to leap over other problems to say how the technological advance is going to change society," he observes. --MH

Written by Sue De Pasquale, Elise Hancock, Melissa Hendricks, and Dale Keiger.

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