2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

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Physicist, Director, MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms; Author, FAB
Physicist, MIT; Author, FAB

The Creation As Well As Consumption of Scientific Knowledge Will Be Potentially Accessible To Anyone

I'm optimistic about the prospects for science to become a much more broadly participatory activity rather than today's largely spectator sport.

Success as a scientist is certainly limited by interest and ability, but it also requires access to the accumulated body of scientific knowledge and to the means to practice it. I've found the former to be much more widely distributed than the latter; until recently, becoming a successful scientist usually required becoming a member of an elite technical institution.

It's considered axiomatic that smart people like to surround themselves with smart people. But the reality at a place like MIT is that we're all so time-stressed and multi-tasked we rarely have time to do anything unscheduled; many of my closest collaborations are with people who are far away. Two technological changes now provide an opportunity to revisit the boundary between being on and off of a campus.

The first is research on digital fabrication that is leading to much more accessible means for making and measuring things. With $50k in infrastructure, a fab lab can now do experimental work in the field that would have been hard to do at MIT when I first arrived there. And the second is the emergence of broadband videoconferencing and software for project and knowledge management that can make remote collaborations as convenient as local ones.

Together, these are leading to the emergence of technical training and research projects that are fundamentally distributed rather than based on remote or centralized access to scarce resources. Instead of scientific careers being gated by room in classes, and headcount numbers, and limited lab space, and editorial fashions, and overhead rates, they can be bounded by a much more interesting resource, the availability of ideas.

I expect that scientific productivity will always be very non-uniformly distributed, with disproportionate contributions from a small number of remarkable people, but the sample size for finding and fostering those people can be improved by a few billion or so. There's a grand feedback loop ready to be closed, between the content and organization of scientific invention. Many of today's most compelling new questions are still tackled with old institutional models; it's ironic that religion has had its Reformation but that the role of a research university would be recognizable to a medieval monk. The future that I'm optimistic about is one in which the creation as well as consumption of scientific knowledge is potentially accessible to anyone.