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NASA Chief Offers A Hint Of Upcoming Technology

By Eun Lee


Students packed Wong Auditorium on Monday night to hear NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin give a lecture on complex systems entitled “The Technology Base for the 21st Century.”

This talk was the second in the MIT System Design and Management Progam’s Distinguished Lecture Series.

“I’m not going to talk about the past today. I’m going to talk about the future,” Goldin said. His talk outlined what may be in store for NASA and systems technology in the coming decades.

Goldin described the future of aerospace systems and the revolutionary and key technologies which will ultimately be used to achieve advancement in science and engineering.

“Hopefully in this decade it will come together where we don’t take things apart” to understand them, but use that understanding to “build them up,” Goldin said.

Autonomy key for future systems

Looking ahead to exploration of Mars and other distant destinations, Goldin stressed the importance of reliable systems which function efficiently and adapt to changing conditions without constant human control.

In the twenty-first century, Goldin said aerospace systems will require several innovations, including the autonomy to think for themselves, resiliency to withstand harsh conditions as well as to self-diagnose and repair damages, and the ability the evolve in terms of form and function to meet increasing demands.

Goldin also outlined three areas of technology central to the development of these future systems: nanotechnology, biotechnology, and information technology.

Goldin envisioned that with these technologies, “factories of the future will be manipulating atoms ... [and] building better small devices for lower cost.”

He described robots that would mimic biological systems by embedding biological elements to create hybrid systems. These would apply biological knowledge and techniques to produce innovative engineering.

“God wrote all the basic rules. All we have to do in the next few decades is to figure them out,” Goldin said.

Future information technology will feature interactive tools with real time perceptual user interfaces, Goldin said. He stressed the importance of investing in forms of computing other than silicon chips for future advancements.

Goldin also suggested the concept of “amorphous computing” which would mimic biological mechanisms and model-based reasoning.

Science fiction tomorrow’s truth

While jokingly referring to The Matrix and Star Trek, Goldin said “This is not science fiction. We are working on it now.”

The revolutionary implications of technologies developed for space exploration will ultimately impact every facet of science and technology, Goldin said.

“This is not theoretical stuff that only relates to Mars. It relates to everything we do,” Goldin said.

Goldin noted that many of these technologies will be “problems left to the student.”

However, Goldin warned, “We will have to bring up the level of scholarly research within ethical boundaries and not take short-cuts.”

He ended the talk by emphasizing the importance of a learning environment where “everything will have to come together” to acquire more fundamental understanding and general skills for adapting to future change. “Collaborate, integrate, innovate, or stagnate or evaporate,” Goldin said.

In the question and answer section following the lecture, audience concerns ranged from changes in the infrastructure of NASA to accommodate future needs to the concern of scientific ethics in developing these technologies.