future technology

Penn State has embarked on a 5-year strategic planning effort, and has asked each academic unit to develop their own plan for ultimate incorporation into a university-level plan. I believe this planning process will be vital for the University and for IST, in particular, for several reasons.

First, the university will have new leadership at the highest levels including a new president, provost, and vice president for research and graduate programs. A strategic plan will help guide this transition to new leadership and serve as a basis for dialog.

Second, like so many institutions of higher education, our university is facing a number of challenges including continued reduction of state funding, increasing competition among other colleges and for-profit universities, pressure to reduce or at least stabilize tuition costs, and questions about the cost-benefit of a college education, to name a few.

During the coming months, I hope to stimulate a spirited discussion among our faculty, staff, students, alums, and advisory board members about the trends, opportunities, challenges, and new directions for our college for the next five years. We have already begun to have these conversations during our meetings of the Dean’s Executive Council, and we are identifying four major trends that we believe will create abundant educational and research opportunities for IST as we study the interplay of information, technology, and humans. These trends are: (1) the Internet of things, (2) mobile computing and sensing, (3) big data, and (4) cyber insecurity.

The Internet of things refers to the rapid deployment of smart sensors and computing capabilities into nearly every object making them “self-aware” (of their location, “identity” and condition) and able to communicate that status over the Internet, for example, smart vehicles that know their location, mechanical condition, need for maintenance, and operational capability. The rapidly emerging Internet of things will profoundly affect all aspects of business, commerce, and daily life.

The second trend involves mobile computing and sensing. Currently more than 4.3 billion people on earth have mobile devices (cell phones, tablet computers). These devices incorporate multiple sensors and increasingly sophisticated computing capabilities. This is matched by an explosion of mobile applications. By 2017 it is estimated that monthly mobile data traffic will reach 11.2 exabytes per month. Advances in mobile sensing, processing and communications are redefining social interaction, sharing, and collection of data, and global collaboration.

Big data, the third trend, is the explosion of online heterogeneous data. Projections indicate that in 2017 more than 50,000 petabytes per month of video data, 15,000 petabytes of web, e-mail, and data, and 9.000 petabytes of file sharing will add to the global on-line collection of information.

Finally, cyber insecurity and privacy refers to the challenges of accelerating inter-connectivity – how real- and cyber-world events influence societal actions and the threats and vulnerabilities associated with cyber-attacks, cyber warfare, and online data and personal identity. During 2012, over 12.6 million U. S. citizens suffered identity theft attacks, resulting in losses exceeding $ 12 B. Meanwhile, the U. S. National Nuclear Security Administration faced over 10 million cyber-attacks per day. Cyber insecurity and privacy threats are the flip side of the coin of universal connectivity.

Exciting new research opportunities for IST include blending of human and computer-based cognition, fusion of sensor data with human observations, big data informatics and analytics, and modeling the interplay among the physical, cyber, and human landscapes. As a result of this research, IST will lead major advances in areas such as medicine, energy, environmental monitoring, and crisis management, among many fields. For instance, new opportunities in medicine will allow for precise, highly personalized medical treatments and interventions based on the amalgamation of genomic information, socio-metric data, advanced sensor data, self-reports by patients, and observations by nurses and physicians.

In another example, mining of sentiment data from online communications (e.g., tweets, Google inquiries, etc.) along with daily reports from pharmacies and physicians can lead to refined and predictive epidemiology, thus preventing the spread of disease and improving mortality rates.

While the study and judicious application of this information explosion has the potential to ease many of society’s woes, it also brings with it the potential cost in the form of potential information security and privacy breaches. Formerly private information has now become public and creates “digital exhaust” that may be exploited. Penn State employees, for example, fear loss of privacy and potential unanticipated consequences of the use of their medical information. Similar challenge and opportunity scenarios can be constructed for the domains of energy, environmental monitoring, crisis management, and many other areas.

To realize these advances, it will be necessary to understand human, computing, and information relationships – the original mission of our college. A narrow focus in any one area will be insufficient. As research addresses real-world problems at global levels, we will need to step outside the laboratory and link lab-based data with evolving on-line global data sets and expertise obtained by practicing professional and “citizen scientists.” By the same token, we must expand our traditional educational mission to include ongoing, lifelong education and dynamically create and adapt new curricular materials. Our lifetime students will be comprised of both domain experts engaged in evolving applications and research areas as well as professionals who seek to obtain up-to-date information on emerging topics such as cloud computing, big data, enterprise architecture, human-data interaction, computer-assisted cognition, and many other topics.

Former President Dwight Eisenhower once said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” So too, our discussions about strategic directions will likely be more useful than a final document. I look forward to your comments and thoughts.


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