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close this bookUnited Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 15, Number 1, 1998 (UNU, 1998, 12 pages)
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentCybergrowth: Pathway to sustainable development?
View the documentShrinking knowledge frontiers
View the documentWiring environmental education
View the documentInformation technology: Panacea or peril?
View the documentFinding the right blend
View the documentOrganizing for growth...
View the documentIn Latin American cities... A chancy life in cyberspace
View the document"The only true international currency"
View the documentUNU's Ecological Homepage:
View the documentSoftware for development
View the documentNetworking the Sun's power
View the documentThe global debate ...

Shrinking knowledge frontiers

By Hans van Ginkel, Rector, The United Nations University

Hans van Ginkel has been interested in the interactions of technology and society since he studied the roots of Chinese tin mining in Malaya as a graduate student at Utrecht University in the early 1960s. A human geographer and historian by academic training, Dr. van Ginkel, has been strongly interested in science policy and its potential impact on human settlements. In 1986, he was named Rector Magnificus at Utrecht, in which post he was deeply involved in various European cooperative education endeavours, particularly in the area of sustainable development. After serving on the UNU governing Council, he was appointed the University's fourth Rector, a post he assumed on 1 September 1997. We present here some highly pertinent thoughts about the response of higher education to the information revolution, in an age of knowledge-intensification. They are excerpted from his speech on the university in the 21st century entitled "University 2050: The Organization of Creativity and Innovation," delivered in London in 1994. - Editor

One of the major processes that characterize our age is the growing intensity of knowledge - in society at large, and, following from that, in our scholarship. This has particular implications for those technological advances - in computerization, telecommunications, and other components of the Information Revolution - which might be deployed in furthering scholarship and passing it on. Indeed, advances in modern technology feed the intensity - the computer can perform calculations in minutes that would take an unaided scientist a lifetime. Perhaps the best metaphor for modern knowledge intensity is the stock exchange trader whether in Tokyo, London, New York to Bangkok - dealing with the whole world, using many telephones at the same time, with constantly updated information on computer screens in front of him.

Universities have not quite reached that level - yet! - but clearly science and scholarship do also function electronically at a world level. Personal computers, E-mail, television and fax machines have effectively shrunken our planet. The message that, centuries ago, required weeks to pass only from London to e.g. Venice now takes only seconds for much greater distances. At the same time, the volume of information transmitted, has multiplied beyond all recognition.

The increase in knowledge intensity is marching hand-in-hand with another important modern process. This is the acceleration, the "up-scaling" if you like, which is pitching societies into new trajectories, new life styles and new expectations. A host of forces are moving societies at a speed triple or quadruple that of only a few decades ago. More and more, every part of the human endeavour is connected, at some level of stratification, as it becomes easier to cross cultural, political and geographical borders. Science might term this process "autocatalytic" the rate of increase speeds up as the processes catalyze themselves.

Leading academics have always pushed back frontiers, not only in the sense that the limits of human knowledge and ability are expanded, but also as political and geographical borders are continuously bridged. As part of the progress of globalization combined with a general up-scaling of political, cultural and economic entities, universities and research institutes are working together more and more on a much broader range of activities. The swelling cost of ground breaking research only encourages this trend.

This process of globalization, combined with a melding together of our experiences and perspectives, will only intensify. Opportunities for communication are multiplying at a sensational rate. We may still prefer to talk face-to-face than on the telephone - especially when talking to someone who comes from another culture. However, the stock market traders gave up on this a long time ago, and many academics are already in everyday contact with colleagues around the world, without ever having seen them. E-mail allows them to stay in better contact with someone sharing research interests in Australia or Venezuela than with another academic in the same building, whose hair colour they may know, but not his or her research topics.

Unity in Diversity

It seems to me that globalization will inevitably lead to greater social and cultural unity. But this will not be the unity envisaged by Napoleon two centuries ago, with the same laws and the same straight roads stretching right across Europe. It will be, and indeed ought to be, a unity in diversity, based on the principle of subsidiarity. This will also apply to universities in a big way. The have a tradition of diversity stretching back to their origins. But modern processes argue that universities will become increasing interlinked and bound to one another, while continuing to identify themselves as distinct from each other; being part of an increasingly global academic community at the same time trying to serve the region and country they are part of in the best ways.

Increasingly important, in the technologically-linked modern world, will be the network to which one belongs - it will contribute directly to the attractiveness of a university and its international position. Indeed, it is possible that international networks will form the basis of the university of the future. However, I do not think it will be long before the larger universities have set up institutes abroad, and we can see this in number of institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom already. The university will become an international business, in every sense. Many existing universities will come under the hammer during the process, but that is old news. The university has always been an evolving entity - in Europe stretching back to Bologna and in China and the Arab World eve, further to the monasteries and mosques where knowledge was once kept alive.

Impact on Knowledge Itself

The increasing knowledge-intensiveness of society and science has enormous import for the state of knowledge itself For one thing, more and more knowledge will be produced: estimates say the amount of knowledge now doubles every five years. At the same time, the shelf life of knowledge will decline rapidly. I think 'it indicative, in a recent study, that US publications cited in the patent rolls in 1975 were eight years old on average, but only six and a half years old on average 10 years later.

The whole concept of education will shift as a result of this knowledge intensification, and this will have a fundamental influence on universities. The increasing importance of learning throughout the course of one's working life will play an important role.

Already, I think we are seeing the knowledge-intensive economy replacing the work-intensive and the capital-intensive economies. As a result, academia is gaining a progressively stronger influence on society. The Dutch Government is one of those to have already stressed the importance of academia to society, remarking in one paper:

"Today we are witnessing waves of important discoveries. They are so significant that some people even compare them to those of the first industrial revolution."

This has become now a leading idea in European Union policymaking. The influence of scholarship on civilization is expressed very recognizably in the influence of technology on civilization. The IRDAC report, "Skill shortages in Europe," published in 1990, goes into this in great detail. Many other writers have also stressed this. In the United States, the Clinton-Gore administration has sought to stimulate the development of a national information structure. The intensification of scholarship pervades all stages of the academic process in some regions.

The Power of Technology

The knowledge-intensification of science and scholarship will increase technology's capacity to distribute and develop knowledge. Without wishing to become involved in any Azimov-type speculation here, it would not appear, to my mind, to be an unreasonable claim that during the next 50 years unbelievable developments in the area of artificial intelligence technology will take place. We should certainly not underestimate the consequences of this for both scholarship and society. Much depends, therefore, on the question of how quickly we can achieve a better understanding of what intelligence actually is. But rather than plunging wholeheartedly into this classic philosophical debate, I shall restrict myself to making a few general points:

First, it is important to remember that the future does not begin at any specific moment. There are always processes and developments. Think of the increasingly technological society in which we live. The first PCs came onto the market only in the late 1970s, only a blink in history's eye. Now we could not live without them. If computers were suddenly made illegal, civilization would collapse in a single day.

Second, consider the so-called "thinking machine." Raymond Kurzweil of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has written a thoroughly admirable book, Intelligent Machines, to which Marvin Minsky, Daniel C. Dennett and Douglas R. Hofstadter also contributed. Kurzweil piles prediction upon prediction. He expects that by the turn of the century there will be "telephones answered by an intelligent telephone answering machine" and "speech-to-text machines which translate speech into a visual context for the deaf."

Kurzweil's vision of the teacher's future is interesting: one in which "computers dominate the educational environment (and) courseware is intelligent enough to understand and correct the inaccuracies in the conceptual model of the student." Kurzweil also predict that, in the long run, or between 2020 and 2070, there will be a truly intelligent machine. In technical jargon, this would be a machine, which passes the Turing test, and therefore achieves the level of human intelligence.

The thinking machine therefore no longer belongs to the realm of the imagination. In fact we see them around us already. Super computers scan and analyse the heavens and medical research is no longer conceivable without high-tech apparatus. Interactive videodisks and other educational tools are being rapidly developed.

Artificial intelligence is on the rise, just like virtual reality. It would not surprise me at all - in fact, I think it likely - that in a few decades we will have artificial intelligence that not only conducts a large amount of independent research, but also simultaneously decides what should be done with the results, that both collects and distributes knowledge independently.

Ultimately, the most important factors in the future of the university are flows of knowledge, which develop themselves and interlock. In other words, self-developing knowledge systems. It is more than 10 years since Patrick Winston, also from MIT, proclaimed the idea that you can never obtain from a machine more than you put into it. That notion seems already to have been superseded.

The prospect of self-developing knowledge systems might be a little frightening - and I haven't even mentioned biological knowledge systems. But this is not a simple question of whether man will be outstripped by machines. Human knowledge and insight will, in my opinion, develop further during the coming decades, which means that it is not really a case of thinking in terms of winners and losers. One thing people will do, at any rate, is concentrate more on directing and mastering the flows of knowledge. This will require techniques beyond anything we now know, far more complex than the Knowledge Engineering I have just discussed.

Knowledge is ultimately the most important raw material, and it is, at any rate, the only one, which can be continuously enriched. It is the most important thing which man is capable of adding to nature. Or, to paraphrase Descartes: "We think, therefore we are."