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Federal Computer Week

What technological advances can you expect to see in 2025?

January 14, 2000
Web posted at: 3:33 p.m. EST (2033 GMT)

by FCW staff

(IDG) -- Twenty-five years from now, Americans will consider the changes that information technology brought to government in the 1990s as quaint.

The technology that will be in use in 2025 will be similar to systems portrayed in science-fiction dramas. But much of it is already under development in research centers and IT shops throughout government: computers that think like humans, sensors woven into clothes that assess a soldierís wounds and virtual networks that meld federal, state and local agency services into what is a seemingly single entity.

Advances in technology, particularly nanotechnology and telecommunications, will shrink the size of government, make it more mobile and reduce the distance between government and the public. Government will be anywhere, anytime.

The changes hold such promise that Americansí view of government could begin to improve as services become more efficient and the public interacts with previously faceless bureaucrats. Meanwhile, advances in technology could change our basic notions of the republic, making it much more direct and involved.

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Making Infrachatter

Not too far into the 21st century, agencies will begin using embedded chips, electronic sensors and miniaturized hardware to improve the way government works and to make it easier for average Americans to talk to federal workers and find out specific information.

In many ways, the computer network will be the face of government. For instance, the Army has begun to develop a uniform that is a networked computer that not only will provide protection from biological and chemical weapons but also will provide a constant stream of information through conductive fibers woven into the uniformís material.

The uniform of the Armyís Soldier 2025 also serves as an antenna for high-data-rate radios and feeds data to a Darth Vader-like helmet, which projects onto the inside of the helmet such images as the position of enemies and provides 360-degree vision.

The Marine Corps envisions a future that includes more urban warfare, which ó as 1992ís Operation Restore Hope in Somalia proved ó can be perilous. At the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, scientists are trying to make urban combat safer for Marines and bystanders. One day in the future, a Marine may be able to send cockroach-like robotic critters into a building to send back video images of the enemy. The creatures could set off nonlethal intoxicants that subdue the enemy.

"If there is a potential silver bullet on the horizon in urban warfare, it is nonlethal weapons that incapacitate all people in a building ó fighters and noncombatants alike ó for long enough for us to accomplish our mission," said Brig. Gen. Tim Donovan, commanding general of the Marinesí Warfighting Laboratory.

Civilian agencies also will incorporate sensors. The Transportation Department, for example, plans to help fund the development of nanotechnology to make it possible to get drunken drivers off the road. Sensors in a car will be able to measure the level of alcohol in a driverís breath before the ignition is started. Sensors on roadways will detect ice and send signals to cars that force them to reduce speed.

Miniaturized technology also could improve congestion on the roads. DOT is considering developing a palm-size airplane that would send images of road traffic to computer systems, which would use the information to change stoplight timings to clear clogged roads faster or to send messages to car radios suggesting an alternate route.

Chips also will find their way into ordinary objects, making federal tasks that used to be gargantuan as simple as pressing pen to paper. The Census Bureau, which has incorporated more technology into the 2000 decennial census this April, could rely on even more advanced information systems in 2010. Census officials are looking at how a chip could be embedded into a Census form so that when a person fills it out, the data is sent wirelessly to the bureau, eliminating the need for huge data centers to scan the documents.

All this "infrachatter" ó as scientists at Lucent Technologiesí Bell Labs refer to information being sent between machines and objects ó will make it easier for agencies to distribute more real-time information to the public or to everyday household objects. Bell Labs imagines a day when sensors in a typical lawn sprinkler could call up the National Weather Service, check on the dayís forecast and turn itself on or off depending on whether rain is predicted.

Anywhere Government

The technology needed to make these visions become reality is a mega-network on which data could flow between government and citizens.

Bell Labs has begun work on such a network, or global skin, which is made up of small, electronic measuring devices. The sensors will be plugged into the Internet, which scientists predict will expand to handle the deluge of data. Federal workers and the public will be able to connect to the government anywhere.

As more information becomes available, technologies will develop to sift quickly through the data. Speech recognition will play a primary role. Highly sophisticated search engine software coupled with hardware such as car radios, desktop computers and servers in the back offices of federal agencies may be able to act as a virtual operator to find information. A scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency or parents looking for the latest treatment for a childhood disease from the National Institutes of Health could speak via a cellular phone or handheld computer directly to information systems to find the data they want. Tiny radios the size of this word or smaller likely will emerge, capable of transmitting information wirelessly at rates of 20 megabits/sec or greater ó almost 13 times faster than a T-1 Internet connection. Smart software will convert speech into computer-readable programs to retrieve information that answers a specific question rather than providing endless lists of data as todayís Internet search engines do.

"You just donít have to learn [how to search for information]," said Chin-hui Lee, head of the Dialog Systems Research Department at Bell Labs. "Itís given to you."

Agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service, could in the next couple of decades put in place robust automated speech technology to handle millions of tax inquiries a month, according to Joe Olive, head of the Language Modeling Department at Bell Labs.

Callers would listen to a menu of options much like what is offered today. But the caller could interrupt the digital recording to ask specific questions, and the computer would answer. The call becomes a conversation between the person and machine. For the IRS, Olive said, a taxpayer could call the agency to obtain information or file taxes using speech rather than a telephone keypad, asking specific questions about tax regulations or how to fill out forms.

The information will be delivered so fast that feds could make life-or-death decisions in seconds. One scenario: A submarine captain needs specific data when his radar detects torpedoes heading toward his vessel. He does not need to know the number of torpedoes in the Navyís arsenal or the type of fish that live in the surrounding waters, which a rudimentary search engine might find. He needs to know variables such as the topography of the ocean floor, the kind of torpedoes fired and the tendencies of the captain of the enemy vessel.

A network that can deliver information quickly would be similar to having a souped-up personal information assistant. "The form that the technology will be delivering will be a form that becomes very humanlike," said Warren Suss, a Jenkintown, Pa.-based telecom analyst who focuses on government applications.

Thatís exactly what the Air Force has in mind. In 15 years, the Air Force says it will be in the market to purchase a computer capable of handling computations on the scale of a human brain.

"I donít see people typing information into the computer much longer," said John Graneiro, chief scientist at the Air Force Research Laboratoryís Information Directorate. Knowledgebases will have most of the rudimentary tasks now performed by people coded into the system, he said.

Supersmart computers also will allow for applications that heretofore have been portrayed only in science-fiction dramas. In the next quarter-century, the Federal Aviation Administration envisions air traffic controllers calling up a virtual image of airports nationwide to check visibility and weather conditions. FutureFlight Central, which was unveiled last month as a training facility and co-developed by NASA, would provide the kind of information that would enable air traffic controllers to make better decisions about routing aircraft in hopes of decreasing delays and putting jets on cost-saving routes.

Controllers guiding flights from San Francisco to Los Angeles, Chicago, New York or any number of airports will be able to look at their displays, and "it will be just as if youíre staring out the tower at any one of those airports," said Drew Henry, vice president of visual systems at Silicon Graphics Inc., which designed the displays for the center.

Controllers also will have the capability to simulate the level of air traffic and weather conditions six hours into the future so that they can plan for alternate routes. SGI hopes to be one of the first companies to supply its technology for a holodeck, or virtual reality center that uses holographic images to create scenes or design and repair vehicles and aircraft.


For all the gee-whiz technology to become reality, however, it must be more than just cool: It must deliver value.

Agencies will find big paybacks in improved productivity, federal IT officials say. As processes become more automated, fewer workers are needed. At a time when the government is losing a battle to attract IT workers with lower pay than what the private sector offers, that may be welcome news.

In 10 years, the government will have outsourced most of its IT work because it wonít be able to attract and retain employees, said Roger Baker, chief information officer at the Commerce Department. "Itís not necessarily a bad thing," he said. "The end [result] is what brings a most effective government."

The federal IT workers who are left in government will be managers of programs, predicts G. Clay Hollister, CIO at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "What will be required is a few very skilled program managers...the right people in the agency to manage the contracts," he said. "But there will be less hands-on IT work done by federal employees."

For example, more intelligent computers will perform the work that procurement specialists do today. Smart agents will search for products online, analyze the offerings, return the best choices based on prices, terms and conditions, match that to the money available in the agencyís IT budget and present the information to the user for approval, said Howard Stern, vice president of government partnerships at, a company formed to bring payment card technology to the health care market.

"There will be capital investment upfront for technology, but the ongoing cost of procurement will drop precipitously to benefit taxpayers and government," Stern said.

Such technology will change the face of agenciesí IT shops. The information systems office as feds know it today will disappear in the next 10 to 20 years, replaced by a group of workers who act as consultants, said David Foote, managing partner of Foote Partners LLC. Both the culture and compensation structure will be different to manage the new worker.

A typical federal IT worker will be a "knowledge worker," not a techie, and will help line managers develop solutions to specific problems. IT will be integrated across the agency and be part of every mission. At the same time, agencies will start to act as a single government to bring services to the public in a more user-friendly way.

"The citizen doesnít care about the title of the agency, just about the service," said Emory Miller, director of IT professional development at the General Services Administration. "We have to figure out how to serve that citizen as a single government."

Government in Your Palm

Technology will be key to creating a government that operates like a virtual Wal-Mart, operating as a one-stop shop for services. The distance between individuals and the agencies that serve them will shrink, and the public will be able to contact a government employee as easily as dialing Mom.

Imagine these scenarios: A cop becomes abusive during a traffic stop, and the driver files a complaint by e-mail from a wireless palm-size terminal even before the ticket is written. Itís well past office hours, but the IRS is online trying to help an unhappy taxpayer find out why a refund was so much smaller than expected.

Technology will make this possible. NASA CIO Lee Holcomb envisions electronic government "service portals" where people can find information and assistance on a vast range of matters from appropriate agencies ó federal, state or local.

"We can have a more effective democracy using information technology," said Holcomb, who also is co-chairman of a federal committee that studies how government can use emerging IT. "Ultimately, the merging of federal, state and local government is something we would like to go to" in the electronic realm, he said.

In the well-wired world of 2025, people will be accustomed to instantaneous responses from businesses and acquaintances, and citizens will demand the same from government. They will expect easy and instant access to elected officials and prompt responses from agencies that affect their lives.

"I expect we will become more demanding as citizens," said Robert Anderson, a researcher at Rand Corp., the California-based policy research organization.

Eventually, voters could cast ballots by computer. Vinton Cerf, one of the pioneers of the Internet, said he believes the government will achieve voting on the Internet.

Such futuristic visions have their roots today. The Defense Department plans to test electronic voting this year among some military service members who would otherwise vote by paper absentee ballot. The voters are being issued diskettes containing passwords and security software and will be able to vote for the next president from their own computers.

Government workers may fear a deluge of angry citizens berating them about electronic Social Security checks that have yet to be deposited or environmental laws that are too strict. But direct interaction should be something government workers look forward to because it could reverse the apathy many Americans have about government.

Americans who know the least about their government are the most likely to be mistrustful and cynical toward it. And trust in government has been diminishing. According to a study on the effect of IT on democracy, in 1964, 62 percent of Americans said government could be trusted to do the right thing. By 1994, only 14 percent agreed. Voter turnout has dropped to 50 percent in national elections and as low as 10 percent in local elections.

"Democracy is an interactive form of government" that depends on daily contact between citizens and their elected representatives, wrote Tracy Westen, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles and communications law professor at UCLA, in the study.

"Just as democracy is exhibiting significant signs of arterio- sclerosis, new forms of interactive digital communication using computers, modems and the Internet are rapidly emerging." Westen contends they can "save democracy."

The Cost: Privacy?

Making government information easier to access and enabling individuals to access personal data could undermine privacy. In particular, coupling the delivery of health benefits with the release of personal information compromises privacy, said Janlori Goldman, director of the Health Privacy Project at Georgetown University. Individuals have little say in whether personal data is released if they want benefits, Goldman said. Within the next decade, privacy will cease to exist because commercial firms will be able to tap into the federal databases that hold troves of personal information, said David Banisar, a lawyer, privacy advocate and consultant to the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

DOD already collects DNA code on new recruits, and although the Pentagon has vowed not to release such data, Banisar views its release to insurance carriers as inevitable. The companies then could use the data to refuse health and life insurance to individuals who are genetically predisposed to certain diseases.

If the future of government includes more use of wireless communications, recently passed digital wiretap statutes could threaten the privacy of the transmissions, Banisar said. A new Federal Communications Commission regulation, which will go into effect in 2001, requires all cellular telephone carriers to install technologies that will enable law enforcement agencies to pinpoint the location of every wireless phone in the country, ostensibly to aid law enforcement officials to determine the locations of people calling 911 for assistance.

But federal IT officials said they are confident that privacy will be closely guarded in the digital future. Agencies probably will issue private encryption keys to the citizens they deal with online. The keys will let people encrypt information, such as a tax return, and send it in a form so thoroughly scrambled it would take a supercomputer years to decode.

But if the past is any predictor of the future, mounds of personal information in federal databases will be at risk in the future. Security has been a low priority on the Hill, which has not provided funding, and in agencies, which have offered little training. As with any bureaucracy, it will be hard to change. Ultimately, the government likely will put privacy protections in place, said Evan Hendricks, who publishes a newsletter about electronic privacy. But "it will take a Chernobyl-type privacy disaster" to prod the government to protect individual privacy, he said.

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