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The Challenge and Opportunities for Science in an App-Driven World

Jennifer Costley

Jennifer Costley

Chenelle Bonavito Martinez

Chenelle Bonavito Martinez

By Jennifer L. Costley and Chenelle Bonavito Martinez, NYAS Staff

According to the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of all Americans own smartphones. For the 18 through 29 set this number increases to 93 percent and continues to rise.  According to analysts who track such things, the number of apps downloaded daily across iOS and Google Play has reached 300 million, and the average number of apps downloaded to every iPhone/iPod touch and iPad is more than 60.

So it is safe to say that we are increasingly living in an app-driven world and that digital technology is now an integral part of how most of us manage our time and lives. Science is no exception — digital technologies are providing intriguing opportunities to accelerate the use of science to improve our daily lives.

This exciting trend, underlined by recent 5G announcements from Verizon and AT&T, is why we made digital technologies the theme of this edition of the Magazine. The impact of 5G (fifth-generation wireless connectivity) has yet to be felt, but with transmission speeds much faster than current capabilities and a capacity for many more devices to connect simultaneously, it is clear that 5G is poised to transform our world.

Here at the Academy, the transformation has already begun. Virtual, cloud-based innovation challenges — sponsored by some of the world’s most dynamic companies — are enabling us to tap into a network of “solvers” from around the globe. Thus far, Academy challenges have generated potentially groundbreaking ideas on topics ranging from future aircraft design, to wildfire management, alternative energy sources and sustainable urban development, just to name a few.

One recent example, sponsored by aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, was “Disruptive Ideas for Aerospace and Security”. In this challenge, researchers were invited to submit ideas for novel innovations utilizing autonomy, human augmentation or block-chain technologies. While the winning solution has not yet been announced, the entries include an extraordinary range of truly game-changing ideas, some with the potential to upend the aerospace industry.

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And researchers are not the only ones getting involved. In the “Future of Buildings and Cities Challenge,” young people from around the world were invited to develop sustainable building concepts for future urban landscapes. The winners, six gifted teens from five countries, collaborated virtually to develop an ingenious “green” building design that incorporated a water recycling system, solar roof panels and “green walls” (a collection of vines, leaf twiners and climbers on a grid-like support to help purify the air and provide additional insulation). The concept also featured an ingenious “home assistant,” leveraging a series of indoor sensors to detect occupancy, light intensity, temperature, humidity and air quality, an idea that 5G connectivity could soon enable.

But 5G is not the only game-changing technology at play. The field of artificial intelligence (AI) has also made astounding progress over the past decade. Machine learning and natural language are particularly dynamic subfields of AI, with the potential to revolutionize critical elements of the economy, including the media, finance and healthcare sectors. That’s why the Academy will be building upon the success of our annual Machine Learning Symposium to launch a new symposium series on natural language, dialog and speech in November of this year. We’re also thrilled that Yann LeCun, Chief AI Scientist at Facebook, and Manuela Veloso, Head of AI Research at J.P. Morgan, have agreed to serve as honorary chairs for the launch of a new initiative on applications of AI to critical sectors of the New York City economy. Stay tuned for updates on this exciting new program later in the year.

As this issue illustrates, we stand at the forefront of a massive shift in how society compiles, shares and learns from massive data sets. But there are serious obstacles to overcome before we can unlock the potential of digital technology, AI and big data to drive positive change. As advocates of evidence-based policy and decision-making, we in the scientific community must be at the forefront of efforts to ensure these new technologies are used to the benefit of humankind, and the planet upon which we live.

† Learn more about our challenges at: