The Commoditization of Science

The Commoditization of Science

From the Future of Work, April 6, 2006

In the future people will work on difficult scientific problems, but won’t know they are doing so. They will create new alloys, create artificial organs and customized pharmaceuticals. And they will do so, in most cases, without a Ph.D. Why, because software will create an abstraction layer between the problem space and the individual. Software will become the fulcrum to the human mind’s lever.

I spend hours each week pouring over scientific journals and other literature that is filled with visualization of complex data. These are not derived from key performance indicators or other business data, but from DNA, satellite measurements and sensors. It occurs to me that being able to understand data in a graphical way and to manipulate models, has an analog with video gaming that we have not yet capitalized on. (See the Pittsburge Supercomputing Center for some interesting visualization examples.)

Think about the classroom of the future where learning models are predominant. You must read to understand the scenarios. You must perform mathematical operations, but increasingly those will likely be parameterized because the commoditization of science will mean embedding human intelligence into systems so that people without a deep knowledge of the underpinnings of a concept, can still successfully master delivery of outcomes from the concept.

Let’s take the customized pharma example. A patient’s DNA is analyzed by the pharmacist and the drug compound delivered to the patient is customized to avoid side-effects that are driven by the uniqueness of individual biochemistry. We understand what proteins a persons DNA codes for, and how, and how other factors play into the side-effects equation, and ultimately the customized drug compound delivers the benefits in a customized way. We see organizations like Amazon.com strive daily for one-on-one marketing, and the aerospace industry moving toward theater-by-theater designs for weapons—so why not customized pharmaceuticals. The common theme for all of these examples will be the individual information worker delivering customized value through the abstraction of process by software. The DNA will go into a model with the drug compound and the knowledge of a number of Ph.D.’s, derived from experiments conducted over months and years, is instantly accessible to the knowledge worker who knows how to work the model in a safe way, but doesn’t necessarily understand the complexities of the model itself. How many of you, when given a Microsoft Excel template actually understands the formulas that underlie the model?

This is an apt conversation at tax time, as more and more people put their numbers into tax software, which abstracts arguably one of the most complex legal codes on the planet, so that your get your refund, or are informed, unfortunately, of the need to pay additional income tax. The tax software allows mortals to prepare their own taxes, and even deal with the complexities of on-line filing, without knowledge of IRA rules, dependent qualifications or depreciation tables. If filing taxes can become a commodity, why not other business processes augmented by science?

Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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