Global Concerns Global Concerns - XV

This column in the AACC Newsletter started in Spring 1989 as a report from the future IFAC President on the state of global issues relevant to control engineers in the US. The present edition is the last (at least for many years) to be written by a future or present IFAC President since my Presidential term ends July 6, 1996 in San Francisco, and since the next IFAC President is not a member of an AACC society. Although I have had incredible support by AACC and its leadership over the past decade, I have always been concerned by the tendency in the US to downplay the importance of international activities in our field. I want to reflect on this tendency as we make final preparations for the IFAC Congress in July. I will say little about the history of the IFAC Congress itself since I have written this history for a special issue of the IEEE Control Systems Magazine to appear in June 1996. That issue will be distributed to all attendees in San Francisco and, of course, will be received by all members of the IEEE Control Systems Society.

The 1996 Congress itself contains some indications of the domestic tendencies of US control engineers. Approximately 30% of all 2500 submitted papers for the 1996 IFAC Congress came from the United States, and about 30% of the accepted papers are US papers. In our industries, we continue to see substantial discrimination against approvals for overseas trips when compared with proposed domestic trips. The mindset persists which says that foreign travel is, by definition, not as important as domestic travel. Yet, as we know, major technological advances are being made outside the US and access to such technologies is essential for success in many US based industries. Indeed, in a growing number of fields, the leading-edge work is done outside the US. Yet the myth persists that a trip abroad is primarily for fun. In actual fact, travel is not much fun anymore in general, and long trips are even worse.

I recall early in my IFAC involvement, the late 1960's and 1970's, colleagues would question me about why I devoted time to IFAC matters. The argument was that the domestic-based activities were quite enough professional involvement - and the source of the really important knowledge. Our technology knows no national bounds but this secret apparently still eludes some. The advent of email and the ubiquitous World Wide Web has helped break down these boundaries. Surprising as it may be to our academic colleagues, not a few US companies still impose serious Web access limitations for their technical employees. In my own office, it is normal for me to get through my email most days, but seldom do I make an appreciable dent in my snail mail pile. I figure that if it is really important, my correspondent will use email. Snail mail is largely junk.

We are now witnessing bizarre government regulatory discussions in certain parts of the world which are a throwback to the discredited practices of information control which characterized the Cold War. The notion that foreign information is either irrelevant or dangerous or in anyway inferior to domestic information is, on its face, absurd. Technical know-how knows no political boundaries and scientists, engineers and technologists are doing themselves and their supporters a disservice by tolerating such discrimination. In the control field, it is IFAC that represents this international community of professionals. New technology makes the IFAC family more inclusive. In the 1960's for example, one had to be part of the academic or industrial elite to be able to fully participate in the world community of control by having resources available to travel to IFAC meetings or visit colleagues overseas. Today, the most junior members of the profession, through electronic means, can instantly interact with their most senior colleagues in the most remote locations on the World Wide Web. This provides opportunities for creative collaboration among all "connected" members of the IFAC family in ways not possible in the past.

So, let us not tolerate artificial boundaries between colleagues based on political or geographical distance. We should take advantage of the new technology to maximize our productivity and contributions to society. My links to this community are s.kahne@ieee.org and http://www.pr.erau.edu/~eecs/kahne.html.

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