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From Apollo to AI: A new era of exploration

Profile of person in space

The year was 1890, and much was remarkable about the United States census that year. It showed that American demographics in the West were changing dramatically.

It was the first census tabulated using a machine. And it was the first census in American history — the first since 1790 when the first census was completed to declare the frontier of the United States ... gone.

And to that end, the Census Bureau would no longer track the westward migration of the U.S. population.

The Oregon Treaty of 1846 largely finalized the northern border, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Gadsden Purchase in 1848 and 1854 set the western and southwestern borders.

More than 10 states joined the Union in the 1870s and 1880s, and railroads began to crisscross and connect the continental U.S., opening up access to the West and making travel and shipping much easier.

In short, for the first time in U.S. history, there was nowhere left to go, nowhere left to explore, no more wild land to tame. And the 1890 census confirmed as much in its findings.

“Just as explorers hundreds of years ago wrestled with the impacts of exploration on all people, so too must we have our eyes open as we explore this new frontier.”

The end of American spirit?

This observation bothered a young historian from Wisconsin named Frederick Jackson Turner. Three years after that fateful 1890 census, Turner walked to the stage to read his now famous paper at the meeting of the American Historical Association.

Based on his study of American history and the frontier, he penned two ideas. First, what we now call the Frontier Thesis, is the idea that American character, spirit and success comes from its frontier experience – from pioneering, exploration, discovery and innovation.

And second, he offered his safety valve thesis. At its core, he argued, the nation was always looking for a new place to go – and what drives Americans is always the next frontier, the next thing to explore, discover or innovate.

Turner was gravely concerned about the future of the United States. In 1890, with borders set and the frontier all but gone, what would happen to the American spirit of discovery, exploration and innovation?

"We have generated roughly 90 percent of the data in the world in just the last two years."

From "go west" to "go up"

Little did Turner know that just 13 years later in 1903, two brothers who owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, would give Americans a new frontier to explore.

What started at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina helped feed an insatiable American drive for pioneering, exploration, discovery and innovation from aviation – and then space travel – alongside a host of other scientific and engineering breakthroughs.

From the first fixed-wing aircraft to rocketry and jet engines, U.S. innovation put an American on the moon with less computing power than a modern washing machine. Materials science, chemistry, engineering, computer science and a host of other disciplines were all areas in which the U.S. led in the 20th century as the nation pushed the boundaries of Turner’s Frontier thesis into the sky and beyond.

But what about today? As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, what’s the next frontier for innovation?

Instead of new land to explore or new heights to achieve, I believe that the next frontier for innovation is already all around us. It’s available from our desks and waits for us to unlock its potential.

The next frontier is digital.

Doing good with data

This frontier is unique in that it gets bigger the more we explore it. We have generated roughly 90 percent of the data in the world in just the last two years. By 2025, analyst firms estimate that we will generate 163 zettabytes every single year (a zettabyte is one trillion gigabytes) – that’s 10 times the current annual rate. Not only is the data getting bigger, it’s getting created and moving faster. And we’ll create and consume more than a quarter of those 163 zettabytes in real time.

But in this new frontier, what tools, skills and approaches do we need? Instead of just trackers and navigators; wagon trains and horses; aerospace engineers and test pilots; slides rules and spacecraft – this new frontier demands different tools and new skills. 

Analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, forecasting, optimization and visualization – these are the new tools for discovery and exploration of today’s frontier. And just as NASA and other government agencies stood at the center of much of the innovation of the 20th century, as stewards of American democracy, government today has a unique opportunity as potential pioneers, explorers and innovators in this new digital frontier.

The U.S. government is the single largest producer of data in the world, and it has not only an opportunity – but a responsibility – to put that data to work for the advancement of humanity.

"Analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, forecasting, optimization and visualization – these are the new tools for discovery and exploration of today." 

Carving out a path in the new frontier

It’s an incredibly exciting time to talk about data, analytics and government – we really are at an inflection point. From fraud detection to child safety. Resource optimization to student achievement in education. Cybersecurity to maximizing health outcomes.

The opportunities are nearly limitless for us to make a difference and boldly carve out our part in this new frontier. Plenty of challenges remain. Just as explorers and governments hundreds of years ago wrestled with the impacts of exploration on all people, so too must we have our eyes open as we explore this new frontier. In issues ranging from privacy to algorithmic bias in artificial intelligence, the ethics of exploring this new frontier must be something we get right on the front end, not looking back through the rear-view mirror of history, wishing we had done things differently.

So as we all stop this summer between beach trips and theme parks to reflect about the amazing achievements of the Apollo program, let’s make sure we look not only to the stars but also to the information we have already at our disposal. What discoveries will analytics unlock for broader society in the next 50 years?

This article first appeared on the SAS Insights blog and was republished with permission.

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