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Conference 
 

75th Annual Summer Conference, August 10–13, 2006

Technology and Innovation: Until Death Do Us Part

Summary by Jason Bisanz

John Weigelt

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Technological progress has resulted in a series of dramatic changes. For example, desktop PCs are becoming supercomputers with multiple processors, massive data storage capacity and other capabilities that were once only available to academic research institutes. Additionally, processors are in cellular phones and mobile devices.

Most indicative of change is increased interconnectivity. Interconnectivity takes place people to people, device to device, and device to people. The consequences of interconnectivity are far-reaching. For example, patients are able to go home from the hospital soon after open-heart surgery because remote in-home devices permit them to be monitored by and communicate with medical professionals.

Another important indicator of change is simplified connectivity. Whereas problems such as compatibility once presented a serious impediment to interconnectivity, it is now possible to connect no matter what kind of device the person on the end of the line is using.

Now that we are connected and we have access to tremendous quantities of information, the challenge is to better understand what is being said. Accordingly, research will focus more on facilitating the interpretation of the information.

For example, we are moving toward the development of experiential and immersive environments. Remote researchers would be able to experience the environment in which their instruments are collecting data, or firefighters would be able to experience the fire that their colleagues are fighting.

The increasing pervasive presence of wireless networks and the development of Ubiquitous Cities or U-cities are also indicative of the massive changes taking place. What is life like in a U-city? You wake up, and immediately the lights go on, the coffee pot begins to brew, and the newspaper device displays contextualized news according to your interests. On your way to work, you check on your house and water the garden with your cell phone, and get credit for throwing a bottle into the recycle bin.

At work, you decide it’s a nice day and go outside while you exchange ideas with coworkers around the world. You remember you have a doctor’s appointment, order a taxi, which arrives immediately because it knows exactly where you are. You pay for the taxi, the doctor and the subway home with your smart card.

The U-city is not as far down the road as you might think. In Taiwan, the first fully wireless city is already being built.

These developments, which lead to individuals generating more personal data than ever before, will open a Pandora’s box for potential unprecedented surveillance. Thus policy and discussion should focus on how the technology should be used positively, how privacy can be protected, and how individuals can balance and even opt out of being connected.

People are losing trust in the electronic environment because of the negative unplanned consequences of the technology. Yet it is important to remember that there have been positive unplanned consequences as well - close captioning was for the deaf until someone decided that it could be used in sports bars and noisy environments. Now the deaf form a part of the broader community. Another example is the use of network equipment by first responders to the Tsunami. It allowed for better communication and the ability of survivors to get in touch with loved ones immediately.

In general, we need to factor in the consequences for human beings in communication and response. We don’t want to sacrifice our humanity as we develop our technology.

Tom Vassos: “Destination Innovation”

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Innovation can help bridge the gap between rich and poor, save the environment and solve numerous and diverse problems around the world.

How can technology bridge the gap between rich and poor? Examples abound.

The free software movement, best characterized by the open source movement, is providing software to individuals and entire countries that otherwise could not afford similar technology. Skype provides the ability to make free telephone calls around the world. Skypecasts make possible free global teleconference calls.

Grid companying is beginning to share processing power on the Internet. Imagine giving the 98% of your computing power that you don’t use for AIDS or cancer research. Sites such as Worldcommunity.org are successful examples of this advance.

The $100, hand-powered computer is being introduced in Africa, giving the ability to connect to communities that don’t have power. In general, the cost of computers and components is dropping over time; last year the world produced more transistors than grains of rice, and at a lower cost.

Technology is being used in news ways. For example, low-cost Internet-connected kiosks have been built in New Delhi slums. The kids using them did better on government literacy exams, and access has awakened their aspirations.

IBM focuses on a global innovation outlook. We asked people what there ideas were on the future of the enterprise, transport and environment. One interesting idea that came out of South America was that the future might contain one billion one-person organizations. These individuals would work on contracts and then move on. Surprisingly, this type of organization might be more adaptable in the face of disruption and therefore provide more job security than exists today.

If bands of strangers can get together on the Internet to play games, write code, share information, then they can certainly do business. For example, a mining company posted a web contest about the best way to increase the productivity of a goldmine. The company posted geological data, offered a cash prize, and got 52 highly detailed responses that provided the needed information at a fraction of the cost of hiring a team of geologists.

The technology permits new forms of social networking: sites such as Myspace.com are building new communities on line. You can even bet on the success of friends’ family members’ or strangers’ marriages on Weddingbetting.com.

However, there is a dark side. For example, cyberjijadis are using the Internet for training and propaganda.

Nevertheless, the benefits of empowerment by access to information cannot be ignored. Wikipedia is now the largest free encyclopedia in the world. It was written by the voluntary contributions of more than 36,000 individuals in more than 200 languages. Nevertheless it requires the services of only two employees.

In medical science, connected implants have a great potential to improve health. An implant could send a message to a doctor or a family member in the event of an emergency. In Holland, smart bandages already collect data and allow it to be sent by the Internet to their doctor, allowing for prevention of medical emergencies. Implants could also deliver drugs and diagnose diseases.

Wearable or implantable automatic defibrillators already exist, along with implantable devices that can detect a heart attack before it occurs.

A final example is the explosion in the number and players of multiplayer role-playing games. These online games are worlds unto themselves in which millions of people interact in a multitudinous diversity of modes and settings. Entire economies are built around these games. It is estimated that 100,000 people in China are making their living by selling game characters and items to Westerners.

Edward Tenner

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The spirit of the 1960s “Power to the People” movement was embrace by the electronic visionaries of the 1970s. Indeed, people have been empowered: we can browse great museums and libraries, read about almost any subject, send messages, talk, and interact at almost no cost.

Nevertheless, amid this empowerment serious dilemmas have arisen and must be considered. For example, societies may become wealthier, but many consumer goods remain inherently in short supply. The price of prime real estate, rare books, paintings and other inherently finite resources has multiplied.

As well, the growth of an educated workforce combined with the frenzy of mergers has caused more people to be shut out of top management. Real wages have stagnated since the tech boom began in the 1970s.

Year after year it seems there is a tech guru who says we will be freed from the gatekeepers of information. These proclamations are invariably propagated in the form of books and magazines; mediums controlled by those who are condemned to extinction but never seem to fade away as predicted.

It must be considered that printed books have an advantage because of the decision to invest resources by the publisher. The cost and the difficulties of the medium actually constitute one of its greatest advantages. Similarly, physical greeting cards will never be replace by electronic ones precisely because the physical card represents the cost and effort undertaken by the giver.

Indeed, since the beginning of the web, the annual number of titles published has grown. One factor is that the number of self-declared authors grew in the 1980s because of the invention of computer word processing.

However, readership has been declining slightly. Markets of readers are declining as aspirations are increasing. For this reason bloggers can’t live on their work, and for musicians, Internet popularity is no substitute for a contract with a record company.

Thus we see that the web will never destroy older media, but it will continue to nibble at the base. The Internet may be starting a kind of democracy in communication that forces older media to transform.

What we need to do now is to strengthen middle institutions and dampen the anti-technology rhetoric that predicts the destruction of institutions.

Questions

Q1: What are your impressions of Google Books? Is it threatening print media?

ET: Most publishers are cooperating with Google to put snippets of their books on the Internet. There is a webcast of a conference on the University of Michigan website on these issues. My argument at that conference was that unless people are taught more skillful searching, the Google library may have a negative effect of literacy.

TV: Google Books would help authors get their stuff sold. Lulubooks publishes books one by one; all the author has to do is submit it.

JW: It should be made to be profitable for the authors.

TV: Actually, some online publishers offer 60% royalties instead of the traditional 5%.

Q2. You say technology has the potential to bring people out into the community, but hasn’t technology isolated people? Is there money and will to get people outside in the community? Is it good that people spend so much time playing video games?

JW: Our goal is to connect people and have them collaborate as effectively as possible and to enable people to be creative together.

TV: Well, look at speed dating that brings thousands of strangers together. It can be done.

JW: You don’t want to overdo any activity. Some gaming technologies find their way into healthcare, firefighting, etc. The game world is taken into the real world.

TW: The disabled, homebound can play.

Q3. Should there be a screening process for new technology, so that it doesn’t fall into the hands of evil or anti-technologists?

TV: It’s a world of choice; absolutely not.

ET: Islamic militants are not anti-technology; even the Islamic State of Iran uses tech to promote its goals. No screening can prevent evil people from using technology.

Q4. Gatekeepers such as publishers add value. The editorial process weeds out the factually incorrect, enhances readability and adds value. Comments?

ET: Part of the investment is quality assurance. Some people who have self-published have hired professional editors. Nothing prevents them from sending their manuscripts to academics for comments. But you don’t have quality assurance.

JW: The publishing world is based on reputation. You are starting to see the rise of reputation on the Internet. Watching reputational services evolve will be interesting.

Q5. If we store all information electronically, then we might lose it all in a crash. Do you use paper backup?

TV: We use multiple backups rather than paper. There are sites that have taken a picture of the Internet 5 years ago and have that information available.

ET: But what about the readability of the electronic documents? Something saved today may not be readable in 5 years. In any case, paper is vulnerable to physical damage, human error.

Q7. How do we address the Digital Divide?

JW: We look at the power of the cell phone: several people in a village share a cell phone and we are able to leverage the computing power of that cell phone to give access. We need to understand what the needs and priorities of the communities are.

TV: A big problem in developing countries is telecom and Internet monopolies ruining the competitively of businesses.

JW: Micropayments have allowed more people to have computers in the home.

Q8. It creates 500 tones of CO2 to create one PC. Should we go back to server technology?

TV: A digital camera is being designed that has replaceable components so that you do not have to buy a new product every year. It represents an annuity for the company for 20 years. We need to look at end-to-end product processes among companies; for example, one company’s waste is valuable to a different company.

JW: We have focused on the reduction of PC power use.

ET: The server system itself would cost a lot. The solution for a tech problem can have unforeseen consequences. For example, CFCs were used in refrigerators because the gas used before exploded.

Q9. There are dangers of increasing global connectivity. For example, terrorists use the Internet. How does increasing connectivity affect people that don’t want to be integrated, the people who want to deal with a person when they go to the bank?

ET: The governments of US, UK and Israel have long had the capacity to shut terrorist websites down. This is because on balance, these sites are a tool for the detection of terrorist activity. Police can use the Web to find pedophiles as well. Bin Laden uses personal couriers for the important stuff. The Amish have very strict rules about the types of technology on their farms, but they have nothing against GM crops, which they see as God’s way of letting them maintain their farms.

TV: We all have the choice of not being connected.

JW: We should make sure that there is the ability to opt out.

Q10. It was thought that there would be more leisure time because of technology but in fact we work more with email, the blackberry, etc.

JW: It starts with us to empower ourselves and change the culture of these devices.

TV: Also, corporate policy has to be changed so that no one expects a response from you during personal time.

Q11. Is there any hope that companies will focus on ease of use?

JW: We have a great focus on usability. We continually improve things because of the thousands of hours we spend in usability labs with academics understanding how people use our products.

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