Tech Day looks toward the horizon


The ever-increasing pace of technological innovation in entertainment, biology, materials and the exchange of information will result in profound changes in how we work and live, speakers said at Saturday's Technology Day program entitled "Miracle or Mirage: Technology at the Horizon." But they also emphasized that these innovations must be used to meet basic needs such as a cleaner environment, better health, improved communication and productivity, and even good story-telling.

Keynote speaker Bran Ferren '74, executive vice president for creative technology and research and development for Walt Disney Imagineering, discussed the intersection of technology and the arts in his talk, "There's No Bits Like Show Bits." Other speakers were Institute Professor and Nobel laureate David Baltimore; John Preston, co-director of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center and former director of technology development at MIT, and Michael Dertouzos, director of the Laboratory for Computer Science (home of the World Wide Web Consortium) and professor of computer science and electrical engineering.

Technological innovations in the movie and television industries are often "solutions in search of problems," Mr. Ferren said. The story being told, not the the means used to transmit it to the viewer, is most important -- the "emotional resolution" rather than the lines of resolution. He cited as an example the broadcast of the fuzzy images and sounds from the first moon landing in 1969. "The entire planet was transfixed watching this. While the technical resolution of that data link was quite low, the emotional resolution of what was going on was extraordinarily high," he said.

By the same token, although it is becoming technically feasible, "interactive movies are a dumb idea," Mr. Ferren said. When seeing a movie, "you want someone else to tell you the story because, presumably, they're good at it. For the same reason that you don't want an interactive medical experience, I would argue that the same thing goes for story-telling."

However, the World Wide Web and virtual-reality technology will not be short-lived innovations like citizen's-band radio or eight-track tapes, he said. One thing all major communications innovations -- language, printing, the telephone and broadcasting -- have had in common is that they "increased the bandwidth of human communication -- they allowed people to tell stories to other people." By this standard, broadband network and virtual reality "will ultimately make all of those other inventions pale in importance."

While electronic devices will continue to improve, they will never replace books, which are "joyful objects -- they're random-access, compact, non-volatile. It's a very mature technology," Mr. Ferren quipped. However, electronic display technology may make newspapers obsolete within 20 years because "the idea of killing 75,000 trees to do the Sunday paper will be considered an unacceptable impact, even with recycling, on our environment."

Perhaps the most important use for combining story-telling and technology into "new, powerful and compelling forms," Mr. Ferren said, is reaching children to improve what he called the "embarrassing" state of education. "If you can touch their hearts, you can open their minds, and if you can open their minds, you can change the world."

GENES AND THE FUTURE

Professor Baltimore discussed the implications of advances in molecular biology in his talk on "The Next Gene." As genetic research progresses, scientists are discovering the genes responsible for a variety of ailments and identifying whole families of genes, explained Dr. Baltimore, who is the Ivan R. Cottrell Professor of Molecular Biology and Immunology and was the founding director of the Whitehead Institute.

Among recent accomplishments are decoding the entire genome for yeast and discovery of a gene responsible for a premature-aging syndrome in people, as well as progress in identifying genes involved in Parkinson's and Alz-heimer's diseases, Professor Baltimore said. Future research will probe the genetic bases for specific intellectual abilities and other uniquely human qualities. "These traits are likely to be multigenic in origin and therefore very hard to disentangle, but they will be found," he said.

Genetic biological science has existed for less than 50 years, yet the style of this science has changed dramatically, Professor Baltimore said. Automation in the laboratory is making it possible to process hundreds of thousands of chemical reactions in a short period of time. The sociology of science has changed as well. "For the last quarter of a century, we have had few thinkers in biology -- experimentalists have ruled the roost," he said.

The implications for genetic screening and insurance -- who will set the standards for such testing and who will have access to the resulting information -- must not be ignored, Professor Baltimore continued. "I believe we cannot let decisions about the directions of science be ruled by fear, or we will find ourselves without the science we badly need," he said. "Conversely, we need to seriously evaluate the possible uses of science that promise more harm than benefit, and we must be sure we try our best to apply scientific knowledge selectively in ways that are positive for society."

PROGRESS WITH MATERIALS

New materials and technologies are helping to combat the growing problem of pollution in the air, ground and water, Mr. Preston said. Air pollution from burning fossil fuels is especially problematic; 70 percent of Mexico City residents have respiratory ailments, and the increasing prevalence of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide is boosting atmospheric humidity and consequently the severity of storms and flooding, he said.

While some forms of pollution are decreasing, especially in the United States and western Europe, the problem is growing in developing countries. "Clearly, technology is our best hope," Mr. Preston said. "You're not going to get people to change their behavior just by regulating production of waste. When you're poor, the environment is not that important." Therefore, solutions that are "economically superior" must be implemented, he said.

One of the techniques already in use is waste minimization -- for example, US chemical companies have doubled output, reduced emissions and halved energy use since 1970, Mr. Preston said. Other methods include destruction of waste through incineration, extraction of heavy metals from water and wet oxidation, and recycling -- using "opportunities to mine our waste stream to create new products," he said. For instance, machines that take up worn asphalt, process the material and reapply it to road surfaces require a fraction of the oil traditionally used in repaving. Old tires can become marine pilings, and catalytic extraction processing uses molten metal to break molecular bonds and reduce waste compounds to their chemical elements; they are then recombined into useful materials, he explained.

A promising field in materials technology involves development of nanostructured materials, or those with dimensions between 25 and 1,000 angstroms, Mr. Preston continued. The structure of such materials can result in unexpected and potentially useful properties; for example, diamonds crushed to pieces measuring less than 500 angstroms become superplastic or "squishy" and can't be reduced in size any further. In the future, nano-structured electroluminescent materials that emulate the conversion efficiency of fireflies could save large amounts of electricity, he said. Water gels (water and an added nanostructured material that changes the liquid to a gel) could result in the need for two-thirds less water in agriculture.

THE INFORMATION AGE

"A very exciting and very big era is ahead," Professor Dertouzos said in his discussion of "The Information Age." Although the means by which information will be distributed is still somewhat unclear, "this information age is going to affect every sector of human activity. every sector of professional and personal life."

Information will become a commodity just like physical goods; people will buy, sell and freely exchange information "exactly like the village markets we've known for centuries," he said. The current confusion centers around the "pipes," or the physical infrastructure through which this information will be transmitted. Phone lines, television cable and fiber-optic lines are all being used to some degree; while fiber-optic lines will not predominate in the future, "the battle between telephony and video has no clear winner," Professor Dertouzos said.

What is more clear, he added, is that speech -- "a real big winner that people are not paying much attention to" -- will become the primary means of interaction between people and computers. Speech-recognition technology is currently capable of recognizing continuous speech (without marked pauses between words), different voices and vocabularies of several thousand words. Another area that will see significant progress is software, particularly that used for locating information. Noting that a Web search engine for the word "baseball" turns up addresses for half a million pages, Professor Dertouzos said, "the Web is at the medieval stage of information infrastructure."

Although he agreed with Mr. Ferren's assessment of education, Professor Dertouzos had reservations about technology's role in improving it. "The jury is still out on whether technologies and computers can materially help the education process," he said. "And when people encounter the word `education,' they talk forever about it, but when they're asked to reach into their pockets, they elect instead to lower their taxes."

Professor Dertouzos also addressed some common concerns attending the expanding Information Age. The fear of privacy invasion and a "Big Brother" scenario is mostly groundless, he said; "I'm not too worried about. under it all is human nature." Productivity will rise although the impact on employment is unknown, because that depends on the "race between productivity and demand," he said. Finally, Professor Dertouzos downplayed the fear of international homogenization in which "we all become the same" by noting that many people around the world use English for some things while still retaining their own language. "We'll have a thin veneer of universal culture to help us better understand each other, but we'll retain our indigenous personalities and national identities," he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 12, 1996.


Topics: Technology and society, Special events and guest speakers

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