Guest column: Can't we have a brighter IT future, please?

The IT future doesn't look bright; it appears downright nasty. Take virtually any movie about technology in the future and you can predict the scene: it's dark and raining, the quality of life sucks and someone is always watching you.

To add insult to injury, US TV network NBC has aired "Y2K: The Movie," a film where all your worst nightmares about the effects of the year 2000 date change came true in spades, complete with planes falling from the sky, machines going berserk and mass looting.

Last week's Asia-Pacific IT Summit taking place here wasn't much more reassuring. Keynote speaker Bill Joy, co-founder and chief scientist at Sun Microsystems, wasn't exactly sunny in his predictions, nor were other conference attendees very optimistic about the road ahead.

Technology could end up swamping local Asian traditions with pop US culture, summit attendees said, and the digital divide between rich and poor may well widen in future instead of close, especially in Asia.

"Our focus is not necessarily on technology, but on poverty and the need to alleviate it," said Roberto Romulo, chairman of Philippines-based credit card company Equitable Card. He placed his country among the have-nots, on the other side of the digital divide from Asian high-tech centers such as Singapore and Taiwan.

Joy enumerated some upcoming technologies expected to spread worldwide -- MEMs (micro electronics machines), molecular electronics, genomics, nanotechnology and robotics -- and then proceeded to tell us that these representatives of the next technical era could end up eliminating the human race.

"They pose more danger than the current weapons of mass destruction," Joy said. "We can discuss what to do (about them), but we can't stop it. It's not the nature of capitalism."

Take genomics, for instance, which allows us to modify the gene structure of living organisms. The technology poses major ethical challenges, according to Joy. "We could split the human species into several species," he said. "Rich people could re-engineer themselves to the detriment of the poor."

Nanotechnology, the ability to assemble anything at the atomic level, could be used for harm as well as good, Joy said. "There's the danger that it's easier to build bad stuff than good," he warned. Any time someone has the capability to replicate technology, that opens up the possibility for them to replicate it maliciously, Joy said. We could probably deal with a single nuclear bomb, but how would we cope when faced with a whole array of replicated bombs?

On a less apocalyptic scale, technology, for all its questionable advantages of making us always reachable, is steadily eroding the boundary between work and free time, Joy said. He drew a comparison with the advent of the automobile, which effectively did away with the need for people to know their next-door neighbors, since the freedom of driving opened up access to other communities.

His colleague John Gage, Sun's chief researcher, pointed to Japanese mobile phone company NTT DoCoMo's latest phone, which has an antennae with a range of 100 meters. Although the technology will enable advertisements for nearby restaurants and shops to pop up on the phone as you walk past them, the down side is that someone, somewhere can pinpoint your location with a pretty high degree of accuracy all the time, Gage said.

However, Joy did see one ray of optimism related to the impending millennial date change.

"One of the good things about Y2K is that you may end up meeting your neighbours in block parties to decide what to do if something bad happens," he said.

Nice to know that technology isn't all bad and that it can bring us together on occasion!

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