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Innovation and progress hasn't died

  • Article by: JON AUSTIN
  • November 19, 2012 - 6:54 PM

Counterpoint

I'm not quite D.J. Tice's age, but we're generational peers who apparently see the world differently. Where Tice sees a "plateau" in terms of progress ("Has progress plateaued?" Nov. 18), I'm walking around with a silly grin thinking about how much has changed in my lifetime, and about what's yet to come.

Let's start with computers. When Tice and I were in high school, in the 1960s and '70s, computers were in business, science and the public's imagination, but not directly in people's lives. Computers were massive things locked away in isolation chambers, attended to by technicians in white coats and dedicated to the massive problems of business, government and science. They were expensive, fragile, balky and incredibly underpowered by today's standards.

In 1969, for example, Apollo 11 went to the moon and back with a state-of-the-art computer packing 2,048 bytes of memory. Sounds impressive until you realize that it's about 1/4,000,000 as powerful as the computer sitting on my desk.

Last year, well more than a billion computing devices were sold worldwide -- computers, tablets, smart phones. That doesn't count the computing power that's built into our cars, coffeemakers, toasters and washing machines. It doesn't include the computers that let the deaf hear through cochlear implants, that help control modern prosthetic limbs or that let the remarkable mind of Stephen Hawking continue to communicate with the world. It doesn't count the processors embedded in every aircraft sold, in every farm machine, in every crane, bulldozer or grader.

The introduction of this much computing power has revolutionized human experience. In business, medicine, science, commerce and the military, computing power has raised the efficiency of planning, manufacturing and operations. It has found patterns hitherto undetectable in tracking the spread of disease, in locating connections between terrorists, the flow of currencies and commodities across global markets, and the shopping patterns of soccer moms and empty nesters. It is used to predict global weather, the likely course of a tsunami and how many cases of bottled water should be shipped to warehouse stores in disaster areas. In truth, it's hard to think of what hasn't been affected by the computers.

A parallel rise has occurred in telecommunications. In 1970, about the only "data pipe" running into a home, a business, a research center or an academic institution was a "plain old telephone system" consisting of a single copper wire. The only other ways information came into these establishments were through low-bandwidth, analog channels like radio, television, newspapers, the Post Office and the neighbor across the back fence.

Today, we are awash in high-speed connectivity. The average American spends her day within range of multiple cellular networks, wireless data networks, satellite feeds, cable connections, fiber optics and more. These connections can stream inconceivable amounts of data. In the time it takes to read this sentence, any one of them can transmit more than 3,500 DVDs worth of data.

The progress and convergence of computers and telecommunications has allowed for the creation of the Internet, an invention on par with the printing press as the most liberating force in history. As I sit here writing this article, I'm a click away from a good part of humanity's 6,000 years of recorded history. I can look on one of a dozen websites and see where nearly every commercial aircraft is, right now, worldwide. Another click calls up the collected works of Shakespeare, Lincoln or Lenin. Click again and access current news around the world.

Two or three clicks and practically any imaginable object will be delivered to your front door, your loading dock or your laboratory.

Scientists use the Internet to collaborate in real time from half a world away. So do artists, musicians, skateboarders, dancers and comedians.

A young man named Salman Khan started posting at-your-own-pace educational videos under the banner "Learn almost anything for free," and so far nearly 210 million users have taken him up on the offer. Today, anyone with an Internet connection can take courses from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or any of dozens of other universities around the world, for free.

This much connectivity, this much computing power, this much information, this much creativity is fundamentally changing the way we work and socialize, the way we govern and the way we educate our children and ourselves.

As Bill Gates said in Thomas Friedman's book "The World Is Flat": "Thirty years ago, if you had a choice between being born a genius on the outskirts of Bombay or Shanghai or being born an average person in Poughkeepsie, you would take Poughkeepsie, because your chances of thriving and living a decent life there, even with average talent, were much greater. But as the world has gone flat, and so many people can plug and play from anywhere, natural talent has started to trump geography."

Many Americans coming of age today have never known a time when they were out of touch with family, with friends or the world around them. Not in a movie, not in their beds, in their classrooms, their cars or even in their own heads.

Is all of this progress "good" for us? In truth, I don't know. Never in human history has a generation given so much power and freedom to its children with so little guidance on how to use it responsibly. I hope we like the results.

I do know, though, that this progress is nowhere near stopping, despite Tice's perception, and -- because I'm an optimist at heart -- I believe it will continue to lift the overall human experience in a positive direction. There are exciting things on the horizon in biotechnology, medicine, computer science, energy, environmental science and more. These projects offer the real prospects of changing our daily lives beyond recognition, of upending the laws of supply and demand, of lifting billions more out of crushing poverty worldwide, and of doing so without doing even greater harm to this one small planet we inhabit.

As the saying goes, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

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Jon Austin is a crisis and issue management consultant based in south Minneapolis.

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