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Letter From Technological Palookaville

[My essay in the Outlook section.]

The most important things happening in the world today won't make tomorrow's front page. They won't get mentioned by presidential candidates or Chris Matthews or Bill O'Reilly or any of the other folks yammering and snorting on cable television.

They'll be happening in laboratories -- out of sight, inscrutable and unhyped until the very moment when they change life as we know it.

Science and technology form a two-headed, unstoppable change agent. Problem is, most of us are mystified and intimidated by such things as biotechnology, or nanotechnology, or the various other -ologies that seem to be threatening to merge into a single unspeakable and incomprehensible thing called biotechnonanogenomicology. We vaguely understand that this stuff is changing our lives, but we feel as though it's all out of our control. We're just hanging on tight, like Kirk and Spock when the Enterprise starts vibrating at Warp 8.

What's unnerving is the velocity at which the future sometimes arrives. Consider the Internet. This powerful but highly disruptive technology crept out of the lab (a Pentagon think tank, actually) and all but devoured modern civilization -- with almost no advance warning. The first use of the word "internet" to refer to a computer network seems to have appeared in this newspaper on Sept. 26, 1988, in the Financial section, on page F30 -- about as deep into the paper as you can go without hitting the bedrock of the classified ads.

The entire reference: "SMS Data Products Group Inc. in McLean won a $1,005,048 contract from the Air Force to supply a defense data network internet protocol router." Perhaps the unmellifluous compound noun "data network internet protocol router" is one reason more of us didn't pay attention. A couple of months later, "Internet" -- still lacking the "the" before its name -- finally elbowed its way to the front page when a virus shut down thousands of computers. The story referred to "a research network called Internet," which "links as many as 50,000 computers, allowing users to send a variety of information to each other." The scientists knew that computer networks could be powerful. But how many knew that this Internet thing would change the way we communicate, publish, sell, shop, conduct research, find old friends, do homework, plan trips and on and on?

Joe Lykken, a theoretical physicist at the Fermilab research center in Illinois, tells a story about something that happened in 1990. A Fermilab visitor, an English fellow by the name of Tim Berners-Lee, had a new trick he wanted to demonstrate to the physicists. He typed some code into a little blank box on the computer screen. Up popped a page of data.

Lykken's reaction: Eh.

He could already see someone else's data on a computer. He could have the colleague e-mail it to him and open it as a document. Why view it on a separate page on some computer network?

But of course, this unimpressive piece of software was the precursor to what is known today as the World Wide Web. "We had no idea that we were seeing not only a revolution, but a trillion-dollar idea," Lykken says.

Now let us pause to reflect upon the fact that Joe Lykken is a very smart guy -- you don't get to be a theoretical physicist unless you have the kind of brain that can practically bend silverware at a distance -- and even he, with that giant cerebral cortex and the billions of neurons flashing and winking, saw the proto-Web and harrumphed. It's not just us mortals, even scientists don't always grasp the significance of innovations. Tomorrow's revolutionary technology may be in plain sight, but everyone's eyes, clouded by conventional thinking, just can't detect it. "Even smart people are really pretty incapable of envisioning a situation that's substantially different from what they're in," says Christine Peterson, vice president of Foresight Nanotech Institute in Menlo Park, Calif.

So where does that leave the rest of us?

In technological Palookaville.

Science is becoming ever more specialized; technology is increasingly a series of black boxes, impenetrable to but a few. Americans' poor science literacy means that science and technology exist in a walled garden, a geek ghetto. We are a technocracy in which most of us don't really understand what's happening around us. We stagger through a world of technological and medical miracles. We're zombified by progress.

Peterson has one recommendation: Read science fiction, especially "hard science fiction" that sticks rigorously to the scientifically possible. "If you look out into the long-term future and what you see looks like science fiction, it might be wrong," she says. "But if it doesn't look like science fiction, it's definitely wrong."

That's exciting -- and a little scary. We want the blessings of science (say, cheaper energy sources) but not the terrors (monsters spawned by atomic radiation that destroy entire cities with their fiery breath).

Eric Horvitz, one of the sharpest minds at Microsoft, spends a lot of time thinking about the Next Big Thing. Among his other duties, he's president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. He thinks that, sometime in the decades ahead, artificial systems will be modeled on living things. In the Horvitz view, life is marked by robustness, flexibility, adaptability. That's where computers need to go. Life, he says, shows scientists "what we can do as engineers -- better, potentially."

Our ability to monkey around with life itself is a reminder that ethics, religion and old-fashioned common sense will be needed in abundance in decades to come (see the essay on page B1 by Ronald M. Green). How smart and flexible and rambunctious do we want our computers to be?

[Click here to keep reading.]

By Joel Achenbach  |  April 13, 2008; 6:54 AM ET
 
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