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TR’s Emerging Technology Conference ended yesterday as it started: with a look at how technology can be used to create a more equitable world.
September 30, 2005

As Technology Review’s annual Emerging Technologies Conference drew to a close on Thursday afternoon, one of the most-discussed topics remained how to use technology for improving lives in developing nations.

Although technology in the developing world was not the stated theme of the conference, it seemed to percolate up in many talks and follow-up discussions, reflecting the “globalized” mood of many speakers and attendees.

After Wednesday’s conference-opening presentation on the $100 Laptop, a project spawned at the MIT Media Lab to build millions of laptops for children in poor countries, the day’s program segued into a talk with four prominent inventors and innovators, including Dean Kamen, most well known for his Segway Human Transporter.

Kamen said he had long been dogged by the knowledge that 1.1 billion people lack safe drinking water and 80 percent of the diseases that wrack developing countries are caused by water-borne pathogens. So his team at DEKA Research and Development in New Hampshire is building a simple, energy-efficient water purifier that converts water of any quality into a substance so pure it “would make Dasani look like toxic waste,” Kamen said.

The device produces about 40 liters of water per hour, at a cost of about one cent per liter.  Its potential benefits are so huge that it “makes all the other projects [at DEKA] pale,” he said.

The problem with the water purifier has not been getting the technology to work, though, according to Kamen, but rather getting it to the people who need it. Kamen said he had demonstrated his device to the United Nations, the World Bank, and other organizations charged with international development – but had met only resistance.

Kamen now believes that getting the water purification technology to poor communities would mean bypassing international bureaucracies and setting up a system of microloans to local entrepreneurs, who would buy and operate the purifiers, selling water for a small profit.*

The next day, during a morning session on growth opportunities in computing and communications, Justin Rattner, director of Intel’s Corporate Technology Group, continued the theme of tailoring technology for emerging markets. He said the United States is a mature computer market, with almost 80 percent of households now owning a computer. In the emerging world, however, penetration is under five percent.

*This sentence was modified on Oct. 4 at 3:45 pm. The original sentence could be read to suggest that Kamen’s purifiers would cost $25, which is not the case. The purifiers should cost about $1,000.

Consumers in these developing markets don’t care about processor speed and memory capacity, but “user value,” Rattner said. To find out what types of computing support people really need, Intel is deploying anthropologists, ethnographers, engineers, and developers to places like China and India.

In China, for example, because parents value education so highly, many view computers as potential “distractions” or “temptations” for their children, Rattner said. So Intel has developed the China Learning PC, a computer that can be locked in “educate” mode (blocking non-lesson-related content) or “open” mode (allowing all uses) and also can be flattened into a tablet, so children can use it to learn how to write the Chinese characters.

In an onstage interview with CNBC’s Michelle Caruso-Cabrera on Thursday afternoon, venture-investing wizard Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital offered opinions on innovation and investing that surprised some U.S.-centric investors.

Some of the most attractive proposals from entrepreneurs looking for venture backing, Moritz said, come from immigrants rather than American citizens, since immigrants are generally “hungry” with a “restless ambition” to succeed, whereas America’s culture of indigenous innovation is in an inevitable “state of decline.”

In the last keynote speech of the conference, inventor Ray Kurzweil ventured a number of optimistic predictions, many based on his conviction that progress in genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and information technology will give scientists the power to endow virtually any object with intelligence and extend human consciousness indefinitely, remaking both the developing and the developed worlds.

By 2010, he predicted, computers will essentially disappear, becoming fully integrated with other objects in our environment. Intelligent objects will develop personalities, and we will interact with them using spoken language.

By 2029, Kurzweil said, $1,000 will buy a computer with a thousand times the computing capability of the human brain, and a computer will finally pass the Turing Test. “Nanobots” inside our bloodstream will work ceaselessly to retard disease, and neural implants will give us full-immersion virtual reality.

These offshoots of the “GNR” (genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics) revolution should also be so cheap and easily accessible that they will also spread to economically disadvantaged countries. And when that happens, Kurzweil argued, technology would make the world truly “flat” and equitable.

Additional reporting by Paul Angiolillo and Kevin Bullis .

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