Insights and opinions from our readers.
In your article about quantum cryptography (“10 Emerging Technologies That Will Change the World,” TR February 2003), Nicolas Gisin claims that quantum technology will eliminate the possibility that increasing computer power could be used to crack existing security codes. The amount of computation required to crack a given cipher rises geometrically with the number of bits used for the keys, whereas the computer power needed to encrypt and decrypt data depends only linearly on key length. If this relationship holds, it doesn’t matter how fast computers become; we need only to increase key length. Nevertheless, some particularly clever person could invalidate these assumptions about cracking ciphers. Perhaps that’s the risk Gisin strives to protect us from.
You credit Nicolas Gisin’s team with holding the world’s distance record in quantum cryptography on the basis of his transmission of a quantum key through a 67-kilometer length of optical fiber. Mitsubishi Electric recently broke that mark by transmitting a key quantum cryptography key 87 kilometers.
These 10 innovations will not “change the world,” or even the Western world, but rather the world of the well-off. More desperately needed are innovations in the legal sphere to give privilege to knowledge sharing over profits, a point that has been made several times in your publication.
The Culture of Ideas
Thank you, Nicholas Negroponte, for recognizing people like myself for their hard work using all the imaginative powers they can muster to function creatively in everyday society (“Creating a Culture of Ideas,” TR February 2003). I was not an advanced learner: I had to learn how to think outside the box because I couldn’t figure out how to think inside the box. Education is structured to teach the masses, not the individual mind. My fear is that society leaves children behind who have a great deal to offer. These children can provide us with innovative new methods for exploring life and work.
South Bend, IN
Listening to the young and learning from failures are clearly good ideas, but Negroponte’s assertion that this explains the dominance of the United States in Nobel prizes and technical innovation is bizarre. Our technical hegemony is due instead to the massive funding for R&D, education, and infrastructure in academia, industry, and the military, as well as the influx of scientific talent from Europe and Asia. Moreover, Negroponte’s statement that “we are uniquely willing to listen to our young” is insulting, implying that Asians, Europeans, and others don’t listen to their young. Linus Pauling’s advice is much better: “Have lots of ideas, and throw away the bad ones.”
Not in my lifetime has the gulf separating those with experience and those with energy seemed so great. I put this down to what we might call the disintermediation of post-elementary elite education. The old give-and-take bond between professors and students has given way to a more distant, diffuse business. Great men and women pop in for lectures between talk show appearances and consulting gigs, leaving teaching assistants to mark papers. In the process, something unique and valuable has been misplaced, and we fail to alloy the most precious ores to be found at opposite ends of adult life.
Michael M. Thomas
As a physician, I love the concepts put forth in Stephen S. Hall’s “Personalized Medicine’s Bitter Pill” (TR February 2003). However, there are other ways to improve the quality of care. Better decision-support tools would go a long way toward helping doctors distinguish differences among patients-differences that might otherwise elude the treating physician. Neural network computer systems, with their ability to recognize complex patterns, could tell us which patients will and will not respond to a particular treatment regimen. Drug and device companies can use neural networks to determine, from clinical-trial databases, the profile of the patients most likely to benefit from their products. That is personalized medicine.
Scott G. Tromanhauser, MD
Two points in Hall’s provocative article merit reexamination. First, the piece focuses on the possibility that the total amount of genetic information we are born with will allow us to predict the utility of certain medications. The cancer treatment cited in the article, however, does not involve study of the genes we inherit. Instead, it depends on genes specific to tumors. The second point is that it may take enormous amounts of data to make accurate predictions on the basis of genetic predispositions. This could take a very long time.
Sigmund Weitzman, MD
The technology discussed in your interview with Gregory Stock about designer babies (“Point of Impact: Choosing Our Children’s Genetic Futures,” TR February 2003) is the sort of thing that makes people afraid of becoming obsolete. I can’t help but think of books like Brave New World and 1984 and movies like Gattaca, which depict future civilizations where some humans are designated as superior to others. Because the human species has effectively negated the force of natural selection by managing to keep nearly all of its members alive until after procreation, it seems that it’s time for another force to take its place. Why not call it synthetic selection?
Simson Garfinkel did an excellent job of describing the potential threats to life and liberty faced by human rights workers who rely on proprietary software (“The Free-Software Imperative,” TR February 2003). Many people in industrial countries who work in human rights are self-funded, or at best, are on severely limited budgets. The grass-roots nongovernmental organizations, by the very nature of their role and activities, operate at subsistence level. Thank you for giving exposure of this issue to an important audience.
Herbert F. Spirer