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Jason Pontin

A View from Jason Pontin

Davos Day 3: Technology Is Like Magic

Eric Schmidt and other WEF participants argue that mobile technologies can make us better humans.

  • January 29, 2010

Although today the skies above the Swiss village of Davos were clear and a toothachingly chill blue, everything else was a blur.

I saw panels discuss the future of journalism (the verdict? Health uncertain), debate what should happen after the failed Copenhagen summit on the climate (the answer? No one really knew), and consider the benefits of nuclear power (attractive! But the planet would need to build more than 20 plants a year to really reduce the use of coal, and the politicians said that would be hard to sell). I watched Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, interview the gentlemanly, reasonable King Abdullah of Jordan. (And I was amused when, after the king had entered the room and the Europeans and Arabs in the audience stood as the courtesy due a reigning monarch, the Americans struggled to their feet with varying degrees of democratic resentment or sheepishness.) Like any other conference I attend, importunate entrepreneurs insisted I see their demos. I was busy.

But for the readers of Technology Review, perhaps the most interesting event was a panel discussion on “Technology for Society,” moderated by Adam Lashinsky, editor-at-large at Fortune. Lashinsky was tasked by the World Economic Forum to inquire whether technology could be effectively applied to fields like education, development, and health care. He asked, “Can it make a difference?”

On his panel were Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Google; Rainer Bruderle, the minister of economics and technology for Germany; William Green, the chairman and chief executive of Accenture; Didier Lombard, the chairman and chief executive of France Telecom; Michael Laphen, the chairman and chief executive of CSC, an IT services firm; and Joel Selanikio, a pediatrician who works in poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and Asia, and the director of DataDyne, a mobile medical services venture.

What surprised was that there was such broad, optimistic consensus amongst men who had little in common except their general age, race, and professional responsibilities. They agreed: very suddenly, smart, mobile devices were transforming societies around the planet, and for the better. Talking about the various pressing problems that faced the world, such as poverty, conflicts, and untreated diseases, Schmidt said, “But the thing is, most of these things were true 20 or even 60 years ago, but people all over the world now have a powerful computer on their belts.”

Green had begun this theme at the beginning of the session by noting, “For technologists, the future was always 10 years in the future, but now it’s here.” Selanikio agreed, giving an example. He said, “Every single health worker in Africa is walking around with a small computer. These low-cost devices make a real difference in the places I work. These health workers might not have much education, they may have no books, but now I can give them a drug dosage by SMS [Short Message Service].”

Schmidt gave two slightly more futuristic examples. “We can use augmented reality to give people really useful information about wherever they are. Or, we’re getting to the point where a cell phone can do 100 [percent accurate] to 100 [percent accurate] translation [between languages]. Now what these two things have in common is that they’re magic–people couldn’t do them by themselves–and they really allow us to be better human beings.”

Did anything dampen the panelists’ enthusiasm? Not so much. Indeed, too many people were still without such technologies. Lombard said, “We need to connect more people with devices. It’s all very well to say that two billion can use the Internet. But we’re missing the other four billion. We can’t say that we are truly egalitarian with respect to technology until we connect everybody.”

This sentiment did not seem to be inspired only by the businessmen’s lust for ever-larger markets. Curiosity and generosity contributed, too. With transparent sincerity, Schmidt said, “Imagine you could hear the four billion people you can’t hear today, because they’re not connected. That would be interesting, right?”

Perhaps one thing troubled them. “I worry a little bit that these instantaneous technologies might be bad for deep reading of longer things like books and magazines. We don’t know what that means for cognition.” In general, Schmidt said, we’re going to have to learn, as humans, how to be always on. “Instantaneous technologies increase volatility of all kinds. You’re going to have more financial bubbles and more scandals, because you’re more interconnected, but you’re still human.”

Follow me at Davos on twitter @jason_pontin.

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