Don't Blink!

Interview with Jeff Harrow

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

Also published by United Press International (UPI)

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Jeff Harrow is the author and editor of the Web-based multimedia "Harrow Technology Report" journal and Webcast, available at He also co-authored the book "The Disappearance of Telecommunications". For more than seventeen years, beginning with "The Rapidly Changing Face of Computing", the Web's first and longest-running weekly multimedia technology journal, he has shared with people across the globe his fascination with technology and his sense of wonder at the innovations and trends of contemporary computing and the growing number of technologies that drive them.

Jeff Harrow has been the senior technologist for the Corporate Strategy Groups of both Compaq and Digital Equipment Corporation. He invented and implemented the first iconic network management prototype for DECnet networks.

He now works with businesses and industry groups to help them better understand the strategic implications of our contemporary and future computing environments.

Question: You introduce people to innovation and technological trends - but do you have any hands on experience as an innovator or a trendsetter?

Answer: I have many patents issued and on file in the areas of network management and user interface technology, I am commercial pilot, and technology is both my vocation and my passion. I bring these and other technological interests together to help people "look beyond the comfortable and obvious", so that they don't become road-kill by the side of the Information Highway.

Question: If you had to identify the five technologies with the maximal economic impact in the next two decades - what would they be?


A) The continuation and expansion of "Moore's Law" as it relates to our ability to create ever-smaller, faster, more-capable semiconductors and nano-scale "machines." The exponential growth of our capabilities in these areas will drive many of the other high-impact technologies mentioned below.

B) "Nanotechnology." As we increasingly learn to "build things 'upwards" from individual molecules and atoms, rather than by "etching things down" as we do today when building our semiconductors, we're learning how to create things on the same scale and in the same manner as Nature has done for billions of years. As we perfect these techniques, entire industries, such as pharmaceuticals and even manufacturing will be radically changed.

C) "Bandwidth." For most of the hundred years of the age of electronics, individuals and businesses were able to 'reach out and touch' each other at a distance via the telephone, which extended their voice. This dramatically changed how business was conducted, but was limited to those areas where voice could make a difference.

Similarly, now that most business operations and knowledge work are conducted in the digital domain via computers, and because we now have a global data communications network (the Internet) which does not restrict the type of data shared (voice, documents, real-time collaboration, videoconferencing, video-on-demand, print-on-demand, and even the creation of physical 3D prototype elements at a distance from insubstantial CAD files), business is changing yet again.

Knowledge workers can now work where they wish to, rather than be subject to the old restrictions of physical proximity, which can change the concept of cities and suburbs. Virtual teams can spring up and dissipate as needed without regard to geography or time zones. Indeed, as bandwidth continues to increase in availability and plummet in cost, entire industries, such as the "call center," are finding a global marketplace that could not have existed before.

Example: U.S. firms whose "800 numbers" are actually answered by American-sounding representatives who are working in India, and U.S. firms who are outsourcing "back office" operations to other countries with well-educated but lower-paid workforces.

Individuals can now afford Internet data connections that just a few years ago were the expensive province of large corporations (e.g., cable modem and DSL service). As these technologies improve, and as fiber is eventually extended "to the curb," many industries, some not yet invented, will find ways to profitably consume this new resource. We always find innovative ways to consume available resources.

D) "Combinational Sciences." More than any one or two individual technologies, I believe that the combination and resulting synergy of multiple technologies will have the most dramatic and far-reaching effects on our societies. For example, completing the human genome could not have taken place at all, much less years earlier than expected, without Moore's Law of computing.

And now the second stage of what will be a biological and medical revolution, "Proteomics", will be further driven by advances in computing. But in a synergistic way, computing may actually be driven by advances in biology which are making it possible, as scientists learn more about DNA and other organic molecules, to use them as the basis for certain types of computing!

Other examples of "combination sciences" that synergistically build on one another include:

- Materials science and computing. For instance: carbon nanotubes, in some ways the results of our abilities to work at the molecular level due to computing research, are far stronger than steel and may lead to new materials with exceptional qualities.

- Medicine, biology, and materials science. For example, the use of transgenic goats to produce specialized "building materials" such as large quantities of spider silk in their milk, as is being done by Nexia Biotechnologies.

- "Molecular Manufacturing." As offshoots of much of the above research, scientists are learning how to coerce molecules to automatically form the structures they need, rather than by having to painstakingly push or prod these tiny building blocks into the correct places.

The bottom line is that the real power of the next decades will be in the combination and synergy of previously separate fields. And this will impact not only industries, but the education process as well, as it becomes apparent that people with broad, "cross-field" knowledge will be the ones to recognize the new synergistic opportunities and benefit from them.

Question: Users and the public at large are apprehensive about the all-pervasiveness of modern applications of science and engineering. People cite security and privacy concerns with regards to the Internet, for example. Do you believe a Luddite backlash is in the cards?

Answer: There are some very good reasons to be concerned and cautious about the implementation of the various technologies that are changing our world. Just as with most technologies in the past (arrows, gunpowder, dynamite, the telephone, and more), they can be used for both good and ill. And with today's pell-mell rush to make all of our business and personal data "digital," it's no wonder that issues related to privacy, security and more weigh on peoples' minds.

As in the past, some people will choose to wall themselves off from these technological changes (invasions?). Yet, in the context of our evolving societies, the benefits of these technologies, as with electricity and the telephone before them, will outweigh the dangers for many if not most people.

That said, however, it behooves us all to watch and participate in how these technologies are applied, and in what laws and safeguards are put in place, so that the end result is, quite literally, something that we can live with.

Question: Previous predictions of convergence have flunked. The fabled Home Entertainment Center has yet to materialize, for instance. What types of convergence do you deem practical and what will be their impact - social and economic?

Answer: Much of the most important and far-reaching "convergences" will be at the scientific and industrial levels, although these will trickle down to consumers and businesses in a myriad ways. "The fabled Home Entertainment Center" has indeed not yet arrived, but not because it's technologically impossible - more because consumers have not been shown compelling reasons and results. However, we have seen a vast amount of this "convergence" in different ways. Consider the extent of entertainment now provided through PCs and video game consoles, or the relatively new class of PDA+cell phone, or the pocket MP3 player, or the in-car DVD...

Question: Dot.coms have bombed. Now nano-technology is touted as the basis for a "New Economy". Are we in for the bursting of yet another bubble?

Answer: Unrealistic expectations are rarely met over the long term. Many people felt that the era was unrealistic, yet the allure of the magically rising stock prices fueled the eventual conflagration. The same could happen with nanotechnology, but perhaps we have learned to combine our excitement of "the next big thing" with reasonable and rational expectations and business practices. The "science" will come at its own pace - how we finance that, and profit from it, could well benefit from the dot.bomb lessons of the past. Just as with science, there's no pot of gold at the end of the economic rainbow.

Question: Moore's Law and Metcalf's Law delineate an exponential growth in memory, processing speed, storage, and other computer capacities. Where is it all going? What is the end point? Why do we need so much computing power on our desktops? What drives what - technology the cycle-consuming applications or vice versa?

Answer: There are always "bottlenecks." Taking computers as an example, at any point in time we may have been stymied by not having enough processing power, or memory, or disk space, or bandwidth, or even ideas of how to consume all of the resources that happened to exist at a given moment.

But because each of these (and many more) technologies advance along their individual curves, the mix of our overall technological capabilities keeps expanding, and this continues to open incredible new opportunities for those who are willing to color outside the lines.

For example, at a particular moment in time, a college student wrote a program and distributed it over the Internet, and changed the economics and business model for the entire music distribution industry (Napster). This could not have happened without the computing power, storage, and bandwidth that happened to come together at that time.

Similarly, as these basic computing and communications capabilities have continued to grow in capacity, other brilliant minds used the new capabilities to create the DivX compression algorithm (which allows "good enough" movies to be stored and distributed online) and file-format-independent peer-to-peer networks (such as Kazaa), which are beginning to change the video industry in the same manner!

The point is that in a circular fashion, technology drives innovation, while innovation also enables and drives technology, but it's all sparked and fueled by the innovative minds of individuals. Technology remains open-ended. For example, as we have approached certain "limits" in how we build semiconductors, or in how we store magnetic information, we have ALWAYS found ways "through" or "around" them. And I see no indication that this will slow down.

Question: The battle rages between commercial interests and champions of the ethos of free content and open source software. How do you envisage the field ten years from now?

Answer: The free content of the Internet, financed in part by the era of easy money, was probably necessary to bootstrap the early Internet into demonstrating its new potential and value to people and businesses. But while it's tempting to subscribe to slogans such as "information wants to be free," the longer-term reality is that if individuals and businesses are not compensated for the information that they present, there will eventually be little information available.

This is not to say that advertising or traditional "subscriptions," or even the still struggling system of "micropayments" for each tidbit, are the roads to success. Innovation will also play a dramatic role as numerous techniques are tried and refined. But overall, people are willing to pay for value, and the next decade will find a continuing series of experiments in how the information marketplace and its consumers come together.

Question: Adapting to rapid technological change is disorientating. Toffler called it a "future shock". Can you compare people's reactions to new technologies today - to their reactions, say, 20 years ago?

Answer: It's all a matter of 'rate of change.' At the beginning of the industrial revolution, the parents in the farms could not understand the changes that their children brought home with them from the cities, where the pace of innovation far exceeded the generations-long rural change process.

Twenty years ago, at the time of the birth of the PC, most people in industrialized nations accommodated dramatically more change each year than early industrial-age farmer would have seen in his or her lifetime. Yet both probably felt about the same amount of "future shock," because it's relative The "twenty years ago" person had become accustomed to that year's results of the exponential growth of technology, and so was "prepared" for that then-current rate of change.

Similarly, today, school children happily take the most sophisticated of computing technologies in-stride, while many of their parents still flounder at setting the clock on the VCR - because the kids simply know no other rate of change. It's in the perception.

That said, given that so many technological changes are exponential in nature, it's increasingly difficult for people to be comfortable with the amount of change that will occur in their own lifetime. Today's schoolchildren will see more technological change in the next twenty years than I have seen in my lifetime to date; it will be fascinating to see how they (and I) cope.

Question: What's your take on e-books? Why didn't they take off? Is there a more general lesson here?

Answer: The E-books of the past few years have been an imperfect solution looking for a problem.

There's certainly value in the concept of an E-book, a self-contained electronic "document" whose content can change at a whim either from internal information or from the world at large. Travelers could carry an entire library with them and never run out of reading material. Textbooks could reside in the E-book and save the backs of backpack-touting students. Industrial manuals could always be on-hand (in-hand!) and up to date. And more.

Indeed, for certain categories, such as for industrial manuals, the E-book has already proven valuable. But when it comes to the general case, consumers found that the restrictions of the first E-books outweighed their benefits. They were expensive. They were fragile. Their battery life was very limited. They were not as comfortable to hold or to read from as a traditional book. There were several incompatible standards and formats, meaning that content was available only from limited outlets, and only a fraction of the content that was available in traditional books was available in E-book form. Very restrictive.

The lesson is that (most) people won't usually buy technology for technology's sake. On the other hand, use a technology to significantly improve the right elements of a product or service, or its price, and stand back.

Question: What are the engines of innovation? what drives people to innovate, to invent, to think outside the box and to lead others to adopt their vision?

Answer: "People" are the engines of innovation. The desire to look over the horizon, to connect the dots in new ways, and to color outside the lines is what drives human progress in its myriad dimensions. People want to do things more easily, become more profitable, or simply 'do something new,' and these are the seeds of innovation.

Today, the building blocks that people innovate with can be far more complex than those in the past. You can create a more interesting innovation out of an integrated circuit that contains 42-million transistors today - a Pentium 4 - than you could out of a few single discrete transistors 30 years ago.

Or today's building blocks can be far more basic (such as using Atomic Force Microscopes to push individual atoms around into just the right structure.) These differences in scale determine, in part, why today's innovations seem more dramatic.

But at its heart, innovation is a human concept, and it takes good ideas and persuasion to convince people to adopt the resulting changes. Machines don't (yet) innovate. And they may never do so, unless they develop that spark of self-awareness that (so far) uniquely characterizes living things.

Even if we get to the point where we convince our computers to write their own programs, at this point it does not seem that they will go beyond the goals that we set for them. They may be able to try superhuman numbers of combinations before arriving at just the right one to address a defined problem, but they won't go beyond the problem. Not the machines we know today, at any rate.

On the other hand, some people, such as National Medal of Technology recipient Ray Kurzweil, believe that the exponential increase in the capabilities of our machines - which some estimate will reach the complexity of the human brain within a few decades - may result in those machines becoming self-aware.

Don't Blink!

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