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Voices on the future

Scientists, technologists share their insights

By David Kirkpatrick

Participants talk on their mobile phones during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Participants talk on their mobile phones during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

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(FORTUNE.COM) -- Here in Davos, Switzerland, at the annual World Economic Forum of leaders from business, government, NGOs, religion, and other fields, the significance of technology is not much acknowledged this year. But at least there was one session devoted to it last Thursday, intended to update attendees on developments in tech and discuss what to expect in the coming year and beyond. I had the privilege of moderating.

The panelists were Rodney Brooks, who directs the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT; David Baltimore, president of CalTech and a Nobel prize winner in biology; Yossi Vardi, a longtime Israeli technology investor who's biggest hit was ICQ, the instant messaging pioneer he sold to AOL; and Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal (he says it's like being Poet Laureate, but for astronomers). Each shared insights into a rapidly changing realm within technology.

Robot man's vision

Brooks is, as one friend called him, "Mr. Robotics." He not only does extensive research into the field, but runs a company called iRobot that is selling the hot new Roomba vacuum cleaner that guides itself around your living room. People, he says, are finally growing comfortable with the notion of robots. That's not an inconsiderable matter, because advancement in the field up until now has been slowed by the unwillingness of people to accept certain technologically possible robotic products. For instance, Brooks says his company had to take most of the intelligence out of a more complex cleaning robot designed to vacuum, mop, and polish in office buildings. Cleaning companies weren't ready for that degree of automation, so they insisted on having a real person guide the machine around.

In Afghanistan robots are frequent passengers on helicopters flying out of Bagram Air Force Base. They help soldiers explore caves. Maybe some day we won't actually have to fight wars, we'll just let the robots fight each other. In the meantime, it appears that American troops are the only ones who have the really high tech stuff, which probably is not good news for Saddam Hussein.

As baby-boomers age, Brooks sees assistive robots catching on. They could, for instance, help people carry groceries to and from the car. Or they might help us out of bed. Simple versions of products like that will be on the market within five years, Brooks predicts.

Cloning doesn't bother biologist

Biologist Baltimore is concerned about congressional interference in biotech research, under the pressure of "religious fundamentalists." "For the first time in history Congress is attempting to interfere in the research process," he says. That doesn't mean the work won't get done, it just means it won't be done in the U.S.

Baltimore takes a surprisingly unalarmed view of human cloning. So far he's quite certain nobody has achieved it despite the claims of the Raelian sect. But he says that, once we figure out how to do it, the prospect doesn't bother him. He notes that we have no ethical objection to the existence of twins. Even if an exact clone of Albert Einstein were to be created, there's no reason to think he would be anything like Einstein. "He'd probably be a hacker," Baltimore joked. The only problem with cloning, he says, is that at the moment it's unsafe because "we don't yet know how to totally program a cell nucleus to insure we get a healthy human being." Sounds like he believes that's not far off, though.

Techie proposes 'digital aura'

Vardi, a resolutely consumer-focused technologist, says that 2002 was the year of wide connectivity -- the broad emergence of WiFi wireless networking created a new kind of digital ecosystem. He sees young people today walking around in what he calls a "digital aura," as they carry a variety of digital devices: PDAs, digital cameras, and iPods. I felt young again when he said that, because in my bag I had all three. New devices that emerge for this aura will probably take off quickly and lead to large new industries, Vardi says. One example: the video game industry, which in only a few years has grown to be bigger than the movie industry.

Astronomer worries

Finally, Sir Martin talked about what he called the "yuck factor" in many advances in modern science and technology. "We can do things we're not sure we want to do," he says. Sir Martin sounded a bit like Sun's Bill Joy (who was among the many eminent technologists and scientists in the audience) when he said, "As a layperson I'm very scared about how with things like biotech and robotics we may be empowering individuals in dangerous ways and exposing ourselves as a human race to grave new risks." He fears that in 20 to 25 years technological progress will enable ordinary individuals to hold awesome power comparable to the power of nuclear-armed states today. His concern is not exactly that people will possess nuclear weapons per se, but that we are entering an era when individuals will have enormous technologically enhanced capabilities, and that as a society we are not prepared to deal with that. He elaborates on this at length in a book he's written to be published in March entitled, "The Final Century."

We ended up talking about science as much as technology, but the audience was happy. And anti-globalization campaigners who view the Forum as a perfidious cabal of power-hungry corporatists can take consolation. This is the kind of thing that mostly goes on here -- people just trying, usually earnestly, to grapple with how we're all going to deal with increasingly rapid change.

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