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Ready for High-Tech Progress?

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By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, October 17, 2005

It feels like the 1990s minus the good parts: There's a sickly buzz of scandal emanating from the political establishment, but there's no carefree ignorance of al Qaeda and avian viruses; no exhilarating diet of falling poverty statistics and rising stock prices; no escaping the unnerving prospect of the Fed minus Alan Greenspan. So it was nice last week to hear Bill Gates channeling the spirit of the 1990s -- and declaring that the next 10 years of techno-wizardry will bring more breakthroughs than the last.

Gates was addressing a crowd at Howard University, the last stop on a tour of six campuses. His mission was to inspire students to pursue careers in software, so he appeared on the stage after a few minutes of heart-accelerating rock music and painted the future in enticing colors. The forces that brought past progress in computing -- the doubling every 18 months in the power of microprocessors, the declining price of computer memory -- continue unabated. Meanwhile, new forces -- ubiquitous wireless connections, speech recognition, the digitization of photography -- add juice to the party. If programmers can make all these forces vibe together, the world will be a lot more fun.

What sort of fun? In place of the personal computer, there'll be a full hierarchy of gadgets. Smart watches will download weather forecasts and news headlines over wireless connections. Smart phones will scan products in department stores to check where better prices can be found. Notebook computers will be portable libraries with the weight of just one novel -- libraries that allow you to scribble in the margins and share your witty insights wirelessly with friends. Your home computer will respond to instructions both written and vocal, and it won't be a computer so much as a network. Music, videos, games, photographs -- oh, yes, and all your lofty intellectual outpourings -- will be beamed around the house to a variety of screens and speakers. The tablet on the kitchen counter will display recipes and shopping lists. The plasma screen on the wall will be for family photos.

In most fields of human endeavor, you hope for gradual improvements: an engine that's somewhat more efficient, a medicine that improves life expectancy by a few months. But computer power progresses exponentially, warping social life, intellectual horizons and the business playing field. You can chat and play and work with people half a world away, producing miracles of unplanned teamwork like the Wikipedia.

Right now, millions sit through office meetings they don't need to be part of, and millions more sit through sessions that prove pointless because a key person isn't there. But once all meetings are online, thousands of hours of wasted energy will be gloriously liberated. Rather than attend that marginal meeting, you will watch it on your laptop, fast-forwarding through the dull bits and messaging the interesting speakers by clicking on their heads. In the place of some meetings, companies will convene Wiki-style message boards on which people edit and re-edit one another's proposals until the best one prevails.

You don't have to buy these specific predictions to accept that progress is at hand. Nobody knows its shape, precisely: The other day Google proposed to offer free phone service in San Francisco, thereby casually announcing the death of an entire industry; the good change will come with a fair amount of bad change, such as ID theft and spam. But if you believe even half of the Gates prophecy, you quickly realize the lopsidedness of most debates in Washington.

A lot of Washington debates are about managing bad stuff: war, terrorism, natural disasters, killer viruses, budget deficits, trade deficits, medical inflation, airline bankruptcies, imploding corporate pension plans. But policy also needs to focus on the good stuff: To figure out how we can accelerate progress. If we don't fix the budget deficit, we will be setting ourselves up for economic punishment. But if we don't position ourselves to take advantage of technology, we will be setting ourselves up to miss a huge economic prize.

What must we do to remain prize-worthy? The good news is that, in Gates's estimation, between 17 and 19 of the world's top 20 computer science faculties are American, and Microsoft hasn't yet moved many software jobs offshore. But to keep things that way we need to step up federal research funding and relax post-Sept. 11 visa rules, so that the United States remains what Gates calls "an IQ magnet." And because smart Indians, Chinese and others are more likely to return home as their countries grow freer and more prosperous, the United States must focus on growing its own talent. Last year two respected global surveys of math skills in eighth and ninth grades put the United States in 15th and 24th place, respectively. That isn't good enough.

It would take fairly little to address these problems. Last week a panel convened by the National Academies proposed a package of measures that ranged from math prizes for high schoolers to pay raises for math teachers, along with a program to boost federal research funding by 10 percent annually for seven years. The total price tag comes to $10 billion annually, but the nation spends nearly twice that amount on absurd farm subsidies. What kind of priorities are those?

mallabys@washpost.com


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