Dean Kamen Interview

[via Yuvaraj] A profile of Dean Kamen, as part of a Gartner interview:

Most recently renowned for the Segway Human Transporter, Dean Kamen holds more than 150 patents on such other revolutionary inventions as a shoebox-sized dialysis machine, a stair climbing wheelchair called the IBOT Mobility System and his “Project Slingshot,” a water purification system that was named a runner-up for “coolest invention of 2003″ by Time magazine.

The founder and president of DEKA Research & Development Corporation, Kamen is a tireless advocate for science and the need to bring first-world technology to the third world.”

Quotes from the Gartner interview:

A patent, or invention, is any assemblage of technologies or ideas that you can put together that nobody put together that way before. That’s how the patent office defines it. That’s an invention.

An innovation is one of those things that society looks at and says, “If we adopt this and make it part of the way we live and work, it will change the way we live and work.” And the number of inventions that ever become innovations – I don’t know if it’s one in a million – but it’s pretty damned small.

I consider the high-speed data transmission an invention that became a major innovation. It changed the way we all communicate. However, due to Moore’s Law in recent years, all the inventions related to data transmission have fallen far short of what their impact could be as innovations if they were properly applied.

Suppose instead of multiplying the bandwidth by a hundred in the past five years, you left the bandwidth alone, and you figured out how to get the Internet to a hundred times as many people so the four billion people living in Africa and Asia and places where they have no access to information and knowledge, got access. That would be an innovation.

I think in some cases inventions prohibit innovation because we’re so caught up in playing with the technology, we forget about the fact that it was supposed to be important.

I look at the fact that two-thirds of the human population of this planet does not have reliable access to water or electricity. And it’s that same two-thirds, it’s that same 4 billion out of 6 billion people that have very little money. At least I can say, here these are productivity tools – generators and water makers. But we must find a way to deliver them. When we fail to get there quickly, at least I can say to myself, that’s because it’s a really big problem, and nobody else got there yet. So we’ll keep trying. If you’re going to fail, you might as well fail at the big ones. That’s what keeps us going.

ICT and MDGs

John Daly has published a series of essages looking at the role technology can play in helping the world achieve the Millenium Development Goals set forth by the UN. Writes Daly:

In these essays, I have sought to counter nave theories of technological determinism, suggesting instead that technology is but one of many factors determining progress in achieving the Goals. Technological innovation opens possibilities, but social and economic factors control the development of technological infrastructures, the use of those infrastructures, and ultimately the distribution of benefits from the technology.

Social, economic and technological systems are highly interconnected. ICT innovations in one place result over time in increasingly wide repercussions through society. ICT innovations are occurring globally by the millions, and they influence each other. Moreover, the MDG are interrelated. This complexity is the very subject of these essays, as is the difficulty of predicting the emergent effects of the Information Revolution on poverty and development.

The essays have been written to illustrate the enormous number of innovations taking place, and the complexity of the diffusion of those innovations. They portray a process in which overall order emerges from huge numbers of independent decisions made by very large numbers of people, each acting on the basis of the information he or she has, and the incentives he or she faces.

No country utilizes ICT solely to achieve the MDG, since in all countries different groups seek simultaneously to achieve their own objectives. Because of this competition, limited ICT resources are allocated in patterns that favor one ethnic group over another, male over female, rich over poor, urban over rural. Moreover, there is a dark side to the force! The powerful forces unleashed by the Information Revolution will have negative as well as positive effects, victims as well as beneficiaries. The essays contain warnings against too sanguine a view of the effects of the Information Revolution.

Ultimately these essays are about encouraging patterns of innovation and technological diffusion that would better allocate scarce ICT resources. Incentives should be institutionalized encouraging expansion of the information infrastructure in ways best serving poor communities. So too should there be institutionalized rewards for appropriate technological and social inventions benefiting the poor, and for the adaptation of successful foreign practices to local needs and circumstances. Disincentives to the appropriate applications of ICT should be stripped away, and others created to better avoid the dissemination of innovations that do not work in practice.

Many in the ICT for Development field emphasis the need to replicate and scale up successful demonstration and pilot projects. Scale-up and replication are important, but these essays go further. They emphasize the broad social effort needed to change the information and assumptions on which huge numbers of people base their decisions, to improve the processes by which those decisions are made, and to change the incentives that those people face.

The essays recognize that more could be done using ICT to achieve the MDG, but for a failure of imagination. We need to know more about how to grow the ICT infrastructure and how to encourage applications benefiting the poor, and we need to disseminate such information more widely.

The Next Net

Vint Cerf looks ahead in this BBC News article:

He said that the first decade of the net, 1972-1982, was about designing, testing and deploying the net’s basic technologies.

The second decade was about consolidation and commercialisation and the third about broad, popular use.

The next decade, he believes, will see the net spread even further and start to become the basic communications infrastructure for almost anything.

To begin with, he thinks, the net will stop being a part of the telephone network. Instead the telephone network will become a part of the net.

This could be thanks to Voice Over IP technology that chops up phone calls into bits of data and sends them across the net instead of dedicated, and expensive, phone lines.

“You are going to see a fairly dramatic increase in services riding on top of basic internet infrastructure,” he said, “You will see more and more layers of functionality showing up in the net.”

One such could be Grid computing that virtualises processing and storage resources and lets people use, or rent, the capacity they need for particular tasks.

Other key areas revolve around novel naming systems that allow objects other than web servers and net domains to become part of the net.

The Enum initiative attempts to turn phone numbers into net addresses and give people a universal way of contacting anyone, provided they know at least one e-mail, address, phone or pager number for them.

Allied to this is the work on Naming Authority Pointer (NATPR) that broadens the net’s reach considerably.

Vint Cerf’s final word: “The internet is a reflection of our society and that mirror is going to be reflecting what we see. If we do not like what we see in that mirror the problem is not to fix the mirror, we have to fix society.”

India’s Yuppification

The Economist has two articles dealing with the increasing wealth of a section of the population in India and China. From the India article:

The Indian economy, following an unusually lavish monsoon, is growing at a rate of 7% a year or more. Economic recovery in the United States, the biggest market for India’s IT industry, has not dented American companies’ zeal for cost-cutting. Every company needs an India strategy, says Kiran Karnik, who heads Nasscom, the Indian IT industry’s lobby. Indeed, hardly a day goes by without news that a big firm is shifting to India some of its back office: software development, accounting, insurance-claims processing, call-centres and so on.

The lure is a well-educated English-speaking workforce whose wages, compared with those commanded by Americans and Britons, are peanuts. Not, however, by local standards. Rohit Kapoor, president of EXL, an outsourcing firm with three centres near Delhi, says a freshly recruited contact-centre worker may expect to earn 10,000 to 12,000 rupees a month, plus a performance-linked bonus. Mr Karnik points out that that is often pocket money, since many will continue to follow Indian custom and live at home until they marry. Opportunities for the best workers are spectacular. Mr Kapoor says that some of his managers, who have been with the company for just three or four years, are earning 150,000 rupees a month. Such sums would have been unimaginable for Indians a few years ago.

Suhel Seth, of Equus Red Cell, an advertising agency in Delhi, calls it the yuppification of India. He cites two ways in which the phenomenon is challenging Indian tradition. First, young people positively relish conspicuous consumption. They do not share the qualms felt by their parents, brought up in a climate that mixed Nehruvian socialism with ancient Hindu ideals of renunciation. Rolex, says Mr Seth, with his profession’s knack for pithy hyperbole, has replaced religion.

Second, and potentially of vast significance for a country as stratified as India, this is bringing about a second unification, in which the young and affluent across the country define themselves not just by caste, creed and language, but by a shared consumer culture, spread by television, which now reaches nearly half India’s homes. As a result, spending patterns are changing.

And some food for thought: “A study in 2001, which Nasscom’s Mr Karnik believes still stands, forecast that by 2008 India’s IT and other service exports would account for a third of the country’s inflows of foreign exchange. However, they would directly employ only 2m people. Thus they could absorb but a fraction even of the 2m or so English-speakers who graduate from university each year. Set that against the vastness of rural India, where 700m people must live their lives without even a whiff of a cappuccino, and the new yuppiedom still seems pretty exotic.”

Rural India needs to march ahead in tandem. That is also our India.

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