|Sunday, March 7,1999
Sunday Plus: Page 2
Lives will be transformed
How IT And Genetics Will Affect Us
We are in a fireball of change. In order to take advantage of it, we should know what the changes are likely to be and where they are coming from,
IN THE last decade, we have seen many changes in our day-to-day life.
In home entertainment alone, we have moved from video-cassettes to laser-discs (LDs) to video-compact-discs (VCDs) to digital-video-discs (DVDs).
Then, came the Internet in 1994, which has speeded up globalisation. Cable TV followed in its wake in Singapore, offering more than 30 channels.
We may have digital TV, which will allow for an even greater number of channels, by the end of the year or early next year.
At the opening of CNBC Asia's digital facility here on Feb 22 this year, Minister for Information and the Arts BG George Yeo said: "We are committed to early digital TV in Singapore."
At work too, we find ourselves confronted with ceaseless change. Just as we have got used to one way of doing things, another way is introduced.
We are no longer competing with others in Singapore. We find that, increasingly, the playing field gets larger -- on a regional, if not global, scale, and it is not always a level playing field.
On the one end of the field, the mega-corporations of the West have economies of scale that we can never hope to have, and on the other end, labour in neighbouring countries is many times cheaper than in Singapore.
If your job can be done by someone else in Penang or Xiamen or Manila at a lower salary, then you may lose it to him, if not now, maybe pretty soon. Your company does not even have to relocate, it simply outsources the jobs.
And life seems to have been speeded up. We have to respond to just about everything in "real time".
When we do not do so, we may lose our customers to our competitors, or we may lose even our job.
With so many TV and cable channels, and so much information coming down on the Net -- much of it useless, distracting "white noise" -- it is people's attention that has become a premium. You get their attention, and you are in business.
The pager and cellular phone have become indispensable communication tools, but at the same time, they put us on an electronic leash -- we can run, but we cannot hide.
We may not know it, but in the past decade, more scientific knowledge has been created than in all of human history. But if you think you have seen it all -- so the computers are just going to go faster, so what? -- then you cannot be more wrong. As they say, "you ain't seen anything yet".
For in the next century -- and we are only talking about the first half -- human lives will be changed radically.
They will be transformed by the exponential growth of information technology and advances in biology at the molecular level.
COMPUTER power doubles roughly every 18 months. This is because in every 18 months, makers of memory chips and microprocessors can pack twice as many transistors on an integrated circuit.
This doubles the number of components on a chip as well as its speed. Since silicon chips are really melted sand, they are cheap and their cost remains constant.
What this means is that every two years, we can get twice as much circuitry running at twice the speed for the same price.
Today, we can put a million transistors on the head of a pin. By early next century, we will be able to put a million of them on the tip of a pin.
Because chips are cheap, small and plentiful, the pace of technological change in chip manufacture is dizzying. By early next century, computers may be reduced to the size of our standard-issue buttons.
We will be surrounded everywhere by these near-invisible machines which, because they will be equipped with sensors, will sense our presence, anticipate our wishes, and maybe even read our emotions.
In fact, scientists say that by 2009, personal computers can be embedded in clothing and wristwatches, rings and even shoes. You can have a dozen or more computers on your body, which are networked using "body LANs" (local area networks) and using wireless technology.
These computers will monitor your body functions, provide automated identity to get into your office, for example, or make financial transactions, and provide directions for navigation, among other services.
Of course, you will be able to surf the Net. It is truly going global while your networked computers act local.
The doubling of computer speed at present technology level cannot go on forever, though. There is a certain size and speed beyond which computers cannot be built with normal materials. But it will go on for another two decades. By then, computers will be 100 million times more powerful than they are today.
When the limit is reached with the silicon chip and transistors, computers using other technologies may take over.
One likely candidate is the optical computer, which could carry data on light beams at millions to billions bits per second, and store them in a hologram.
A holographic memory system could store hundreds of billions of bytes of information. The total information stored presently in all the world's computers may one day be stored in one holographic cube, or so some scientists claim.
Two years ago, on a visit to Bell Labs in New Jersey, United States, where the original transistor was invented in 1948, I believe I got to see the prototype of the optical computer, among other futuristic wonders. It was created by scientists there in 1990.
There, another group of researchers showed me how they could navigate a terrain on a computer screen by just waving their hands. No joystick, no mouse, no trackpad.
One of them had actually stayed up many nights to map out all the McDonald's outlets in the United States in a program.
By just waving his hand, the way a kid does to simulate flying, he soared over the continent to locate the McDonald's joint in any city I wanted.
Zoom down, and I would get its telephone number, together with other useful information about the joint.
Think how this program can be applied in defence and big business on a globe.
Up to now, our computers and household appliances are all dumb, in that they cannot sense us and cannot communicate with us or with one another. But soon, we will not just be waving to them. We will talk to them, and they to us and to one another.
They will become "things that think", to borrow a line from MIT's Media Lab, where applications of cutting-edge IT are developed.
THE Human Genome Project -- a US$3-billion crash programme begun in 1990 to map out all the 200,000 genes hidden among 23 chromosomes in the human body -- is expected to be finished by 2005.
The project is being carried out at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. It is headed by Francis Collins, who came into prominence for locating the gene for cystic fibrosis. He rides a Honda Nighthawk 750 motorbike to work, wearing a black leather jacket.
But mapping out all the genes is not enough; their messages -- some three billion chemical letters -- have to be decoded. And that may take many more years.
The most immediate applications, though, will be identifying the 4,000 genes involved in single-gene disorders, and coming up with ways to prevent, manage or cure them.
Polygenic disorders will have to wait longer for breakthroughs (see story on Page 8).
Meanwhile, the successful cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997 has meant that it is no longer science fiction that human organs could be grown in an animal's body, so that these could be used to replace those in the human body when they are diseased.
The human body would not reject the new transgenic organ because it was grown from its own cells.
Human beings may be able to clone themselves eventually, but let us not worry about that yet.
Until the end of the last century, average life expectancy was about 45. Today, many of us can expect to live past 70 or 80. Today's children may live till 130. And who knows, their kids may live even longer.
BUT are our lives going to be better?
The answer is yes, if, as a society, we organise ourselves to ride on the crest of the wave of change, which is inevitable and cannot be turned back.
In the new world of winners and losers, the losers will be those who miss the tide.
The answer is yes too, if we know what the changes are likely to be, and where they are coming from. We have to be open to learning new things continuously.
Knowledge is doubling every year, and what a child learns today may not be applicable in five years' time.
As Mr Hon Chiew Weng, the dean of studies at the Chinese High School, told The Straits Times recently: "Today, we are not interested in teaching knowledge anymore. Instead, we want to impart all kinds of skills, like IT, research, presentation and thinking skills that are lifelong assets."
Most importantly, the IT and biomolecular revolutions will change social structures. If we do not hold fast to family and friends, and if we do not have a set of strong values to provide us the necessary ballast, we may just crash into the water.
Like it or not, and the regional crisis notwithstanding, this is really the most exciting time to be alive.
The last time humankind underwent as epochal a shift as the one we are about to enter, was 400 years ago, with the advent of the Scientific Revolution. And that took place mainly in Europe.
The East, left behind in the revolution, took a long time to catch up.
Why the East was left behind offers us many lessons, the most relevant one of which for us at this time in history is that innovation in technology must be encouraged and supported, and no one is above learning anew.
The magnetic compass, the printing press and gunpowder, which all played a pivotal role in launching the Scientific Revolution, were first invented in China, but the country went into stasis and retreat while Europe rose.
Why? Because its culture smothered incentive. Its Confucian mandarins cherished knowledge for its own sake and believed there was nothing they could learn from others. Foreign ideas were rejected.
Innovations were judged by their consequences on the pecking order. All these and more are pointed out by the historian David Landes in his book, The Wealth And Poverty Of Nations (1998).
The Net has been cast, and the sooner we stake out our turf and get on our starting blocks, the better prepared we are for the next century.
I am on my starting block. It is a modest site, but check it out if you care to: www.cyberway.com.sg/~hweelim
07/03/99 Lives will be transformed