Saturday, February 26, 2011

Technology Matters and so do the science and math behind it

I was watching a video-cast about this year’s Campus Party event in Sau Paolo – a gathering of young minds largely from computers, engineering and internet - that come together in a party-like environment to learn, share and show their innovations, new hardware, devices and applications in games, entertainment, communications and many others. What an event!

The story was not found on the front page. The front page talked about Libya, governor-union duel in Wisconsin, protests in middle-east, soaring oil price. Yet it was no less significant. Who knows if some  future Turing, Tesla, Edison, Bell, or Jobs was not hiding in that crowd. The unique gathering was all about digital technology and sharing new ideas in an entertaining atmosphere. I could not help thinking that technology (digital or otherwise) is probably the most potent force that has given us tools to continuously shape and re-shape our life since our cave days and pushed societies that incubated them to the next rung in the ladder of civilization.

Arts, business, trading, travel, sports, medicine are all examples of activities human have engaged in since the beginning of history. Throughout history, ruling classes ruled and waged wars, trading class managed business, farmers grew food, teachers taught the existing body of knowledge and so on. But it is really the scientists and technologists who quietly expanded our knowledge to improve how we do all those better, how we build, how we travel, how we understand the human body and its maladies, how we communicate, how we entertain and everything else in between. 

Pursuit of science and technology is arguably the single most powerful human endeavor that has contributed to human progress since the days we discovered fire and invented wheels. The societies that supported their inventors and scientists usually made bigger leaps and conversely, those that suppressed science regressed. The societies in Europe thrived when they mentored the likes of Da Vinci and Newton. And they regressed when scientists like Galileo were chastised because they discovered new physical laws that challenged existing beliefs whose perpetuation was deemed critical for preserving the religious or political establishments of the time.

More I think about it, science and technology have always been the key transformative force of our civilization. While philosophy, arts and morality have their rightful place in our progress, milestones of human history are often marked by aqueducts, windmills, steam engines, electricity, automobiles, transistors, robotics, genetics and of course the internet – all outcomes of physical sciences. Today the quality of our life continues to benefit from innovations that make faster chips, better computers, more efficient transportation, better surgical technology, more efficient communication and so on.

By innovation, I mean new ways of doing things. Just to clarify, while designing mortgage based derivative or other financial tricks may be considered innovation in some sense, and may benefit certain businesses in the short-term, that’s not what I am talking about.

And more often than not, pursuit of science and mathematics catalyzed all these inventions. Steam engine that pushed England in to the modern industrial economy was invented because James Watt and Joseph Black at University of Glasgow knew enough about the science of heat transfer. Steam locomotives and steam powered ships then revolutionized transportation and international trade completely reshaping life – thanks largely to the knowledge of mechanics and the science of thermodynamics and metallurgy.

While lifestyle choices and occasional pastoral edicts against drinking are definite contributors, the largest impact on increasing life expectancy from mid-forties in early twenties century to almost low eighties now come from breakthroughs in bio-technology and genetics powered by Darwinian science.
And hence, technology matters, more than ever, and so does the pursuit of science and mathematics that’s often behind the technology.

Take Google for example. A whole new web of economic activity now revolves around Google. (There is even a knock-off in China named Baidu that is prospering equally well there.) But it all started because two kids, one from Russia and one from Michigan, US – who trained themselves in mathematics, science and logic ended up working together to build a very smart search engine that could crawl the entire web to provide information far superior than any existing tools. (It was only much later that the company that they formed landed on the sweet spot of search-based advertising that opened the flood gates of multi-billon dollar revenues.)

Similarly, if we cut through all the hype and buzz around Mark Zukerberg’s billion-dollar social media phenomenon, we see that luck, timing and business savvy aside, Facebook came to life not just because Zuckerberg dreamed it up but also because he is deeply passionate about programming, loved software application since his middle school, is a mathematical thinker and actually could build the algorithm behind the application.

It takes a scientific and technology-literate mind to take an existing technology and make it better or find a new applcation. When Nintendo created Wii’s motion sensitive controllers for games, it opened the door for a whole slew of applications for gesture controlled devices. Take for instance Johny Lee a student at CMU who applied his knowledge of electronics and imagination to modify the Wii box to add head tracking functions. Only in a couple of years, Xbox Kinect 360 can now respond to players movements automatically and in 3D. And now robotics engineers and students in universities are tinkering with rescue robots that use the same technology to maneuver in rescue situations.   

It is largely the passionate practitioner of technology who develops and comes out with new ways of doing things that take the human society forward while politicians make their crafty moves to retain power, priests dole out their cool aid so people continue to look backward and traders stay busy to buy and sell to make that extra buck as they have been doing for thousands of years.

But nothing in life is unmixed. There is a dark side of science and technology for which they should share no blame. After all, science and technology are agnostic of human intentions. The same technology that enables space exploration is also used for destructive missiles that warring groups use against each other. The knowledge of bio-technology that has enhanced our health-span and improved quality of life of millions has also led to ammunitions of bio-warfare for the benefit of power-hungry governments, armies and fanatics. But that’s a discussion for another day.

The point remains that the vast majority of improvements and positive disruptions in human life come largely through progress and inventions powered by science and technology. 

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