Don't Blink: Interview with Jeff Harrow-I

By SAM VAKNIN, UPI Senior Business Correspondent  |  June 19, 2002 at 12:28 PM
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Jeff Harrow is the author and editor of the Web-based multimedia "Harrow Technology Report" journal and Webcast, available at He also co-authored the book "The Disappearance of Telecommunications." For more than 17 years, beginning with "The Rapidly Changing Face of Computing," the Web's first and longest-running weekly multimedia technology journal, he has shared with people across the globe his fascination with technology and his sense of wonder at the innovations and trends of contemporary computing and the growing number of technologies that drive them. Harrow has been the senior technologist for the corporate strategy groups of both Compaq and Digital Equipment Corp. He invented and implemented the first iconic network management prototype for DECnet networks. He now works with businesses and industry groups to help them better understand the strategic implications of our contemporary and future computing environments.

This interview is in two parts; Part 2 will run Thursday.

Q. You introduce people to innovation and technological trends -- but do you have any hands-on experience as an innovator or a trendsetter?

A. I have many patents issued and on file in the areas of network management and user interface technology. I am a commercial pilot, and technology is both my vocation and my passion. I bring these and other technological interests together to help people look beyond the comfortable and obvious, so that they don't become roadkill by the side of the information highway.

Q. If you had to identify the five technologies with the maximal economic impact in the next two decades, what would they be?

A. 1. The continuation and expansion of "Moore's Law" as it relates to our ability to create ever-smaller, faster, more-capable semiconductors and nano-scale "machines." The exponential growth of our capabilities in these areas will drive many of the other high-impact technologies mentioned below.

2. Nanotechnology. As we increasingly learn to build things upward from individual molecules and atoms, rather than by etching things down as we do today when building our semiconductors, we're learning how to create things on the same scale and in the same manner as Nature has done for billions of years. As we perfect these techniques, entire industries, such as pharmaceuticals and even manufacturing, will be radically changed.

3. Bandwidth. For most of the 100 years of the age of electronics, individuals and businesses were able to "reach out and touch" each other at a distance via the telephone, which extended their voice. This dramatically changed how business was conducted, but was limited to those areas where voice could make a difference. Similarly, now that most business operations and knowledge work are conducted in the digital domain via computers, and because we now have a global data communications network (the Internet) which does not restrict the type of data shared (voice, documents, real-time collaboration, videoconferencing, video-on-demand, print-on-demand, and even the creation of physical 3-D prototype elements at a distance from insubstantial CAD files), business is changing yet again. Knowledge workers can now work where they wish to, rather than be subject to the old restrictions of physical proximity, which can change the concept of cities and suburbs. Virtual teams can spring up and dissipate as needed without regard to geography or time zones. Indeed, as bandwidth continues to increase in availability and plummet in cost, entire industries, such as the "call center," are finding a global marketplace that could not have existed before. Example: U.S. firms whose "800 numbers" are actually answered by American-sounding representatives who are working in India, and U.S. firms who are outsourcing "back office" operations to other countries with well-educated but lower-paid work forces. Individuals can now afford Internet data connections that just a few years ago were the expensive province of large corporations (e.g., cable modem and DSL service). As these technologies improve, and as fiber is eventually extended "to the curb," many industries, some not yet invented, will find ways to profitably consume this new resource. We always find innovative ways to consume available resources.

4. Combination sciences. More than any one or two individual technologies, I believe that the combination and resulting synergy of multiple technologies will have the most dramatic and far-reaching effects on our societies. For example, completing the human genome could not have taken place at all, much less years earlier than expected, without Moore's Law of computing. And now the second stage of what will be a biological and medical revolution, "proteomics," will be further driven by advances in computing. But in a synergistic way, computing may actually be driven by advances in biology which are making it possible, as scientists learn more about DNA and other organic molecules, to use them as the basis for certain types of computing.

Other examples of combination sciences that synergistically build on one another include:

-- Materials science and computing. For instance: carbon nanotubes, in some ways the results of our abilities to work at the molecular level due to computing research, are far stronger than steel and may lead to new materials with exceptional qualities.

-- Medicine, biology, and materials science. For example, the use of transgenic goats to produce specialized "building materials" such as large quantities of spider silk in their milk, as is being done by Nexia Biotechnologies.

5. Molecular manufacturing. As offshoots of much of the above research, scientists are learning how to coerce molecules to automatically form the structures they need, rather than by having to painstakingly push or prod these tiny building blocks into the correct places.

The bottom line is that the real power of the next decades will be in the combination and synergy of previously separate fields. And this will impact not only industries, but the education process as well, as it becomes apparent that people with broad, "cross-field" knowledge will be the ones to recognize the new synergistic opportunities and benefit from them.

Q. Users and the public at large are apprehensive about the all-pervasiveness of modern applications of science and engineering. People cite security and privacy concerns with regards to the Internet, for example. Do you believe a Luddite backlash is in the cards?

A. There are some very good reasons to be concerned and cautious about the implementation of the various technologies that are changing our world. Just as with most technologies in the past (arrows, gunpowder, dynamite, the telephone, and more), they can be used for both good and ill. And with today's pell-mell rush to make all of our business and personal data digital, it's no wonder that issues related to privacy, security and more, weigh on peoples' minds.

As in the past, some people will choose to wall themselves off from these technological changes. Yet, in the context of our evolving societies, the benefits of these technologies, as with electricity and the telephone before them, will outweigh the dangers for many, if not most, people. That said, however, it behooves us all to watch and participate in how these technologies are applied, and in what laws and safeguards are put in place, so that the end result is, quite literally, something that we can live with.

Q. Previous predictions of convergence have flunked. The fabled Home Entertainment Center has yet to materialize, for instance. What types of convergence do you deem practical and what will be their impact -- social and economic?

A. Much of the most important and far-reaching "convergences" will be at the scientific and industrial levels, although these will trickle down to consumers and businesses in a myriad ways. The fabled home entertainment center has indeed not yet arrived, but not because it's technologically impossible, more because consumers have not been shown compelling reasons and results. However, we have seen a vast amount of this convergence in different ways. Consider the extent of entertainment now provided through PCs and video game consoles, or the relatively new class of PDA+cell phone, or the pocket MP3 player, or the in-car DVD ...

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