World leaders look to tech, not politics
Davos meeting looks at tech's potential to solve problems
By David Kirkpatrick
(FORTUNE.COM) -- "I do not see much hope in the political domain, but a lot of hope in the technological domain," said Shimon Peres last week at a private breakfast he hosted in a knotty wood-paneled ski-hotel dining room in Davos, Switzerland.
The problems of the world, the former Israeli Prime Minister and Foreign Minister said, "will be solved not by politicians but by technology."
It was the kind of sentiment that one heard often at the World Economic Forum in the late '90s and 2000, and Peres was not alone in returning to it at this year's event.
Tech was back this year at Davos, and in a big way. A number of panels addressed it. I moderated three -- on spam and viruses, tech for the developing world, and one called "Anarchy Gets Organized," which was the forum's way of examining what I called the "bottom-up economy" in my last column -- the notion that in the age of the Internet, individuals are gaining new power and upsetting traditional top-down structures.
And the techies were out in force. Here was Google's Sergey Brin standing with a bunch of us at lunch gobbling down finger foods from the buffet. There was Michael Dell sneaking out early from a session on open source. Venture capitalists Ann Winblad and the guys from Accel Partners seemed to be everywhere.
At my spam panel, MIT's Nick Negroponte and Gartner CEO Michael Fleisher showed up just to listen.
Peres was one of many speakers who made the very Davosian point that in a world of six billion people, 80 percent of the economic activity is coming from a mere one billion, while another billion lives on less than $1 a day. And there was energetic interest among many in Davos about using technology to improve the lot of the poor.
Meanwhile, the other giant tech-related obsession was the offshoring of jobs -- a subject of much hand-wringing. Will this or will this not be the end of civilization as we know it? I'll tell you in detail what I learned about these two subjects in coming weeks. Herewith a few other Davos observations.
Peres' enthusiasm centered especially on nanotechnology, which he said could improve living standards by contributing to water purification and desalinization technology (especially important in the Middle East), as well as "allow us to create an army without soldiers."
He was thinking of so-called "smart dust" which unleashes masses of sensors into a battlefield or other environment to take measurements of various types. "Nanotech will play a major role in the battle with terrorists," he said.
Another technology for the soldiers who still have to fight: ultra-strong bulletproof clothing. "Nanometal is 100 times stronger than steel," he enthused.
Peres is no technologist, and some of his predictions had the air of hopes rather than certainties, but like him I believe in the social potential of technology.
Another prediction: "Life expectancy will go to 150 in the next half-century."
More of his optimism, despite apparent challenges: "I see a person in the future with, on the one hand, the power to destroy the world, and on the other, the power to build a new one. We have to rely on the judgment of mankind."
Scary though it sounds, over time we will have a hard time keeping the most powerful weapons and tools out of the hands of anyone. We have to somehow create a world where that is not a threat. This is also a theme of astronomer Sir Martin Rees, whose book "Our Final Hour: A Scientist's Warning," came out last year. Rees, always rather ebullient given his views, was also wandering the Davos halls.
Microsoft chief Bill Gates spoke privately to the press late Friday night, and he was full of notable thoughts that were generally as optimistic as those of Peres.
Gates called the current situation in China "breathtaking," adding "it's capitalism at full speed." Several leaders of Microsoft business units, he noted, have emerged from Microsoft research labs in China. "The talent there is phenomenal," he said. He urged everyone to spend time in China and in Africa to improve their understanding of what's happening in the world, "but for different reasons." His interest in Africa stems from his astonishing work spending billions to address the global health-care crisis of the poor.
He spoke of efforts to develop an AIDS vaccine, something his foundation has been spending lots of its money on. He didn't hold out hope of achieving it anytime soon, though he seemed certain it would happen eventually.
He also made a statement of the kind one doesn't hear often enough from global leaders: "If you ask what's the greatest divide in terms of rights and equities," he said, "it's national borders. That doesn't seem to bother people as much as I think it will."
I hope he's right in that prediction. Though I didn't get to ask him more about this, I assume he's thinking of the unfair limits that are placed on people's movements and economic prospects based merely on where on the planet they happened to be born. This is not a view too popular with the kind of Americans who get outraged that someone in India might get a job that was formerly done in the U.S. or Europe.
What Gates and many at Davos realize is that it's not only charity to help the world's poor improve their lot. It's an issue of security. As Peres put it at breakfast, "Terror is the war of poor people, and suicide bombs are the weapons of poor people."
Gates pointed to calculations that the value of a human life, based on how societies behave, averages around $200 in most of the world, whereas in developed countries it is more like $1 million.
"The world will get richer," Gates said in one of his most optimistic remarks, and one that contrasted with the more somber views of some economists at Davos. But he also said that while the U.S. and other developed countries will continue to grow, poorer countries will get wealthier faster.
Less profound thoughts got more attention in the press, like his prediction that spam would cease to be a problem in two years as technology solutions arose to address it. The method he predicts will have the most importance long term: Asking someone to prove they want to get to you by making a small monetary payment.
"So if you get a piece of spam, that money is in your bank account," he said. "If it's your long-lost brother you don't take the money."
The next day I ran into Bill Baldwin, editor of Forbes, who had attended the spam session and had at that time spoken up for just such a method of reducing the spam problem. Baldwin was pleased that Gates had hit on the same theme, but startled me by claiming he doesn't get any spam at all. He now requires e-mail senders to include a password to reach him.
"But how," I asked, "can you be sure you're not missing e-mail from people who you don't know are trying to reach you?" His reply: "I've got to get my password on my business card."
We may not solve the problems of poverty or war, but maybe at least we can solve the problems of spam. I guess it's better than nothing.
-- David Kirkpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.