Thursday, June 12, 2003


Yesterday my blog entry noted that developed countries, by virtue of spending much more per capita on ICT than do poor countries, also has a different mix of ICT expenditures. Rich countries have 10 to 20 times as much income per capita as poor countries, and these rich countries may spend twice as large a portion of their GDP on ICT as to the poor countries. They not only may spend 20 to 40 times as much per year on ICT, but they have been doing so for a long time. Rich countries do not simply buy 20 to 40 times as many telephones as do poor countries, they buy satellite remote sensing systems, supercomputers, and other high-end ICTs that developing countries can hardly afford at all.

The digital divide may well disappear for basic ICT, while at the same time it is increasing for high-end technology. The effect of a Northern monopoly on high-end ICT in areas such as manufacture of high-tech products (e.g. pharmaceuticals, airliners, telephone switching systems), military equipment, or services (e.g. arbitrage) may be serious aspects of the digital divide that will not disappear for a long time.

I was expressing these thoughts in a meeting yesterday, when it occurred to me that there is another aspect to the question. Consider cosmology, high-energy physics, and genomics.

The Hubble Space Telescope is to make a new observation starting in a few months. It will map a small part of the sky to a depth five times as great as ever done before, producing images five times as sharp as any made in the past. To do so, the telescope will be pointed at the area for a full month while the telescope is in orbit. This is already a feat that would be impossible without high-end ICT. But the data will be transmitted to earth, and processed by computers to produce the image. Then the optical data will be correlated with data recently obtained on the same area of the sky with a large radio telescope – itself a high-end ICT device. The resulting image is expected to provide mankind’s first look at the universe at the time that the first galaxies were forming.

When I think of the devices used to explore the basic particles of physics, I think of them as large machines – a word that connotes the physical mass and mechanical nature of the devices. But I suspect that high-energy physics is dominated by high-end ICT. Computers are fundamental to the design and construction of accelerators. Sensors are used to obtain data on the sub-atomic events, and extensive computer analysis is done to classify those events. High-energy physics continues to transform mankind’s understanding of the nature of matter.

Celera is the world’s largest civilian user of supercomputers. Not only has gene sequencing become practical on the current scale because of the automation of sequencers, the analysis of the data from the sequencers is very computationally intensive, as indeed is the identification of the genes within the DNA, and the identification of likely functions for those genes through their similarity with known genes in other species.

In these three areas, made possible through high-end ICT, our understanding of the nature of the world has been radically transformed. It is only about a hundred years ago that mankind realized that there were other galaxies, and now we are trying to get our minds around an unimaginably large and unimaginably old universe. Physicists tell us that the very stuff of that universe was very different at its inception. Solid matter is mostly empty space, and quantum weirdness appears to be true even if unimaginable for almost everyone. Genomics seems to be indicating that all life on earth shares genetic building blocks that are much more similar than anyone had imagined. There is almost no measurable difference between man and man, and indeed very little between man and ape.

The religions of the world were founded and their beliefs institutionalized long before these insights into nature were possible. On the one hand, they pose an immense challenge to many religious to find acceptable accommodations between dogma and modern science. On the other hand, some conservatives seek to reject the data of modern science, and indeed to assure that it is not taught in schools nor spread widely in the population. I suspect that a willingness to examine scientific information and to adapt beliefs to accommodate epistemologically acceptable evidence is a key element of modernity –a basis of social and economic development. Almost certainly, it is a characteristic of “knowledge societies.”

The media are full of news of people acting in very destructive ways based on their religious convictions. The bombing suspect arrested in the US recently is alleged to have set off bombs at the Olympics and in health centers based on his Christian beliefs. Taliban in Afghanistan imposed their regime citing their Moslem faith. Jews have established hundreds of illegal outposts in Palestinian territory, citing biblical precedents. Christian fundamentalists in some cases are supporting the invasion of the West Bank citing their beliefs that the historical lands of the Israel will have to be in the hands of the Jews before the second coming of Christ is possible. Moslems and Hindus in the subcontinent kill each other over control of what they regard as “holy places”.

Scientific understanding of the universe, of matter, and of life on earth is being revolutionized by application of high-end ICT. I wonder if it would be helpful if these people justifying violence on the basis of their religious beliefs were exposed to this modern scientific world view, and were asked to reconcile their religious views with the evidence of science. Perhaps they might be a little less certain of their own views, of their own virtue, and of the moral value of killing others with different beliefs.

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