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HOW HE SEES IT Techno shift will reshape our landscape



Published: Tue, August 30, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



By JAMES P. PINKERTON

LONG ISLAND NEWSDAY

I keep a file of clippings I call "Page 34 news." That is, stories buried in the back of the newspaper that should, in fact, be bannered right up front. Many of them have to do with science.

What's striking about most front-page news is its cyclicity. There's strife in the Gaza Strip -- is that anything new? Here at home, White House aides are being investigated, and there's a fight over a Supreme Court nominee. Similar items made the headlines a quarter-century ago or a half-century ago. And similar items will play equally big in the future, too.

But, if politics is cyclical, technology is linear -- and cumulative. That is, once the vacuum tube is replaced by the transistor, we never hear about vacuum tubes again. Similarly, airliners with propellers have virtually disappeared -- from the news as well as the sky. Thus the difference between human nature and science: People do the same things and make the same mistakes over and over again, while technologists strive never to make the same mistake twice.

When science and technology make an advance, the world is changed permanently. So let's look at three "Page 34" items. The technological paradigm shifts they describe are going to reshape permanently the landscape upon which we all live -- or die.

First, on Aug. 11, Pakistan announced that it had successfully test-fired a nuclear-capable cruise missile, which it dubbed "Babur." Such missiles are the "killer app" of modern weaponry. In contrast to ballistic missiles, cruise missiles are cheap to produce and easy to conceal; no wonder the Federation of American Scientists labels them the world's "gravest delivery system proliferation threat." So, although Babur's reported range is a mere 300 miles today, Pakistan will soon figure out how to extend it. And, of course, other countries, too, are improving the reach of their cruise-missile arsenals. After all, the United States has cruise missiles that can travel nearly 2,000 miles -- who doesn't want to keep up with Uncle Sam? It's only a matter of time before dozens of countries possess atomic-armed weapons that can be launched from anywhere and strike anywhere.

To be sure, countries will have anti-missile systems in place, but because cruise missiles are so cheap and easy, it's likely that a determined aggressor will be able to "swarm" the defenses of the target country. To put it mildly, the worldwide strategic "balance" will look a lot different when so many competitors are part of the balancing act.

Virtual reality

As a second item, Japan announced two weeks ago that it was setting up an industry-academia-government consortium to commercialize virtual reality by 2020. What does that mean? Imagine a 3-D entertainment system in which you can look at objects from any perspective -- and maybe touch and smell and taste them, too. Think there'd be a market for such a product? The Japanese might not succeed on this techno quest, but it's usually a mistake to underestimate their prowess when they mobilize for a national mission. And if the Japanese do succeed, they will have created a new industry that could generate more wealth than TV and the movies combined.

But no matter who gets rich from it, what will be the larger impact of mass-produced virtual reality? Once consumers go through the Looking Glass, will they ever want to come out? Will civic life shrivel if people lose themselves in "Total Recall"-like fantasies?

Third, back in the real world, sort of, recently scientists in Texas and Australia jointly announced a nanotech breakthrough. They were able to manufacture large quantities of "nanotubes," which will soon go into everything from ultralight, ultra-strong construction materials to artificial muscles for human beings. Pretty cool, huh? And a reminder that, while science scares us sometimes, it seduces us even more of the time.

So go ahead and read Page One. It will tell you about today. But if you want to learn about tomorrow, you'd better dig back to Page 34.

X Pinkerton is a Newsday columnist. Distributed by the Times-Washington Post News Service.




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