Technology can give us instant access to celebrities or solve more serious problems. It’s up to us to choose what we want it to do, panelists at the World Congress on Information Technology say

Larry King asks where digital age is going

Vivek Ranadivé vividly remembers the first moon landing in 1969. It inspired him to pursue a technology career that today has made him founder and chairman of Tibco Software Inc., a Palo Alto, Calif.-based infrastructure software company.

Today, he told a panel discussion at the World Congress on Information Technology here, one smartphone has more computing power than the entire U.S. space program had when it put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.

What can be done with that power? As moderator of the panel discussion titled The Digital Era and the Impact on Our Society, television host Larry King put that question to panelists when he asked them “where is this going?”

Larry King hosts a panel at WCIT. Photo courtesy of Kunal Gupta.

One panelist, Nathan Muema Masyuko, said that was the wrong question. The right question is “where do you want to take it,” said the Kenya-based developer of an ecology game called Haki: Shield and Defend. “It’s up to you.”

Masyuko, one of the winners of the World Summit Youth Awards, said “it’s up to us to decide where do you want to take technology, and to take it there.”

“For me technology is a tool,” agreed Intel Corp. futurist Brian David Johnson. “We have to ask ourselves, again, what do we want to do with it?”

For some panelists, the answer to that question comes down to entertainment. “I want to put the Kardashians in your pocket,” said Kevin Crull, president of Canadian broadcasting company Bell Media.(That would be socialite sisters Kim, Khloe and Kourtney, for those not so immersed in celebrity culture.) Carlos Slim Domit, chairman of Mexican telco Telmex, said he wants to “give our customers the capability to access anything they want.”

But panelist Ivo Ivanovski, the Republic of Macedonia’s Minister of Information Society and Administration, talked about increasing government transparency and speeding up government services. Mobile phones will become passports, drivers’ licences, and identification, he predicted. “You will get to the point where all the government services are so connected they’re in your pocket.”

Philippe Kridelka, director of the New York office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO),spoke of  mobile phones being used to boost literacy in Pakistan and to provide early warning of cultural crimes like the destruction of historic sites in Mali and Syria.

“I think we live in a time when most of these problems can be solved,” said Ranadivé.

And while the tone of the panel was so upbeat that King asked the panelists if they were all optimists – which nobody denied – a few concerns were raised. Robert Kahn, one of the  inventors of the Internet, said mobile connectivity has become so important that in developing countries, some people will choose it over medical care or food.

Kahn, now president and chief executive of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives in Reston, Va.,warned that much of society has become so dependent on technology that we might have trouble functioning without it, something that leaves us highly vulnerable to cyberattacks.

“Ultimately,” Kahn said, technology is “going where the creativity and innovation of mankind will take it.” One of the challenges, he added, will be to ensure that the positive effects ultimately outweigh the negatives.

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