Computing Applications Viewpoints

How ICT Advances Might Help Developing Nations

Some predictions for technology developments, deployments, and the associated societal implications.
  1. Introduction
  2. Conclusion
  3. Author
  4. Footnotes
computing and societal development

People make predictions in hope (and sometimes despair) or in expectation. These simple speculations are about technology, about how the art of the possible has a habit of becoming the everyday, and about how certain advances might help the developing world. But they are toward the hope end, rather than the expectation end, of that spectrum—because technology alone is not enough. To take optimum advantage of these and other advances we need to think holistically and must develop some new business models. I encourage you to think creatively about not just what capabilities the information communication technologies (ICT) developments I discuss in this column might enable but the new ways we might organize to deliver them.

Connection will become more pervasive. The world is connecting. Slowly, in many places, but every day we understand better how to bring more parts of the world into the connected space. So look ahead and hope—perhaps expect—that nations currently underserved will be able to join the networked world, across networks that are fast, always on, and pervasively available through low-cost devices, accessing systems that are more intelligent, easier to use, with more natural user interfaces.

We need this connecting more than ever because we face difficult challenges—differently felt in different nations at different times, but nonetheless intimidating in their scope and impact. Among them are six major forces presenting governments of the world with their toughest problems in the next decade or so: accelerating globalization, changing demographics, rising environmental concerns, evolving societal relations and expectations, growing threats to social stability and order, and the impact of new technology. And now the world also faces economic disruption in the form of broad and deep recession that promises to shrink global gross domestic product.

Cloud computing will help developing nations "leapfrog" the developed world. As connections become more available, cloud computing can become an important platform through which emerging nations can access modern government capabilities and systems. All governments need financial management and administration as well as business and citizen services such as permitting, licensing, benefits determination and distribution, and health information. But those without them might not need to acquire them the way the developed world has—somewhat haphazardly over the years, with large capital and operational spending on data centers and heavily customized suites of application software, with legacies that do not easily link.

Not today, and not quite tomorrow—but when we have worked out the issues around what software can really take advantage of the cloud model, and what government concerns there are around security, location of data, and so on—will the cloud become a cost-effective platform and a way to deliver significant changes in governments’ capabilities without huge cost? Tying a cloud platform together with mobile devices creates a versatile and cost-effective platform for all kinds of services.

Perhaps cloud centers, regionally placed, with public and private investment, could allow the developing world to access the kinds of systems that help developed nations’ governments—but without the "legacy" and level of investment that it took. Perhaps they could show international organizations some ways to better leverage their investments. I hope such approaches could be game-changing in how we help nations improve transparency and accountability, enhance citizen services, and generate economic development.

Early examples are proliferating—in Vietnam a government agency uses a cloud approach to provide a collaborative infrastructure for innovation: linking government, universities, private-sector research, startups, and other organizations. And a Chinese city wanting to create a software industry for the region plans to support several hundred thousand developers across hundreds of companies—but it won’t build a data center to do it. It will provide a cloud-based development environment that can scale as the vision grows.

"Mashing up" medical services, consumer electronics, and connectivity will allow broader and more cost-effective access to health care. Telepresence is already enabling remote consultations. Over time, new, smaller, less-expensive sensors will allow condition monitoring of potentially millions of patients. We’ll see new ways of navigating medical information drawn from multiple sources, and in particular radical new visualizations—think of a "Google Earth" for the body. Already researchers have demonstrated prototype visualization software that allows doctors to interact with medical data the same way they interact with their patients: by looking at the human body—through a 3D avatar.

We are learning how ICT can be applied in new ways to diverse environmental challenges.

In another example, to overcome the problems of deploying expensive imaging equipment in many different places, imaging and diagnosis will be able to use relatively inexpensive and accessible components, then use the network to access high-performance computing facilities to create key images and transmit them. Splitting information collection, processing, and visualization will enable much wider deployment into remote and less prosperous parts of the world.

The immersive Internet—becoming a multidimensional place. Early virtual worlds, including games, are precursors to a "3D" Net, one that integrates with the existing Web and allows for new applications with enhanced immediacy and interactivity. Such an environment will encourage the formation of in-world social groups—collaborations, teams, guilds, clubs, neighborhoods, and so forth. The Internet will go even further toward satisfying two key aspects of being human: our innately social and visual natures.

The developed nations are exploring the retail possibilities of the 3D Internet—an immersive world where you’ll "walk" the aisles of supermarkets, bookstores, and other shops and you’ll encounter experts you’d rarely find in your local store.

But beyond that, the 3D Internet will enable whole new kinds of interactive education, remote medicine and citizen access, transforming how people can interact with our friends, family, doctors, teachers, government, and more.

The initial hype has abated a little. But it is still early, and there remains much promise for the immersive, social attributes of these virtual worlds, which, in a connected world, can reflect real-life experiences and bring new levels of education and training to remote and underserved communities.

Technology will help to tackle environmental and resource challenges. We are learning how ICT can be applied in new ways to diverse environmental challenges. We know that the developing world, while not alone in this, is at the forefront of tackling energy, environment, and resource problems. So what might be possible?

More effective water filtration is emerging from nanotechnology research. As we think more about water management and conservation as an information problem, using sensors and actuators connected across networks to large-scale computing resources, it changes our approaches to managing quality and supply.

Intelligent transportation systems are proving they can reduce congestion and cut greenhouse gas emissions. Intelligent grids make better use of power, wasting less and allowing easier access to alternative generation sources.

Silicon technology research is finding new ways to build solar power technology. Have you ever considered how much energy could be created by having solar technology embedded in roads, in the frames of buildings, in paint, rooftops, and windows? Until now, the materials and the process of producing solar cells for solar energy conversion have been too costly for widespread adoption. But now this is changing with the creation of "thin-film" solar cells, a new type of cost-efficient solar cell that can be 100 times thinner than silicon-wafer cells and produced at a lower cost. These new thin-film solar cells can be "printed" and arranged on a flexible backing, suitable for not only the tops, but also the sides of buildings, tinted windows, cellphones, notebook computers, cars, and even clothing.

Imagine being within a phone call’s reach from the ability to post, scan, and respond to email and instant messages—without typing.

For the developing world—perhaps, one day, a village school might "bid" for cheaper electricity cycles—and the solar cells of a neighboring village might provide them.

People will talk to the Web…and it will talk back. People will be able to use the Internet through natural voice interaction—eliminating the need for visuals or keypads. New technology will change how people create, build, and interact with information and e-commerce Web sites—using speech instead of text. We know this can happen because the technology is available, but we also know it can happen because it must. In places like India, where the spoken word is more prominent than the written word in education, government, and culture, "talking" to the Web is leapfrogging all other interfaces, and the mobile phone is outpacing the PC.

Researchers creating the "spoken Web" will enable people without traditional access to the Internet, but with access to a mobile or landline phone, to gain access to a worldwide collection of "voice sites": Web sites accessible by voice commands over a telephone network. It particularly helps people who are not able to read or write, the elderly, and the economically disadvantaged. It has enormous potential, for example, for providing ways that village communities can offer their products and services worldwide using a voice-enabled Web portal.

Imagine adding to the spoken Web advances in language translation, speech recognition, and speech synthesis. During the Beijing Olympics, visitors could use a modified mobile device in a novel way: they could speak their destination and the machine would recognize, translate, and synthesize the Mandarin equivalent for their taxi driver. U.S. soldiers in Iraq have pilot-tested handheld translators to take spoken English and produce spoken Arabic, or vice versa.

And once the Web is more accessible by using voice, it will become easier to use for everyone. Imagine being within a phone call’s reach from the ability to post, scan, and respond to email and instant messages—without typing. Think of being able to search the Web verbally and have the information read back to you, just as if it were an actual conversation.

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These are speculations, not guarantees. And they are selections, taken from the broad universe of technology advances. But they might illuminate two important things I hope we can achieve. Of one I am pretty sure—the world will continue to become more interconnected, instrumented, and intelligent. Of the other: well, who needs to benefit the most from those attributes? If we have learned anything from recent trials, it is that the big problems of the world are intimately intertwined. Climate change knows no borders; shifting demographics affect us all, one way or another; and we all suffer when the poorest suffer. So my conjecture is that these elements of the increasingly connected world will enable those in the poorest nations to participate in ways they have not experienced before.

But to use those capabilities responsibly and effectively, we will need creativity—to conceive of the new solutions we can build for the developing world as much as for the developed; collaboration—to break down the boundaries that inhibit change, and to leverage the minds and skills of the many; and courage—to move beyond current business models to drive desirable change.

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