Posted on Sun, Sep. 01, 2002

The future and its truly frightening possibilities

By Cecil Johnson

Knight Ridder/San Jose Mercury

Yogi Berra could have said it, but it was really Marshall McLuhan, the late media guru, who first announced: ``The future is not what it used to be.''

But three decades ago, when the Internet was in its infancy, McLuhan could not have envisioned the kinds of prognostications contained in business and technology journalist Sally Richards' latest book ``FutureNet.''

Consider this observation about the future capabilities of the Internet:

``It means when I go into Gap and buy a pair of khakis, they're going to have a chip sewn into them so it automatically handles billing, anti-theft and inventory. When I take those home, and I walk into the house with them, those jeans get automatically entered into my home inventory and my home security system. Then when I put on my plaid pants and my striped shirt they will automatically talk to each other and say, `This is bad,' and they'll warn me.''

That's from Alan Cooper, chairman of Cooper Interaction, which works with developers to create positive human/machine user interaction. That company, Richards writes, is seeking to achieve perfect interaction between user and computer.

Again she quotes Cooper:

``In the future, our present concepts of privacy will be over. The Internet means that every computer will be connected, and Moore's law tells us that in just a few years it will be cheaper to put a computer into something than to paint it. So all manufactured objects will have computers in them. And because they have computers, they'll have software. And because they have software, they'll have behavior.''

Cooper also envisions advances in nanotechnology that will make it possible to write programs to create nanobots to assemble bricks of gold. Cooper believes it would be relatively simple to do that because the atom of gold is fairly uniform.

``It's not at all clear to me that you can create a nanobot to create a ham sandwich because it is software that will create a ham sandwich, and I don't think we will achieve that level of perfection, although I think that writing software to create gold and rubies and diamonds and impervious hard steel will be easy,'' Cooper says.

There also is some scary stuff in ``FutureNet.'' Richards writes of a terrorism scenario that makes the attack on the World Trade Center look like child's play. During a discussion with Jerome Glenn, director of the Millennium Project, she comes to realize the ease with which an Ebola epidemic could be unleashed upon the world.

Glenn suggests that a terrorist organization could recruit 100 martyrs, infect them with the Ebola virus and dispatch them to the world's 20 top airports.

``So you get these martyrs, you give them Ebola virus two weeks ahead of their scheduled flights, then they all go to 20 airports, five of them for each of the airports, and they hang out,'' Glenn tells Richards. ``In two weeks the skin starts to burst a bit, and slowly but surely they've been infecting people over a 24-hour period and those people are off in many different directions.''

The only long-term defense against such an atrocity, Glenn tells Richards, is gene modification to create healthier, less pathological human brains.

``That's the design experiment -- you're Silicon Valley, your next application is making enlightened human beings,'' Glenn says. ``Not more information -- the next thing is wisdom and wise use, because the ability for one human being to screw up the system is going to be so much easier in the future than it's been in the past.''

In tracing the evolution of the Internet, Richards reflects on the thoughts and achievements of scores of other pioneers, entrepreneurs, visionaries and stars of the digerati.

The account of the Russian cryptographer Dmitry Skylrov's imprisonment for revealing to a hackers' conference how he broke Adobe's eBook encryption code provides food for thought on how far government should go in trying to regulate and protect intellectual property in the digital age.

Richards' position is that much misguided legislation and regulation of information technology is being generated to try to protect the entertainment industry. She quotes Bob Young, founder of the Center for the Public Domain, on legislators who are poorly informed about technology:

``These are people I'm very impressed with as legislators -- you get guys like (Sen. Patrick) Leahy in Vermont sponsoring legislation like the DCMA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) and being completely oblivious. All he thinks he's doing is solving a commercial problem for Disney or Time Warner, when in actuality what he's doing is reducing rights currently held by American citizens and awarding those rights to the small groups of multinational publishers.''

Richards has done an admirable job of presenting highly complex material.

FUTURENET: The Past, Present and Future of the Internet as Told by its Creators and Visionaries

By Sally Richards

John Wiley & Sons, 274 pp., $29.95