Last week, at MIT's Emerging Technologies Conference, I decided to corner Jason Pontin who is not only the editor-in-chief and publisher of MIT's Technology Review Magazine, but he's also the executive producer (for all intents and purposes) of the conference that's held annually in Cambridge, MA. Given the way the conference opened with keynotes from luminaries such as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and AOL chairman and CEO John Miller, and considering the fact that the winner of Technology Reviews TR35 Innovator of the Year award was Joshua Schachter, inventor of the del.icio.us social bookmarking service, I couldn't help but wonder if, at the conference, information technology might be overshadowing other technologies that could be more important to the human race. Pontin responded to the questions head-on starting off with a discussion of Christina Galitsky, this year's 34 year-old recipient of Technology Review's Humanitarian of the Year award. The conversation took a circuitous route from there as Pontin, who has a birds-eye view of some of the most interesting projects taking place at MIT, talked about other promising innvations as well as the technology that most frightens him.
The audio interview can be streamed using the embedded player above, it can be manually downloaded, or, if you are subscribed to ZDNet's IT Matters series of podcasts, it should turn up on your computer and/or your portable audio device automatically.
Here's a sampling of some of what Pontin had to say:
Pontin on Christina Galitsky (Humanitarian of the Year): She Works at the National Laboratory at UC Berkeley and she invented a simple cheap stove which poor women in Darfur and Sudan can use to go an light fires..... and the reason why this is such an important innovation is real simple....any woman who leaves the refugee camps in Darfur will be attacked and raped and will not be accepted back into her tribe. So by creating a simple efficient stove where women don't have to leave the refugee camps in the evening, she's made an enormous contribution to society.
Pontin on why IT is so important: It's important because that's where many of our readers are employed.
Pontin on where the most interesting innovation (to him) is taking place: It's probably fair to say there's more revolutionary innovation occuring in biotech and in the material sciences (nanotech) than there is in IT at the moment.
Pontin on a potential "fountain of youth": Lenny Guarente from MIT's molecular biology department has identified what seems to be the human gene which regulates a large part of aging and it's related to starvation interestingly. When human beings think they are calorically restricted, this gene seems to shut down various forms of metabolic expression which control our aging. So, he is working on a drug which will simulate the effects of human starvation. So not only will it make you kind of thin....but it wll also have the side effect perhaps of giving us some longeivity. It [may] also compress all the diseases of old age to the final six months of a ninety year life.
Pontin on his favorite technology: [This] not necessarily a favorite at all: the revolution in military affairs or transformation technologies for the US military...The US military thinks it has figured out a way to fight asymmetric warfare with insurgencies and terrorists using network-based robot-centric warfare.... That is a huge effort inside the Pentagon which is largely unknown.....Boeing is doing the software for the project [and] calls it the "system of systems." It will be the largest software project ever created. I find it fascinating that the single largest wing of the US government should be involved in such a fundamental transformation of the way it operates and fights wars and it [is] largely unreported outside of the specialist press.
Pontin's other "favorite" technology: Nanotechnology has the profound potential to change all of our manufacturing processes so the very fundamentals where we think in a world of scarcity are not going to be undone now, but I can see a future where we think about manufacturing in very different ways....Using a combintation of nanotechnology and biotechnology, we know we can make new forms of bio fuels that would power our current society and all our transportation for the forseeable future. That changes a great deal. It changes the cost of environmental damage. It has implications for foriegn policy. It has implications for feeding and creating wealth in the poor world.
The technology Pontin most fears: Technologies are morally neutral. Any sufficiently powerful technology can always be applied to a malignant end...The combination of recombinant DNA and synthetic life can cure an extraordinary number of diseases to a better end. But it can also be used with a fairly cursory biological knowledge to make what are called recombinant pathogenic weapons. These are biological weapons which are considerably more frightening than ebola or small pox which after all would merely kill you....Recombinant pathogenic weapons can be created to mimic anything your body does.....they could eliminate memory, create euphoria, create fear, or pacify a population. The Russians in the late 80s and early 90s worked on a recombinant weapon which seamed very benign. It spread flu. Then, when the patient went into the hospital to be treated for flu, the treatment itself released a binary innoculary: a virus inside of the first which was fatal to the patient. A terrorist could buy on eBay all the gene sequencing technology he needed for around $10,000, the biological material for a few thousand or more (dollars), and with a Ph.D. and a few graduate-level lab assistants, could create something very nasty.