Sunday, June 24, 2018
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No Free Lunch

Mind-boggling advances

If you’re like me, you’ve been hearing about the “Internet of Things,” but didn’t quite understand what it meant, much less what it implies for all of us. You’ve also heard terms like “big data,” “algorithms,” “blockchain” and more, but only have a vague notion of what these are and how these affect us. One thing is certain: Information and communication technology is advancing at a pace much more rapid than we had seen technology as a whole advance over the past centuries and decades. And this rapid advance is disrupting businesses, communities, and individual lives in both good and bad ways. It has also become much more difficult to anticipate what the near, medium and long-term future has in store, making it very difficult to do planning with some degree of precision.

Nearly three decades ago, when I first joined the government as a senior official in the National Economic and Development Authority, I was able to cut the average 10-year wait for a phone line down to six in my case. I managed to get preferential action from PLDT, the only national telecommunications provider then, because I made a plea to a top executive of the company who I chanced upon in a meeting. I explained how important it was for me to be within easy reach of my boss (then Secretary Dondon Paderanga, bless his soul) and my office. Whenever on the road, my office could only reach me via a handheld two-way radio, and important calls were “patched” over the

radio by the Neda radio room so I could speak to the phone caller from the car.

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A year later, I started seeing one of the first-generation cell phones with a fellow senior official from another government department (later to become president). She always had an assistant in tow, as her brick-like handset was connected to its large battery pack that the assistant carried as a shoulder bag. By the mid-1990s, already as head of Neda, I was equipped with a more modern but still bulky Motorola cell phone with an internal battery good for a few calls between charges. No longer did I have to take calls from President Fidel V. Ramos via phone patch on an erratic two-way radio. And by the time I left the government in 1998, I owned an early-generation Nokia phone that was thrice the size and weight of today’s average handset.

Fast-forward to the present, and all that technology that had impressed us 20 years ago is considered primitive by today’s standards. Video calls with almost anyone anywhere can readily be made on your smartphone that fits right in your pocket. With the same device, you can shop worldwide, visually monitor your home, and control the lights and appliances in it from the

other side of the globe. On the farms, sensors that monitor and send data on soil water content and nutrient levels, weather variables and plant conditions, make it possible to obtain more farm produce with much less inputs and resources. A doctor located even across the globe from her patient can readily diagnose the latter’s illness with great precision, and remotely administer medication delivered via devices connected to the internet. Rather than wait for market feedback, manufacturers can make improvements on their product much more quickly via built-in sensors that send data back to them and pinpoint what needs fixing or improving. There are countless other examples on how the rapid advance in technology is making life easier and better—not to say that there are no downsides to it as well, for there are many.

We used to think of the internet as a worldwide network of interconnected computers from which one can access virtually unlimited knowledge and information. It’s now way beyond that. Now we have the Internet of Things (aka IoT). The worldwide network interconnects no longer just computers, but also billions of objects and devices that send and receive data via that network, permitting these conveniences, and much more. Coupled with artificial intelligence, three-dimensional printing, nanotechnology and more, we have entered a new uncharted world of rapid change. But this rapid change needs to be managed well if we are to prevent things from getting out of hand, to the detriment of humanity itself.

cielito.habito@gmail.com

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TAGS: cellphones, Cielito F. Habito, communications technology, internet, No Free Lunch
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