PSTX Seal

Looking back from 2010 I

            It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to talk with you this morning about the future of technology and our society.

            What will Texas look like in 2010? Let me start with any reasonable technology forecaster’s warning: It is very easy to overestimate how quickly things will change in regards to technology. Our technology industry often gets very excited about the promise of our inventions and advances and has a tendency to think that the rest of society has the same level of enthusiasm and a willingness to adopt new technology into our work, lives, and entertainment.

            Nevertheless, I do believe that by 2010 the ultimate direction of today’s emerging technology trends will be very clear to most of us. The direction that we are heading: technological intelligence will surpass human intelligence.

            This has incredible ramifications for many of the social, political and economic issues this forum is addressing. The ultimate power of the human species to be the primary influence on Earth is coming to an end. Sometime within the next 30 to 50 years, humans will no longer rule this planet; the microprocessor will.

            Clearly, computers are already taking over many of the decisions that traditionally are made by humans. On my drive to this conference this morning, I was listening to NPR and the commentator complained that he had just heard the latest college football ranking based on a computer analysis evaluating which two colleges should play for the national title. What frustrated him was that he did not know whom to call to vent his anger with the analysis. He explained that when people voted, if he disagreed, he could rant and rave directly at them about their decision. However, with a computer doing the analysis, he did not know how to direct his opinion. He felt that he had lost his power to object.

            A recent example of our growing dependency on computers and technology is the disruption we are concerned that Y2K will bring. The issue has certainly received enormous attention from our media and has created a great deal of fear about our society’s infrastructure shutting down as we hit the year 2000. No matter what happens, I believe the true legacy for the “Y2K issue” is that for the first time our society realized that if computers shut down, our modern society would shut down. We are already extremely dependent on computers to run our infrastructure.

            By 2010, we will have another critical realization similar to Y2K. That realization will be that our society will be more dependent on the computer’s intelligence than on human intelligence.

            An example of this growing “computing intelligence” occurred a couple of years ago when, for the first time, a computer beat the world chess champion. We took one of our brightest humans and a computer beat him.

            Computers can make serious evolutionary jumps in a matter of months, while humans take hundreds of years to genetically change. Our species will not be able to keep up with the pace of technological change. For humans, “generational differences” usually refers to tastes and interests rather than well-defined improvements in brainpower and abilities. A new generation for computers usually means greater ability to process and analyze information. Gordon Moore, an inventor of the integrated circuit, came up with the insightful observation that every 24 months, you could pack twice as many transistors on an integrated circuit. This doubles both the number of components on a chip as well as its processing speed. Therefore a significant evolutionary progress occurs in the technology world in a matter of a couple of years.

            There is an interesting test developed by Allen Turing in the 1950s. The test involves a human judge trying to tell the difference between a computer’s and a human’s response. The judge asks questions to a human and a computer and then the judge decides who responded. Computers have continued to improve on the test and it is estimated that by the year 2020, it will be extremely difficult to tell the difference between respondents.

            So when you contrast the intense speed of computer evolution and the slow pace of our evolution, it becomes clear that eventually computers will surpass our species as the most advanced “beings” on Earth.

            Let me present one more example. I recently started a company called Zilliant. Zilliant is part of the Internet investment wave that allows start-ups to raise millions of dollars to launch a business to take advantage of the power of the Internet. One of the software tools that Zilliant uses is “intelligent agents.” These intelligent agents are programmed to go out on the Internet and look for specific items. They do the work of hundreds of employees. They work 24 hours per day, seven days a week, to do a given task. What is amazing about the technology is that these intelligence agents, or “bots,” can discriminate between types of information and get smarter the more they operate. Therefore, they do the intelligent work of humans but in a much more efficient and cost effective manner.

            So how do we relate this technological innovation to Texas mythology? In order to take a refresher course in Texas mythology, I reread Edna Ferber’s Giant, which presented every Texas stereotype in its full glory. There was land, oil, power and money and all the drama and intrigue. What struck me while rereading and examining the story with today’s business climate is the book’s portrayal of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship served as the catalyst for change in West Texas. This same type of entrepreneurship and the mythology exists today in our “new economy” of Texas. Michael Dell symbolizes the new Texas entrepreneur. Michael is the Jett Rink played by James Dean in the Giant movie. This new generation of maverick entrepreneurship is thriving in Texas’s new economy and bodes well for Texas and the next generation of Texas mythology.

            This maverick entreprenuership is thriving right here in Austin at the end of this century. We have had two major “oil strikes” by technology companies called Vignette and Crossroads. These companies have multibillion dollar stock market valuations. Miraculously, these technology companies that did not even exist five years ago have generated unbelievable wealth and influence for hundreds of central Texans.

            Based on technological innovation and entrepreneurship, I would like to present a different view from Dr. Silber’s discussion of the end of the frontier that we have in the U.S and specifically in Texas.

            The technology world offers our state a whole new frontier to explore. The boundaries, rules and future for this industry are still unclear. At the same time, entrepreneurs are trying to create and invent new opportunities that might offer many of the features of our mythologized western frontier.

            Today’s technological triumphs and failures will be the myths for future generations. I believe that the 1990s will be considered the glory days of the technology frontier. Today’s technological triumphs and failures will be the foundation for new myths for future generations. It is a special period of time that we might look back upon and appreciate the entrepreneurs who are building the next generation of the Texas story that will add to the older cowboy and oil mythologies that help define our state today.