Information Technology for Development
JOHN S. MAYO
Recent developments in information technology will enable all countries - and especially the developing nations-to leap into the Information Age. Happily, no longer must these countries watch the advances in communications and information networking that they are seeking move forward one step at a time, as might have been the case in the past. With this in mind, this paper will delve into the possible impacts of the available information technology on developing countries. But any discussion of the role that information technology might play in such countries first must be placed in context by examining the forces propelling the emerging multimedia communications revolution and the evolution of the information superhighway, including AT&T's vision of it.
THE FORCES DRIVING THE MULTIMEDIA REVOLUTION AND THE EVOLUTION OF THE INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY
The key underlying information technologies are the prime drivers and the major enablers behind the emerging multimedia communications revolution and the paving of the information superhighway-as well as a host of other advances that together are changing the way in which people live, work, play, travel, and communicate. Because these key information technologies are changing the work and home environments, they also are helping to address consumer needs. In fact, the more they can do, the more new products and services the consumer wants, producing an upward spiral that has lasted over three decades and will surely last at least one or two decades more.
But what are these key underlying information technologies? They are silicon chips, computing, photonics or lightwaves, and software. The technology capabilities have been doubling every year in a number of such domains-for example, in computing and photonics-and doubling every 18 months in silicon chips. Even software-once a “bottleneck” technology because of quality and programmer-productivity problems-is beginning to advance rapidly in such major areas as telecommunications because of advanced programming languages and reuse of previously developed software modules. Such modules contribute to programmer productivity because they can be used in more than one project, and they improve quality because they have been tested.
Perhaps the most widely known example of technology advancements is the explosive growth in the power of silicon chips-one measure of which is the number of transistors that can be crammed onto a chip the size of a fingernail. This number, now in the millions, is moving steadily toward known physical limits. In the early part of the next century, today's familiar solid-state devices may mature, with transistors measuring about 400 atoms by 400 atoms each-the smallest such transistors likely to operate reliably at room temperature. The new frontier, then, will not be in making the devices smaller, but in using creatively and economically the vast increase in complexity and power made possible by this remarkable technology.
The amazing progress of silicon chips forms a microcosm of the broad thrust of information technology and all the associated forces that are leading to the multimedia communications revolution and the evolution of the information superhighway. But what progress is being made in the related driving forces, and what impacts are they having?
After the invention of the integrated circuit, every time the number of transistors on a silicon chip increased by a factor of a thousand, something had to be reengineered-that is, something had to be radically changed or improved because it was a new ball game. As researchers headed toward the first thousandfold increase, the reengineering took the form of changing all of AT&T's design processes, which had been based on discrete components. When the milestone of a thousand transistors per chip was attained, the new digital circuitry was used by AT&T to reengineer its products from analog to digital, as did many other industries. This early progress toward digital products, made possible by silicon chips and software, brought about the digitalization of most systems and services - both domestically and, more and more, globally-creating a powerful force that is driving the information industry toward multimedia communications and the information superhighway.
When, about a decade ago, researchers approached the milestone of a million transistors per chip, powerful microcomputers became possible, along with all the periphery related to them and the needed software systems. All this resulted in an explosion of advanced communications services, forcing the antitrust process that led to the reengineering of AT&T: from a company that provided largely voice and data-on-voice telecommunications services to a company focused on universal information services. The theme of universal information services is voice, data, and images anywhere, anytime, with convenience and economy. Such advanced services, provided on an increasingly intelligent global network, constitute the beginning of multimedia communications, now emerging as the revolution of the 1990s and beyond.
In this era of yet another thousand-fold increase in transistors per chip, reengineering has extended beyond AT&T and toward the merging of the communications, computer, consumer electronics, and entertainment industries. The bringing together of these four industries has started out in the obvious ways - that is, through joint projects, joint ventures, mergers, acquisitions and some new start-up companies. This reengineering of the information industry appears to be the next to the last step in the information revolution brought on by the invention of the transistor.
The last step, and one that may go on forever, is the reengineering of society-of how people live, work, play, travel, and communicate-creating a whole new way of life. For example, it will change education through distance learning and school at home; it will change work life through virtual offices and work at home; and it will diminish the need for people to transport themselves elsewhere for work or such routine tasks as visiting and shopping. But social change as well as technology will be needed to make many of these changes happen.
Another driving force toward multimedia communications and the information superhighway is the worldwide push toward common standards and open, user-friendly interfaces that will encourage global networking and maximum interoperability and connectivity. Photonic or lightwave transmission facilities, for example, will be based on the evolving international standard known as SDH or synchronous digital hierarchy. Because SDH defines standard network interfaces, service providers and customers will be able to use equipment from many different vendors without worrying about compatibility. This will facilitate the upgrading of existing networks and the construction of new networks on a worldwide basis. SDH also will provide efficient transport of broadband services and will simplify networks. Similar standards in domestic networks will enable digital communications to the workplace and home and will make possible high data-rate services.
The broadband integrated services digital network or B-ISDN is a new digital format as well as an international standard that supports such multiple services as voice, data, and new video services over lightwave transmission facilities. This development could introduce an exciting new era in global communications networking as equipment vendors and service providers adopt compatible standards to provide sophisticated high-bandwidth, or high-information-capacity, services. B-ISDN is currently defined at interface rates of 155 million bits per second and 622 million bits per second.
At present, the force pacing behind the multimedia and information superhighway revolution is not so much the technology as it is marketplace demands. For the greater part of this century, the user willingly accepted whatever technological capabilities were available. Thus the telecommunications industry was supplier-driven, and suppliers managed the evolution of the industry and the information highway. But eventually the technology became so rich that it made many more capabilities available than the user could accept-that is, developers were able to design a lot more products and services than customers were willing to pay for. That marked the transition from a supplier-driven industry to today's customer-driven industry-from supplier push to marketplace pull. Globally, the transfer and assimilation of information technology are combining with political and regulatory forces-such as the move toward the privatization of telecommunications in both developed and developing countries-to result in the growth of ever-stronger competition in the provision of communications products and services. Such emerging competition is another force driving the evolution of both multimedia communications and the information superhighway. Moreover, public policy is being challenged-not just in the United States but also globally-to provide a framework within which that evolution can occur with full and fair competition for all players.
THE MULTIMEDIA REVOLUTION
The pursuit of multimedia is placing social pressures on the evolution of the information superhighway both in the United States and around the world. But what exactly are multimedia? The term refers to information that combines more than one medium, where the media can include speech, music, text, data, graphics, fax, image, video, and animation. AT&T tends to focus on multimedia products and services that are connected over a communications and information network. Examples of such networked multimedia communications range from videotelephony and video conferencing; to real-time video on demand, interactive video, and multimedia messaging; to remote collaborative work, interactive information services such as electronic shopping, and multimedia education and training. Eventually, advanced virtual reality services will enable people to indirectly and remotely experience a place or an event in all dimensions.
Public-switched networks-or information highways-can presently accommodate a wide array of networked multimedia communications, and the evolutionary directions of those networks will enable them to handle an increasingly vast range of such communications. Moreover, there is a potentially vast market for multimedia hardware and supporting software. Although actual projections differ widely, the most commonly quoted projection for the total worldwide market for multimedia products and services is roughly $100 billion by the year 2000.
AT&T is playing a major role in facilitating the emerging multimedia revolution-as a service provider, as a provider of network products to local service providers, and as a provider of products to end users. These are familiar roles for AT&T, but it also is studying another, perhaps less familiar, major role in relation to the multimedia revolution: that of “host” for a wide variety of digital content and multimedia applications developed by others. Hosting is a function that connects end users to the content they are seeking-that is, it provides easy, timely, and convenient access to personal communications, transactions, information services, and entertainment via wired and wireless connections to telephones, hand-held devices, computers, and eventually television sets. Independent sources of this digital content eventually will range from publishers to large movie studios to small cottage industry software houses.
The role of host illustrates one of the key challenges of the information superhighway because openness of critical interfaces and global standards are vital to the complex hosting function. The entertainment industry, for example, must have software systems that are compatible with those of the hosting industry, and these software systems, in turn, must be compatible with those of the communications and information-networking industry, which then must be compatible with those for the customer-premises equipment industry.
The tremendous growth in available information and databases will then stimulate the need for personal intelligent agents. Software programs activated by electronic messages in the network, these “smart agents” find, access, process, and deliver desired information to the customer. In fact, they can perform many of the time-consuming tasks that have discouraged a number of users from taking advantage of on-line services and the emerging electronic marketplace. One feature of AT&T's recently announced enhanced network service, AT&T PersonaLink Services, these smart agents can make shopping for the best mortgage, or finding the best new car deal, or finding out which store has a particular sought-after item much easier by avoiding the people at the interface who add negative value. For example, a replacement part is needed, but two calls to the store that might have it produce no satisfactory response. A trip to the store and a wait in line then produce a salesperson who queries the store's database and says, “We don't have it in stock.” A smart agent could have queried the store's database and saved the store and the customer a big investment in a zero-revenue operation. There was never a problem with the database; the problem was the people who were inadvertently in the way of the customer's ability to access it - adding negative value but diligently trying to do their jobs. A smart agent simply could have done it better.
On an even more personal level, people who are geographically apart in the age of multimedia communications will not, for example, just play games together over networks; they will visit and build their relationships. Consumers and business associates will seek new relationships based on “telepresence,” a new type of community, and a social experience independent of geography. This potential for interactive networks is quite unlike that found in the proposed availability in the United States of 500 preprogrammed TV channels; rather people will have the freedom to choose any subject or service from the intelligent terminals in their homes and offices. Indeed, they will be able to network clusters of friends or associates to enjoy such services as a group.
Networked multimedia communications will dramatically change the nature of work and therefore will have a broad impact on business-first in developed nations and eventually in developing nations. Video conferencing, for example, will enhance productivity, save time, and reduce travel. And current developments in multimedia telephony are making the possibility of remote collaborative work more and more realistic. In a few years, for example, a person working in real time with colleagues or suppliers in branch offices in New York, Hong Kong, Paris, and Sydney could accomplish the combined task of producing printed materiels' presentation slides, and a videotape introducing a new product line.
AT&T'S VISION OF THE INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY
As noted earlier, the pursuit of multimedia communications is driving social issues related to the evolution of the information superhighway. AT&T envisions that the information superhighway will bring people together, giving them easy access to each other and to the information and services they want and need - anytime, anywhere. According to this view, the information superhighway is a seamless web of communications and information networks-together with other elements of the national information infrastructure, such as computers, databases, and consumer electronics-that will put vast amounts of information at the fingertips of a variety of users. The information superhighway is, quite simply, a vast interoperable network of networks embracing local, long-distance, and global networks; wireless; broadcast and cable; and satellites. In addition, the information superhighway embraces the Internet, as well as the test beds¹ associated with the High-Performance Computing Initiative²-such as the experimental communications network known as the Blanca test bed with which AT&T is associated. The information superhighway is not a uniform end-to-end network developed and operated by government or any one company. It is the totality of networks in the nation, interconnected domestically and globally. And it is an important part of the evolving global information superhighway.
THE IMPACTS OF TECHNOLOGY TRENDS ON DEVELOPING NATIONS
Advanced information technology trends, multimedia communications, and the information superhighway will have a variety of broad, beneficial social impacts on developing nations. Advanced communications, growing in ubiquity, could slow the migration of rural people to urban areas-a traditional problem in such countries as the People's Republic of China. For example, people living in rural areas would be less inclined to move to the cities if advanced communications systems gave them access to jobs and sophisticated social services where they already live. In the United States, the pervasive communications infrastructure has enabled information-intensive businesses to flourish anywhere in the country. The information superhighway even could alleviate congestion and commuter traffic pollution in cities by making telecommuting possible-by bringing good jobs to people wherever they are. The work-at-home movement is gaining momentum, and trials with certain kinds of jobs show that employees can be even more highly productive without leaving their homes. One side benefit here is reduced costs for urban office space.
Information technology also could revolutionize education and eliminate differences in quality between rural and urban education systems by enabling a limited number of the very best teachers and professors to reach huge numbers of students. Both students and teachers could be located practically anywhere in “virtual” classrooms, and they could enhance learning by accessing multimedia network databases on a great variety of content areas.
Information superhighways also could revolutionize medical care by helping to deliver high-quality medical care far from large population centers. Advanced communications would permit frequent meetings between rural health workers and physicians located in more populated areas. The same capability would permit direct doctor-to-patient consultation and follow-up.
Advances in information technology also are stitching together a truly global society and a global economy in which developing nations would be able to participate fully. Peoples and countries would be able to retain their ethnic and cultural identities, yet at the same time communicate, transact, and interact seamlessly across geographic and political boundaries. Within political boundaries, a modern information infrastructure would help to strengthen the ties that hold a nation's people together. In a large country such as China, for example, the huge distances between cities and regions and the enormous complexity of regional dialects have made communication among the Chinese people exceptionally difficult. Thus the information superhighway could help to lessen both the obstacle of distance and the barrier of language. Information technology also will eventually make possible real-time translation of languages (speech in one language is automatically translated into another language and vice versa).
In addition to these social impacts, the key information technology trends, multimedia communications, and the information superhighway will have some broad public policy impacts on developing nations. For example, in general, investment in communications infrastructure contributes significantly to a nation's overall economic development. Fortunately, the new technologies in which developing countries would be investing are becoming more and more cost-effective, and in choosing the technology path that will move them most directly into the Information Age, these countries will have the opportunity to “leapfrog” many of the older technologies that preceded today's advanced network systems-for example, to install glass fiber in local distribution networks. Indeed, the technology is available to actually “jump-start” a developing nation. For example, cellular radio can provide telephony almost overnight and serve large markets while the fiber-optic infrastructure is put in place. But any such investments in physical infrastructure also will require a heavy investment in the development of the human infrastructure. The global leaders of the twenty-first century will be those countries that have invested not only in the right technologies, but also in the intellectual growth of the people who will use them.
Information technology is vital as well to economic reform and development and to attracting and meeting the needs of foreign investors. In the area of financial management, for example, information technology could enable a country to move away from a cash economy to one in which electronic transactions not only are faster, but also provide much greater visibility into economic activity.
Finally, information technology would both facilitate and complicate the job of governing. It would facilitate by making available to decision makers vastly expanded resources of timely information. And it would complicate by greatly expanding the numbers of people who would be informed about important issues and who inevitably would want to play a role in deciding them.
In the United States, the government has played a crucial role in nurturing rapid technological progress, as well as the rapid application of new technologies in the marketplace. In the communications sector, for example, the government has established a clear set of national objectives such as universal service, technological leadership, and broadband capability into all population centers. The government also has created a strong, independent regulatory structure designed to ensure that private companies serve the public interest in a fair and competitive marketplace, although there is still a way to go toward genuine and effective competition in the local exchange. Many, if not most, developing nations are still evolving their policies, laws, and regulations governing the communications industry-a very important task.
In summary, rich information technology, the worldwide push toward global standards, ever-increasing customer demands, and growing global competition are the key forces driving the emerging multimedia communications revolution and the evolution of a information superhighway-developments that promise a broad range of Information Age benefits to virtually every citizen of the United States. They also promise to extend these Information Age benefits to virtually every citizen of the world, including the developing nations.
1. A test bed is a technical trial of leading-edge technology in order to evaluate the technology and its application.
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