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Reality of a more digital future

If you go shopping for a new car this holiday season, you might discover vehicles that can drive themselves down virtually any public street or highway. For proof, just visit San Francisco.

Meanwhile, according to U.S. Census data, the most common occupation in 29 states is some variation of truck or delivery driver.

Why do I mention those two trends?

Take a moment to consider what happens when they collide. What will that mean for the U.S. economy? For our education system? For the country as a whole?

These are big questions, and there are a lot more like them. On the horizon is an age of truly ubiquitous technology, when computation and networking are woven throughout the very fabric of life, from the clothes on our bodies to the walls of our buildings. At Georgia Tech, we recently convened leading experts to peer into this technological future and examine how it will affect us.

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The future they described and dissected will demand that citizens be not just literate, but computationally literate. It will include devices that allow the blind to see and the deaf to hear; prostheses that can be controlled via cognition like Luke Skywalker’s robotic hand; personal medical interventions made possible through big data analyses of social media feeds, and biometric fashions that react to one’s physiology and communicate information to those around us. (All of which, by the way, are possible today in preliminary form.)

This future also includes far larger phenomena, such as a “new economy” whose capacity for professional independence could produce a new labor movement protecting the rights of individuals; or an actuarial reality in which one’s physiology together with DNA can predict health and disease with frightening accuracy.

Who should be privy to such data? At what cost should it be available to individuals?

Depending on your particular perspective, you might have walked away from our gathering feeling exhilarated, unsettled, optimistic, anxious, reassured, terrified or all of these things, all at once. Humanity is now capable of such amazing technological feats that we have become the sorcerers of old, wielding magic nearly beyond comprehension against the forces that would do us harm.

But one need only read the news each day to know we are just as capable of directing our magic against ourselves, with or without intent. As one visiting speaker said, “We are on the verge of a new generation of computing ‘substrates’ that can leverage the complexity of life in all its glory. But we have to wrestle now with what should we do, not just what could we do.”

These questions cannot be answered at Tech. But they can and should be asked, repeatedly, not just of our own professors and students, but of the people who visit our campus with experience of the wider world. The future these answers portend will demand that technology not be left to the technologists. It will demand that society at large — journalists, executives, clerks, lawyers, artists, doctors and, yes, truck drivers — engage with these changes.

My colleagues and I believe strongly the future is a positive one. We invite anyone with a serious interest to connect with Georgia Tech and help us chart the best path forward, one that balances humanity’s scientific precocity with our innate — and imperfect — nature.

Feel free to ride to Midtown in your self-driving car.

Zvi Galil is dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech.

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