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  Reported by
  John Easton, AM'77
  Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93
  Richard Mertens
  Sharla Stewart
  Mary Ruth Yoe

  Photography by
  Dan Dry


  > > The End of Consulting?
  > >
Records of a Revolution
  > >
Campus of the Big Ideas
  > >
You Go Girl!


Chicago: Campus of the Big Ideas
The launch of The Chicago Initiative-the University's five-year, $2 billion fund-raising effort-was marked by an April 12 event that focused on Chicago's intellectual initiatives.

How will technology change the way we work and live?

The future was running behind. At 3:55 p.m., people were still choosing seats to hear a 3:45 talk. By four o'clock authorities and audience had settled, but no futuristic technology was immediately apparent in the spartan Pick Hall classroom.

Edward Laumann, the George Herbert Mead distinguished service professor in sociology, stood to read aloud, without audio or visual support, a handwritten paragraph about organizational structure and the impact of computer technology. But as the session got rolling, it was apparent that the future had already arrived.

We are all already "on the grid," pointed out Rick Stevens, professor in computer science, referring to the Internet. Tall and thin, dressed in black, and sporting a ponytail and beard, Stevens was a futurist from central casting, there to explain the anticipated shift from mere access to the sharing of virtual worlds.

Web access has unleashed a vast and growing amount of information, he said. But soon we will see better methods of acquiring and sharing information, new ways to collaborate on problems, and the eventual consolidation of services worldwide. One promising application will involve devoting massive computing power to biological systems, first to understand them and ultimately to modify them. This could bring a more theoretical approach, Stevens suggested, letting physicians conceive, design, and test therapies.

Vast networks of interconnected powerful computers will allow "radical delocalization," he promised, making armchair travel a reality and "virtualizing" institutions. It won't happen right away. Progress towards this future is "going to look linear for a long time," Stevens cautioned. "Then a phase transition occurs."

Computers have already revolutionized the study of language helping linguists analyze the written and spoken word in new ways, noted John Goldsmith, the Edward Carson Waller distinguished service professor in linguistics. And the pace of innovation is quickening. Language was invented about 35,000 years ago, writing around 3,000 B.C., the printing press around 1450 A.D., the telephone in 1876, the word processor in 1979, and the Internet in 1990.

Computers also are learning to translate from one language to another, a tremendously difficult activity. They are not very good at it yet, as Goldsmith demonstrated with his own talking computer, but given a basic grammar and enough practice and correction, they, like humans, can learn from their mistakes.

What does all this mean to the business world? asked Austan Goolsbee, professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business. The wealth of information helps consumers discriminate, reducing search costs. Yet it could undercut wages-even in skilled jobs. Computer technology has advanced from threatening clerical workers to endangering accountants, who already lose tax-time work to programs like TurboTax.

All three presenters agreed on several aspects of the future. Computers have already increased the ability of researchers and businesspeople to communicate and collaborate. And students, with their insatiable appetites for new technologies, will continue to drive progress, forcing their mentors to keep up.

1. In the beginning: what do our origins tell us about ourselves?

2. Homo sapiens: are we really rational creatures?

3. Integrating the physical and biological sciences: what lies ahead?

4. Money, services, or laws: how do we improve lives?

5. Clones, genes, and stem cells: can we find the path to the greatest good?

6. How will technology change the way we work and live?

7. Why do we dig up the past?

8. Art for art's sake?

9. In the realm of the senses: how do we understand what we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste?

10. Can we protect civil liberties in wartime?


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  JUNE 2002

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  > > e-Bulletin: 06/14/02



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