Redistributing the Future

“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

– William Gibson, science fiction writer

Those of us who grew up on The Jetsons may feel cheated. It’s the 21st century, and we don’t have flying cars, or Moon vacations, or Rosie the Robot cooking our meals. But we have some pretty amazing technology, and sometimes it’s easy to take it for granted. Especially when you work for Georgia Tech, and hang out with some of the sharpest and most forward-thinking technologists in the world.

Most people don’t.

On a global basis, I was particularly reminded of Gibson’s famous quote over the last two months during my trips to China and Brazil. There are a lot of people on the planet for whom electric lights arrived within the last few decades, and their new automobile is the first one ever owned by their family. There are many more who still don’t have electricity, or cars, and are looking forward to acquiring both. And those technologies — basic for us in the USA — will have more of an impact on their lives than Rosie the Robot would on ours.

But, even close to home, the future is unevenly distributed. I’ve been reminded of this in a couple of areas lately…

I have a cable modem at my house that routinely delivers 10 megabits/second of voice, data, and video. I complain that it costs me fifty dollars per month. But that level of service is completely unattainable in many rural counties in Georgia. Outside the major metro areas, many residents are still on dial-up modems at tens of kilobits/second… and many more still haven’t figured out what the Internet is good for, and haven’t connected yet. Even business users are limited to “fractional T1? lines, which deliver hundreds of kilobits — not megabits! — per second, but at a cost far higher than I pay for my home service.

That’s about to change. The Federal government has awarded more than $70 million in grants to Georgia companies to build out our rural broadband infrastructure. Dozens of companies are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in optical fiber, Internet routers, switches, and the operations support necessary to bring broadband connectivity to almost every residence and office in Georgia.

For these Georgians, it will be like pressing a fast-forward button into the future. Most of that bandwidth, of course, will be wasted on YouTube videos of skateboarding dogs and similar fluff. Some of it will connect families and friends through cheap or free videoconferencing. But some of it will be used to reinvent businesses. Business-quality videoconferencing. Electronic sharing of X-rays and other medical data. Collaborative workspaces. An employee in Blue Ridge or Bainbridge will have the same access to network connectivity as one in Buckhead. The “future,” at least in Georgia, will be distributed a little more evenly. And this will all happen in the next few years.

But some of my recent encounters with the medical profession reminded me of Gibson’s quote again… only in reverse. Consider your medical diagnostics and treatments. Right now, if you have good medical insurance, you’ll find yourself surrounded by advanced technology for a routine checkup. If your primary physician recommends a specialist, you’ll encounter even more. But, for most Americans, the results of those scans and imagings and lab tests create islands of information that aren’t connected. Many doctors — even at the ultra-sophisticated Emory Eye Clinic — remain dependent on clipboards, printouts, fax machines, and manila file folders.

Other countries have taken different paths. In Hong Kong, all 40 hospitals and 120 clinics can share records and radiology images for the region’s seven million residents. Approximately 30,000 clinical staff use the network every day. In Brazil, millions of patients have electronic medical records that they, their physicians, and their laboratories can all access over the Internet. They’ll never hear “Oh, we don’t have access to that X-ray, so we’ll just take another one here.” How many of you have heard something like that from an American doctor or hospital? I certainly have.

So, the future is distributed a little unevenly, but this time, the USA is behind. Paperless doctor’s offices have been promised for years — much of the technology used in Hong Kong and Brazil was invented in the United States! — but legal, political, and economic barriers have prevented widespread deployment. That’s about to change. The Federal government is investing more than $19 billion to accelerate the conversion to networked electronic medical records — and will start withholding a percentage of Medicare reimbursements for those providers who are not demonstrating “meaningful use” by 2014.

Implementing health interchange networks will be a huge change for more than 400,000 health care workers in Georgia alone. And, again, this will all happen in the next few years.

Times of great change bring great opportunity. And these changes mean great opportunity for Georgia Tech.

We’re in a unique position. We are one of the greatest technological research universities in the world, but we’re in a state with some of the most rural counties in the United States. We have the ability to help these counties “fast forward” by implementing existing technologies in ways that simply haven’t been available to them before. Redistributing the future to rural Georgia doesn’t require any scientific breakthroughs, but good solid engineering and public policy work. That’s the sort of work that Georgia Tech has always been good at, and I think we’re going to be able to make a real difference in Georgia over the next few years.


  1. I probably should have explained that this was originally written for an internal Georgia Tech newsletter, then re-purposed here… explains the different tone from my typical blog post.

  2. 21st Century Telecom, Inc. is an ATDC rural-based start-up. Its Emerging Telecommunications Technology Development Program represents an innovative approach for providing bundled information technology and renewal energy solutions.


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