TALKING IT OVER
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON
October 13, 1999
Over the course of the next 30 years, what changes do you think will have the most profound impact on how we live our lives?
Will we all be living in smart houses, where the refrigerator reads the expiration date on the milk carton and places an online order for another gallon? Will bathroom scales send our weight directly to our doctors or even to the refrigerator, which will refuse to open if we've gained too many pounds? Will the bathroom mirror display the morning's headlines as we brush our teeth? Will small computers embedded in our clothing send a signal to our smart cars, with directions to our destination and road conditions?
Here at the White House Millennium Council, we asked several experts what changes they think will most affect the way we live in the next century. With resounding unanimity, they replied: genetic research and information technology. So, at this week's eighth Millennium Evening at the White House, we decided to take a peek into the future in a program we called "Informatics Meets Genomics."
Spurred on by the computer chip and rapidly expanding computing capacity, information technology has revolutionized our lives -- from the workplace to personal communication -- in a very brief time. Today, there are nearly 200 million Internet users around the world, and in the United States alone, more than 1,000 new households join each hour.
In 1999, nearly 10 million children used the Internet, a number projected to triple in the next four years. In one recent poll, 28 percent of teenagers reported that they could live without their TV, but only 23 percent acknowledged that they could get by without their computer. Last year, 33.8 million people used the Internet to make travel plans, and 17 million shopped online.
At the White House this week, Dr. Vinton Cerf, one of the architects of the Internet, described his vision of the future: "One thing is for certain," he said. "We will be serving ourselves increasingly on the Internet. From ordering books and groceries to choosing cars and configuring insurance policies, the World Wide Web is stimulating a fresh and creative look at customer service across all sectors of our economy."
Dr. Cerf shared one very personal example of the important link between computer technology and medicine. His wife, Sigrid, has a cochlear implant, which, using a pager-sized computer, connects a sound source directly to her auditory nerve. After her implant was activated, Mrs. Cerf, profoundly deaf since the age of 3, and her husband enjoyed their first-ever telephone conversation. Now, Dr. Cerf says, "I have a real problem: a 56-year-old teenager!"
In the area of genetic research, increasing computer capacity has opened the door to a dramatically expanded understanding of the human genome. The Human Genome Project, which will soon identify all of the estimated 100,000 genes in human DNA and determine the sequences of the 3 billion chemical bases that make up that DNA, has the potential to radically alter the way medicine will be practiced in the 21st century.
According to Dr. Eric Lander, one of the leading genome researchers in the country, "We are in the midst of one of the most remarkable revolutions in the history of mankind -- a revolution whose consequences will be so far-reaching that they will touch every aspect of society."
In the next century, Dr. Lander says, genomic research will lead to the treatment and prevention of common human diseases -- such as Alzheimer's and breast cancer. "We will look back on cancer," he predicts, "as a treatable and often preventable disease -- a distant scourge, much like we today regard polio."
Along with such once-unimaginable scenarios come profound ethical questions: Who owns the explosion of information on the Internet? How will we protect our privacy even as personal data is broadcast around the world? How will we make sure that genetic information is used to heal, and not to deny health insurance or jobs?
In one of his short stories, Ray Bradbury's vision of the year 2030 included windows that washed themselves, food that cooked itself, and a voice machine that announced birthdays, anniversaries and bills to be paid. But there were no people. The world's population had been completely wiped out -- leaving only machines.
We have been given the chance to imagine and create a very different future -- a future where revolutions in information and biology benefit, rather than eclipse, our humanity, and where our ethics keep pace with our science. Unlike the clever scenarios described by science fiction writers, the key to this story's outcome lies in all of our hands.
To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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