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May 6, 2015

Why We Should Worry About The "New Brain-Drain": Negroponte @Infosys Confluence 2015

Posted by Rajashekara V. Maiya (View Profile | View All Posts) at 8:52 AM

Negroponte @Infosys Confluence 2015

Practise what you preach. If there's one characteristic that captures the essence of technologist Nicholas Negroponte, it's that he sticks to his advice. He practises what he preaches.

Of course, this world-famous academic, who enthralls crowds everywhere from the World Economic Forum to last week's Infosys Confluence, doles out an amazing amount of insights and predictions for the future. That's one of the reasons he is so noteworthy: He manages to live out his mantras each day - not always the easiest thing to do in a world in which technology is evolving by the minute.

At Infosys Confluence, Negroponte's message was all about hope for the future and how technology can change the world for good. These days, the number of naysayers who tell us that the digital era will increasingly take away our liberties are growing. They preach an overly cautious, wait-and-see message that results in people following instead of leading. Negroponte is just the opposite. At the MIT Media Lab, which is Negroponte's intellectual legacy to us all, one of the main principles by which all students and professors operate is that risk is better than safety. Practice is preferable to theory. And learning is prized over education.

No wonder then, that Negroponte told the Confluence audience in his 'History of the Future' speech that the world is currently experiencing a "new brain-drain." The big thinkers, he said, are reducing in number. We should be alarmed because without big thinkers, there are fewer individuals willing to embrace innovation and not be afraid of failing once in a while. Negroponte was a young professor at MIT when he co-founded the Media Lab with Jerome Wiesner, former MIT President and Science Advisor to President John F. Kennedy. When Kennedy challenged scientists to land people on the moon and return them safely to earth within the decade, he was channeling Negroponte's unabashed optimism in technology and its ability to improve lives. Such a scientific challenge encouraged the biggest of big thinkers. Kennedy's challenge culminated in the successful moon landing of Apollo 11, carrying American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. The 384,400 km distance to the moon was covered, several unsuccessful and unmanned attempts by the USSR and USA, notwithstanding.

Think about what that moon accomplishment did for the 'history of the future.' It essentially showed that what was generally considered impossible - manning a flight to the moon - could be achieved and therefore lots of other projects and ideas became achievable as well. One of the results from thinking big has been the onset of the Information Age. Unlike the moon landing, the past few decades have instead concentrated on the power of the individual and enabling the world's population through communication and connectivity. Said Negroponte to the Infosys Confluence audience: "We should look at connectivity as a human right, which is why connecting the last billion of the world's population is a challenge. Human rights aren't always translatable into profit margins and balance sheets. Doing so takes big thinking. It's easy to develop endless apps for wealthy, connected consumers. It's quite another thing to reach every corner of the earth, especially in the emerging markets, through digital connectivity."

We at Infosys have been talking about the importance of Renew-New in the context of a human revolution. Our corporate mantra is quite similar to what Negroponte's Media Lab is working on today. The MIT Media Lab's 'human adaptability' focus challenges technologists to think big in order to develop ways to treat conditions like Alzheimer's disease and depression. They are asking how robotics can be a social endeavor. That means robots that can monitor the health of children or the elderly as easily as they automate manufacturing assembly lines. Negroponte even calls for prosthetic devices that can exceed what our biological limbs can do. Look out, Six Million-Dollar Man!

When you step back and mull over Negroponte's speech, it's about how thinking big can be applied to the smallest of things. He urged the crowd to consider ingestible technology - swallowing a tiny, mechanized, connected pill - that can help researchers better understand brain function. No invasive surgery needed.

"If you need to measure the impact of something," said Negroponte, "then it was not worth doing." These are inspirational words about the essence of innovation. The impact of our big thinking is going to help everyone on earth progress in a seamless manner. Innovation so big that it doesn't need to be measured.

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