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Can technology solve all ills?

A recent interview with Bill Gates, former CEO of Microsoft and currently philanthropist extraordinaire, rocked the tech world when Bill came out forcefully against the misplaced priorities of those who think that technology can solve every problem facing the world.  In particular, Bill railed against a new crop of technology billionaires who are focused on saving the world by expanding internet access and similar efforts while ignoring the basic blocking and tackling of helping people.  In Bill’s words, “Someone staring up a Google blimp that provides Internet access won’t care about what they see if they are infected with malaria.”

There is a significant generational gap when it comes to the value of technology in fighting the problems of the world.  Younger people tend to look at technology as the silver bullet whereas the generations that came before see technology as sometimes part of the problem.  The reality is that the truth is somewhere in the middle.  Consider world hunger for a moment.  There are those who feel that the solution lies in teaching the peoples of the third world how to grow their own food in their own communities to feed themselves but there is a consorted effort by others, led primarily by large agribusiness interests, to convince the world that the solution is creating better crop yields using technology and genetic engineering.

As one example, a German scientist, Ingo Portyku, developed something called Golden Rice, a genetically engineered strain of rice designed to supply 60 percent of the daily requirements of vitamin A in people so as to combat blindness and death in children.  It gets its name from the distinctive yellow hue of the rice.  You would think a development like this would be welcomed in the third world, where infant mortality rates are high and blindness in children all too common but environmental groups have been fighting Golden Rice since it was introduced, arguing that it’s unnatural and could cause unforeseen environmental damage.

The reality is, like all things, there is no one answer, no silver bullet.  Technology plays a role in solving problems but it can only work when coupled with efforts to help people with old fashion remedies, like inoculation from deadly deseases.  After all, if you lived in a country where you saw friends and family frequently die from malaria, which would you choose: Access to Facebook or an inoculation?

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