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NextFest Unveils High-tech Tools and Toys

October 27, 2006 at 6:50 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, economics correspondent Paul Solman goes on a tour of the latest of the high-tech.

ROBO-GEISHA: I’m a humanoid robot, which combines beauty, fun and reality.

PAUL SOLMAN, NewsHour Economics Correspondent: Robo-Geisha sweet-talking visitors at NextFest, the annual high-tech expo at Manhattan’s Javits Center.

From playing soccer in cyberspace to actually visiting outer space, from varicose veins to boogieing brains, by land and by sea, the exhibits engage, amuse and provoke. We’ve come to NextFest for two reasons: to check out the latest technology designed to improve our lives and to explore a larger question. Does technology lead to more and more high-quality economic growth?

ROBO-GEISHA: All of this is being developed for the future.

PAUL SOLMAN: We economics journalists tend to see the dark side of technology — layoffs, inequality, global warming — but Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine, which stages NextFest, thinks we journalists are missing the bigger, happier picture.

CHRIS ANDERSON, Wired Magazine: This show is entirely about the powerful tools that we individuals would have tomorrow to grow from today. So we will build — we will become better quality of life, more prosperous.

Technology's benefits to society

PAUL SOLMAN: What's going on here? Technology eliminates the negative by delivering a better quality of life in small ways, helping find a broad vein for the phlebotomist...

TECH PRODUCT SPOKESMAN: We take the guesswork out of finding where we stick an I.V.

PAUL SOLMAN: ... technology delivering in very big ways, via the LifeStraw, for example, which attacks poverty and dehydration by purifying the foulest water with a series of seven filtering devices.

You stick it in dirty water?

MIKKEL VESTERGAARD FRANDSEND, LifeStraw: You stick it in dirty water that's filled with bacteria, that's filled with sediments that you don't want, and it comes out clean.

PAUL SOLMAN: Saving the lives, perhaps, of millions. Moreover, this three-dollar item which lasts a year is made by putting together technologies that have existed for a long time. When people talk about economic growth as basically, if this is a time line here and this is Rome or something like that, basically economic growth is pretty much steady. Here's the industrial revolution, and then suddenly it takes off.

You're saying it's not going to plateau; it's just going to keep growing at that steep curve?

CHRIS ANDERSON: Precisely. What you discovered right here was you had a tool. The tool is steam. Steam amplified human muscle. The next tool was the computer. The computer amplifies human intelligence. Then you have the network. The network amplifies the human voice. Every time you do that, you have this combinatorial effect of combining all of us to one plus one equals a very, very big number.

New technology potential

PAUL SOLMAN: That's one way to read the message of NextFest: Growth is a combinatorial process. The potential for new technology is exploding with every incremental invention. So, for example, automobile, plus better batteries, plus solar cells equals solar car.

How long can this go in one ride?

MARCELO DA LUZ, Inventor: Well, it can go anywhere between 200 to 250 miles, depends on how aggressive you are driving.

PAUL SOLMAN: Before you have to stop and have it suck up more sunlight?

MARCELO DA LUZ: Well, that's on the batteries alone. If you're using the solar cells while you're driving, you can drive over 500 miles.

PAUL SOLMAN: Moreover, technology growth leads to population growth -- more people staying alive longer -- which in turn leads to more people capable of making technological breakthroughs, more inventors, more geniuses. On top of which, these days any given person has more of a shot of having a big impact.

CHRIS ANDERSON: Einstein was lucky. He managed to get out of the Swiss patent office, and be discovered, and then get to America and have global impact. Today, you don't have to be so lucky to get discovered. Genius has a way of finding an outlet. People are getting an education and being able to have global impacts because technology is giving them a voice.

Fun side of technology

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, you may not want to take all of this too seriously. As NextFest reminded us, technology is often put to frivolous ends, though this computer wall game, Catch the Lights Before They Change, was good for a senior citizen workout.

And sometimes, of course, even fun can become useful, as with the bionic dolphin.

DOC ROWE, NoLand Corporation: The military has looked at them for harbor patrols. We also have a 42-footer design for search and rescue off-shore. The mouth is articulated. It opens up, gets under the person in the water, and basically swallows them.

PAUL SOLMAN: So you mean some day somebody is actually going to say to somebody else, "I was almost drowned, but I was saved by a bionic dolphin?"

DOC ROWE: Well, actually, that one would be more of a bionic whale. We call it Jonah.

PAUL SOLMAN: Jonah, not to be confused with a cybercentaur named Robonaut.

CHRIS ANDERSON: Robonaut would typically live on the outside of the space station, lives out in space doing the repair work that astronauts used to have to put on space suits to do.

PAUL SOLMAN: The astronauts, meanwhile, can stay inside the space station and control Robonaut via virtual reality. Chris Anderson donned a helmet to demonstrate.

Oh, we're seeing what the robot's seeing?

CHRIS ANDERSON: That's right.

PAUL SOLMAN: Got it, got it. I see.

Robonaut, it turns out, was developed by government and private industry, another trend in evidence here, as illustrated by this private off-shoot of NASA's public efforts, Richard Branson's SpaceShip Two for zero-gravity tourism unveiled here at NextFest.

Pros, cons of new technology

PAUL SOLMAN: In the end, the expo was all so rah-rah, so pro-technology, that it took us the Ecology Pavilion to remind us that technology and economic growth create problems of their own and that there's a reason we journalists do negative stories about them.

Wired's Chris Anderson, however, stuck to the positive side of the argument.

CHRIS ANDERSON: Global warming is a problem that technology created, right? So all those industrial machines are generating CO-2. But it's also potentially a problem that technology can solve, with things like wind turbines, solar cells. We have the capacity to solve the problem that technology created with more technology.

PAUL SOLMAN: But maybe the problems that we create are worse than the solutions are good.

CHRIS ANDERSON: How you manage technology is very tricky, but the history of the world suggests that we muddle through and that, on balance, you know, we tend to use technology to improve quality of life, to grow, and to use technology to eliminate those problems that technology creates.

PAUL SOLMAN: At Wired, they call this attitude techo-optimism, a reminder to us pessimistic journalists that stories don't often play out over the short-term and that, in the long-run, we might not want to find ourselves playing catch-up.