Time has proved him right in almost everything. Negroponte talks in Madrid, where he participates this Thursday in the day Cruce de Caminos, organized by Banco Caminos and Bancofar. He remains confident in his visions of the future, which today sound very daring. Of course, what he said 30 years ago was also bold.
Question. What is the next milestone for humanity?
Answer. The digital world has been integrated into our lives. What will come now will no longer be extrapolations from computing, like the ones we have seen.
Question. Is bioengineering the next revolution?
Answer. That will be one of the great things that come, yes. We will have genetically modified humans and we will correct the errors of nature. It will be a very different future.
P. Can we really live 150 or 200 years? Will we or our descendants do it?
R. That will happen safely in the next generation. It's a bit late for us, because reversing aging is more difficult. But there is no doubt that your children and my grandchildren will live to be 150 years old. And we will make the disabled able to walk, then we can eliminate the rare diseases …
P. And the world will be fed artificial food.
R. Creating meat that does not come from cows is a wonderful project. We can replicate the cells of cows without harming animals, without the CO2 they emit, saving water, taking care of the environment, and making people have meat.
P. Will technology also save us from climate change?
R. Technology is the only solution to climate change. There is no other. We have to find a way to produce energy, not necessarily from renewable sources, such as wind or sun, but by making nuclear fusion work. In 50 years we will have a different economy and a better world thanks to it.
P. You predict huge advances for humanity. Do you not fear that human miseries, or political and economic interests, prevent them from benefiting the majority?
R. Corporate interests often slow some progress, but not for long. It is well known that those who have interests in oil can force a delay in alternative technologies. That is why it is so difficult to make predictions about when some things will come, because delays often come from external forces that have nothing to do with technology.
P. The 5G, the system that will dominate mobile communications, is being the center of this Second Cold War, a battlefield between the US and China for that technology. Who will win?
R. It has been 15 years since the USA has surrendered in the technologies of the telecommunication. The main players are no longer American companies. The sudden interest in 5G, and in particular by Huawei, I find incredible. Because 5G is not as important as they are selling. It's just an incremental change over 4G. The milestone was 3G. This is not nuclear fusion. If someone dominates nuclear fusion, it will change the rules of the game. The 5G is not going to be groundbreaking. And if we look at what China does in areas like 5G, it is far ahead of the US.
P. You represent optimism in the face of technological changes. But everything indicates that public opinion has gone from enthusiasm to pessimism.
R. I'm still an optimist, but that's true. There is a growing feeling around the world of skepticism, that technology has created many of the problems we have to fix. If you look at it objectively and with perspective, technology has brought many solutions, as in medicine, and the problems are mainly due to how we use technology.
P. Internet giants are now seen as a big oligopoly that does business without control with our data. A kind of Big Brother.
R. I will give another example. When the revelations of Snowden, many Americans like me were surprised that the Government was watching us. If you go to China, and I've just been there, you see hundreds of cameras on the street doing facial recognition and creating an almost perfect security. And the people are satisfied. They say: OK, maybe what you Westerners consider intimacy is violated, but we have no crime. They are things that look different from each culture.
P. Does China play an advantage in the technological race due to the lack of guarantees for privacy? There you can create a huge database of genetic data that in the West would not be viable.
R. Europe is perhaps the world leader in privacy protection. On the other hand, there are many people who die in Germany because it is illegal to share data that would allow them to be saved. It is a difficult balance. If I get hit by a car, I do not want my medical information protected, I want the ambulance to know everything.
P. Do you think the giants of Silicon Valley should be divided like other monopolies in the past, which has been proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren?
R. I'm not sure that dividing these companies guarantees issues like privacy. Nobody likes that a company grows so much and is dominant, but what we have to look at is what we get out of them, who is contributing more to knowledge and science. It is surprising how little many of these big companies contribute. Young people want to be Mark Zuckerberg, they do not want to be Alan Turing. It's disappointing. We need people who invent and be imaginative like Turing.
P. Are social networks affecting the quality of democracy? There, extremist ideas, hate messages …
R. I do not use social networks very much. I am more an observer. It is clear that they are having an impact. In some places, they are creating democracy, in other parts they are weakening it. The balance is probably in favor of democracy.
P. Several studies warn of the destruction of millions of jobs by robotization, even in the most intellectual activities. This is generating anxiety in the population and opening debates such as the universal income. What is the future of employment?
R. It is easier to automate most intellectual activities than most service jobs, such as preparing fast food. It is easier to have a lawyer robot, or accountant. The displacement of employment will not depend on intellectual abilities. At some point we will have to rethink the concept of work. A part of the concept has to do with having a sense, a purpose. People will always have a purpose, but it may not be to take a salary home, which is what defines employment today.
P. Are we going to have some real artificial intelligence one day, that is aware?
R. That is the question, the conscience, and most people do not ask it. I'm not sure I'll see it in my life. But before that we will see machines that will have a sense of humor, and it will be amazing. Another question that does not seem interesting is: why do men appreciate music?
P. Should we claim the humanities, or philosophy, in a hipertechnological society?
R. The humanities are the most important thing you can study.