ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday May 18, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 51
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IT opens gates to exciting new world

Computer wizard and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates was last week in Indonesia where he spelt out what the world was likely be in the not too distant future because of the increasing use of the internet and Information Technology (IT).

Addressing the Government Leaders Forum Asia 2008, Mr. Gates predicted exciting times ahead. He spoke of computers that would soon be able to recognize talk, touch and senses so that you could talk into your computer and it would work; you write with your pen and the computer would pick it up; where your future desk is a touch-sensitive surface so that you could take a document, lay it out, point your finger and navigate through the contents - and then if something strikes you, you could just write on it with your pen and click on it so that a colleague somewhere else can have a look at it.

With such machines, so small and easy to use, even persons unable to type or see will have access to the internet by voice commands or touch.

Your wall could be a big computer screen displaying information like in a classroom where earlier you had a blackboard, the difference being the screen will be intelligent. Children will no longer have paper textbooks and literacy, once restricted to the elite until Governments worldwide set goals to provide education for all their citizens, would now be more widespread with digital literacy.

The future descends on us so quickly that this is no science fiction. This is the way the computer world is going, "so amazing and so empowering" in the words of Mr. Gates who says that advances in technology must now extend to the arena of new medicines and health care as well as education so that they benefit the poor and underprivileged as much as they help the rich now.

All these advances, nevertheless, need infrastructure. Electricity or any other mode of power supply and the availability of telecommunication facilities are a sine-quo-non for users to get connected to the world-wide-web (www) of the internet. Governments still play that vital role in ensuring the advantages seep to the rural areas where millions go about with their daily lives. When one looks at the world ahead, and the enormous benefits IT can bring to a country, it is painful to see the biggest issue Sri Lanka being embroiled in this week was whether the Chief Minister of the East, should be a Tamil or a Muslim.

The world itself, despite rapid progress in the field of IT, has plunged into ethnic turmoil. Africa, West Asia, Europe, Asia have their hands full coping with ethnic or tribal strife and religious intolerance. IT ignores those barriers, reaching out to people notwithstanding borders and ethnic enclaves, sectarian and tribal wars that have entrapped one half of the world. But is Sri Lanka going to be permanently living in that one half entrapped in the ethnic pot, or will it look to embrace the vast strides made and being made in the world of IT that will ultimately benefit her people irrespective of wealth, religion or ethnicity.

Home Minister Karu Jayasuriya and Science and Technology Minister Tissa Vitharana, among other senior government officials and Presidential advisers were present in Jakarta to listen to Mr. Gates, and they would surely mull over and reflect upon what he had to say. Hopefully, his message - that IT can bring massive social and economic empowerment to the lives of ordinary people - would be conveyed to the decision-makers at the highest levels, and steps taken to be partners in that process.

E-government or electronic government is not new to Sri Lanka, but its pace of development leaves much to be desired. Sub-standard infrastructure availability is one reason for its retarded growth. The US, the Nordic countries, South Korea and Singapore are considered leaders in e-government allowing ordinary people to do business with different levels of government and with different departments from home or an internet café without languishing in corridors waiting for some public servant to oblige them.

Unfortunately, emphasis on science and technology is low priority and defence is top priority. This year's budget has allocated Rs.166 billion or 18 per cent of the total to defence expenditure and a paltry Rs. 2.9 billion or 0.3 per cent for science and technology. The comparison is stark, and a grim reminder of resources being squandered on death and destruction instead of economic development that will benefit all people. While one cannot ignore the gravity of the separatist insurgency, and the need for the Government to mark it as top priority, it must not lose sight of the exciting new world being created by IT, and miss out on the opportunities it offers to raise the standards of the people.

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