Imagine you're driving between Atlanta and Charlotte. It's two o'clock
in the afternoon, and you're starting to get hungry. Suddenly, your
cell phone rings, and a message from Cracker Barrel, two miles up the
road, flashes on your dashboard. Come in for lunch, the message reads,
and we'll give you 15% off on your meal. Moments later, McDonald's flashes
a message on the screen with a 20%-off invitation.
Blonder: "In 25 years, you'll be able to get the sum of all human
knowledge in a handheld device."
Greg Blonder, the former chief technical adviser for corporate strategy
and development at AT&T, thinks the scenario above is entirely plausible,
and in fact likely to occur within the next five years. "Let's
say you've signed up with a 'butler service' through your cellular provider,"
Blonder explains. "The butler is constantly checking to see where
you've been," using the global positioning service that will be
built into all wireless systems over the next few years.
knows it has never seen your car parked for half an hour in front of
a restaurant," he continues, "so it's pretty sure you haven't
eaten. And it knows your past history, that you almost never go more
than five hours without eating. So it says, 'There is something unusual
here. Since I know you are hungry, let me go to the Internet for bids.
Let me say I represent a hungry person, and he is in this general area.
Who wants to serve him? He is going to eat.'"
45, is not some half-baked futurist. He holds an undergraduate degree
from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in solid-state
physics from Harvard. And during a 15-year career at AT&T's Bell
Laboratories, where he ran the Materials & Technology Integration
Research Laboratory and later the Consumer Expectations Research Lab,
he earned more that 70 patents in areas ranging from optical switches
to solder to blood-pressure sensors.
A short time after Lucent Technologies was spun off from AT&T, taking
Bell Labs with it, Blonder changed careers, becoming a venture capitalist,
first with AT&T's in-house investment fund, and now a partner with
Morganthaler Ventures, which is headquartered in Menlo Park, California.
The career change is not so big as it might first appear. Blonder says
the venture- capital world has taken the role of the great research
laboratories of the last century.
industrial labs have gotten very narrow in their focus, as they should,"
he says. "As companies continue to be broken up, as you break each
piece in half -- or into quarters, as is currently happening at AT&T
--the labs that are left over work in smaller and smaller domains. But
in venture capital, we work in everything from biotech to services to
hardware. So in many respects it's like the old Bell Labs, which was
unconstrained, except that the ideas should be good."
Blonder see on the horizon? Some of his ideas, like electronic paper,
which will make the copy of Barron's you're holding in your hands right
now -- along with the entire printing industry -- obsolete, have been
much speculated upon. Others, like medical ATMs, which could perform
a full physical exam and even dispense prescriptions in a matter of
minutes, have received little or no ink -- but could be in place in
medical-care centers in five years.
comes to biotechnology, Blonder argues that the industry is where the
microchip industry was 25 or 30 years ago. "We have just not even
begun to appreciate the effect of biotech on culture and on society,"
he observes. "I think we have completely underestimated its impact."
For a glimpse
of the kind of large-scale changes to expect over the next five years,
one need only look back at the last five. The Internet, as a business
and consumer tool, was just beginning. Cellular phones were still a
luxury. The failure of Apple's Newton made personal digital assistants
seem like a joke. And long distance still looked like a growth business.
Blonder, whose virtual office consists of a Palm organizer and call-forwarding
to his cell phone, the explosion in personal technology over the past
half-decade is not at all surprising. Indeed, he says, the pace of change
has remained the same. "For the last 200 years we've been moving
to an era where there is more individual control and choice," he
says. "It's a general trend and it seems like it is accelerating
because of the way exponential growth works. That is, if you double
everything every year, at some point it is just below the horizon, and
the next year it is twice as large as it was and it is infinitely visible,
and the year after that it is overwhelming. So it is not that the pace
of change has accelerated, it's that it has passed the human threshold
point: the Internet. Says Blonder, "The Internet has been growing
at the same rate for almost 30 years." When it consisted of only
a few hundred research scientists exchanging information, no one had
ever heard of it. And even when that number reached 100,000, mostly
in universities, chances are most people didn't know anyone who was
on the 'Net.
as soon as it became a million people, then you were likely to know
one person," Blonder says. "Three or four years later it was
10 million people and it was you. That's the marvel of exponentials.
That's what makes the wave of change seem like a tidal wave."
decline in the long-distance business, he says, was just as predictable.
Indeed, he notes, the cost of communications has been coming down at
a consistent rate for 200 years. "If you go back to the 1800s,
sending a message across the ocean was a several-week process, and it
involved dozens of people," he says. "Then came the telegraph,
and that cut the time from a few weeks to a day. But you still had to
go to the telegraph office, someone had to key it in, and it had to
be keyed out on the other end. And the message had to be printed and
hand-delivered by a messenger to you. Then we went to a phone, which
reduced the process to minutes from hours, although you often had to
set the call up ahead of time in order to get it."
time required kept falling. "As it's been going down the number
of intermediaries that you have to deal with has been diminishing steadily
too, from dozens of people down to yourself," he continues. "Now
you can send a message in milliseconds, at the speed of light, between
here and England." The cost of sending that message also has dropped
at the same inexorable rate, to the point where Blonder thinks long-distance
service soon will be essentially free."
when Blonder tried to make that argument to the top management at AT&T
-- namely, that long distance ultimately would become a feature, not
a product -- he claims his ideas were largely dismissed. "They
argued that they could stem the decline in price by clever marketing,"
he says. "But if two world wars, a depression and stagflation didn't
slow the decline, how could marketing do it?"
AT&T introduced its "One Rate" wireless services plan,
which offers local and long-distance calling, as well as voice mail
and call-waiting bundled together in a single price. Blonder's prediction
has been borne out.
is another industry that he thinks will fall victim to the economist
Joseph Schumpeter's theory of creative destruction. "The two problems
with electronic books right now are the display and intellectual-property
issues," he says. "I think display [via a lightweight, high-resolution
screen] already has been cracked. If it follows the cost curve, it'll
be about five years out until you will begin to see screens large enough
to be able to be used as books.
paper is going to show up first for those memos you get at work,"
he predicts. "At work and schools the intellectual property issues
are irrelevant. Slowly, e-paper will work its way into places where
there are other economic issues, and they will eventually tumble so
you should expect to see electronic books first appearing on campuses,
where they're going to close the bookstore," he says. "You'll
buy an e-book that has every text for every course in the university
on it, and you'll pay to unlock the ones you need. Then the technology
will slowly show up for magazines and books and newspapers. It will
start in five years, and it will probably take 25 years to play out
because of copyright laws."
come even faster. "In about five years, you will be able to get
all the music essentially ever made plus all the new stuff on a personal
device," Blonder says, because music has already been digitized
for compact discs. By contrast, he adds, only about 3,000 books have
been put in digital form.
is probably another 10 years after that," he says. "So in
25 years, you'll probably be able to get the sum total of all human
knowledge on a personal device."
in the medical industry will be even more dramatic, Blonder posits.
Take medical ATMs. Already, diagnostic testing has advanced to the point
where 100 tests can be run on a single sample of blood in a matter of
hours, at a total cost of $100-$200. Twenty years ago, each of those
tests took three days to a week to complete, and each cost $100. Soon,
he says, a single machine will be able to sample your blood; take your
temperature, pulse and blood pressure; smell your breath, and look at
your eyes and your skin color and a dozen other things in a matter of
minutes. "With a combination of smart hardware, smart molecular
biological techniques, smart software and expert systems diagnosis,
it will be better, on average, than the average doctor," he says.
And that leads to the equivalent of a medical ATM machine -- a place
you can go 24 hours a day, knowing you can always expect a certain minimal
level of service from this machine. In Blonder's vision, it will always
correctly diagnosis your cold, as well as 99% of all rashes on your
face. It will always correctly identify 300 common cancers from blood
with your permission and the proper assurances of privacy, the system
will use your medical history to get smarter and smarter and smarter,"
he says. "This medical ATM will absolutely raise the average level
of medical care, which is a good thing for society. At the same time,
it will drive the cost way, way down, the same way the transistor drove
the cost of electronics down. And that solves a lot of the problems
of Medicare and insurance, and availability of health care." Of
course, it will put an awful lot of doctors and clinical laboratories
out of business in the process.
out a bit farther, as the products of biotechnology migrate from the
laboratory into mainstream life, he sees changes far more vast than
most people can imagine. "Right now, with the exception of a few
isolated laboratories, no one is busy building better humans,"
says Blonder. "Better, of course, is a word laden with implications.
They're trying to stay close to the high-minded repair of universally
accepted defects and problems. We're kind of in a compassionate mode
right now, using this new technology to eliminate suffering."
phase of biotech will have a much greater impact than any of the technologies
preceding it because this time it will be personal. "In the past,
technologies indirectly enhanced or threatened the nature of humanity,"
Blonder says. "It was one thing to build a steam engine, which
began to threaten the value of a strong back and a day laborer. But
it's another to find new ways to communicate over time, distance and
space, which threatens whole industries that used to carry messages
around--telegraph boys and the entire infrastructure.
will actually be forced to reevaluate what it means to be a human, if
indeed you can change how intelligent you are by a pill, or the color
of your children's eyes, or their height, or your ability to resist
disease. Frankly, pick any attribute of humanity. All will be under
your conscious control, rather than to left to nature and history. That
is an enormous and, I think, completely under-appreciated challenge
to say that Blonder also sees a clear downside to technology. One of
the greatest dangers he sees comes from an increase in uniformity. That
uniformity, typified by the ubiquity of Microsoft's Outlook e-mail software,
for example, allowed the "I Love You" virus to bring corporate
e-mail systems around the world to a halt earlier this year, causing
an estimated$8 billion in damages, mainly in terms of lost productivity."
for disaster, though, stretches beyond the high-tech world. Blonder
offers the steel industry as an example. "It used to be true that
every town had to have its own blacksmith, which meant that there were
tens of thousands of people who were inventing new mechanical technologies,"
he says. "Everybody was an expert at that. But now a small number
of steel companies and an even smaller number of materials scientists
can serve the entire world, which creates a fragile situation. On the
one hand, you might have attracted the best minds to serve the world.
But on the other hand, what if something happens to these guys?"
he notes, only a few hundred people around the world are contributing
to the advances in steel manufacturing. A disaster at a single industry
conference -- or an error in the process that is disseminated globally
-- could bring progress in the industry to a halt for 10 years or more.
"More importantly," he notes, "these people tend to get
into group-think after a while, and then they stop inventing solutions
for the future, which would have occurred if you had a larger number
of people applying their creativity." The same scenario, Blonder
says, could play out across almost every industry.
Blonder a Pollyanna when it comes to medical technology. Within 10 years,
for example, he says it's likely that many of the functions of a medical
ATM could be reduced to the size of a pager that people could wear on
their belts. The device would constantly monitor your physical condition
and would be networked with databases and your personal physician. It
would be able to take action if it detects an incipient heart attack
or an infection getting out of control. All of which is to the good
--until the inevitable software glitch hits.
a potential example. Diabetics would be able to use just such a device
to constantly monitor their blood sugar and inject insulin as necessary.
It's possible that somewhere down the road the devices from all of the
major manufacturers would run on the same software. Why? Look at it
from the manufacturers' point of view, says Blonder. Suppose someone
dies because of some kind of malfunction. What company would want to
stand up in court and say it was using software ranked second or third
by an independent testing agency?
all diabetics have boxes on their waists running the same code,"
he says. "Because of a tiny flaw in the software, one day it kills
every diabetic in the country because it gives them all the wrong amount
of insulin. What is the statistical chance that every doctor in the
country on the same day incorrectly puts the wrong amount of insulin
into a syringe and administers it? That's improbable. The case in which
the code makes a mistake and kills everyone is merely unlikely. But
it will occur if you wait long enough."
for disaster from the biotech arena is even more vast, Blonder says.
Plenty of people from both sides of the aisle have speculated on the
potential for genetic engineering to run amok -- a potential Blonder
thinks is very real. But he offers another frightening scenario, as
well. Consider, he says, that the uses of technology almost always are
eventually directed to entertainment. The microchip, he says, first
made its appearance in games such as Pong in the 1970s. Now the chip
is involved in virtually every form of entertainment, from videogames
to movie production to compact-disc and DVD players. So, too, he says,
will biotech migrate into entertainment. He imagines that teenagers
might take pills for fun that would produce a smell when they touch
their fingers together, or that would allow their fingertips to sense
however, could be less benign. "We've had drugs in the past which
are addictive," Blonder says. "So you can certainly imagine
drugs in the future which are so addictive, so easy to obtain and so
long-lived that basically people's habits cannot be broken. Once they
have taken the drug they can never get off it. And imagine what that
would do to society and its productivity and its ability to move forward."
problems that will have to be dealt with. And the sooner we start thinking
about them, the better off humanity will be. But Blonder, who calls
himself a "lapsed pragmatist, teetering into optimism, and a firm
believer in mankind's infinite ability to adapt and prosper," thinks
solutions will be found. Indeed, he notes that just because something
can be done does not mean it will be done.
the hungry fellow driving between Atlanta and Charlotte. The same global
positioning system that allowed his cell phone to send out a message
soliciting bids for his lunch business could also be used by his boss
to monitor whether he was visiting a client or had stopped off at a
bar. But Blonder doesn't think that will happen. To illustrate his point,
he notes that it would be easy for states to issue speeding tickets
on the turnpike, "because they know when you got on and they know
when you get off. So they could surely calculate your speed." But
they choose not to do that, he says, "because the implications
for society in that kind of Big Brother attitude are so enormous that
we're willing to accept the occasional extra death and a few people
driving 90 miles an hour in exchange."
of these predictions will pan out? I talked to Greg Blonder about his
vision of the future five years ago, when he was still working at Bell
Labs. Among his predictions then was that in five years' time there
would be an explosion of people carrying pager-sized two-way messaging
machines on their belts. Imagine, he said at the time, "You don't
have to answer the phone. You don't have to talk to somebody you don't
want to talk to. And in cases where you want to get back to someone,
you'll do it."
the BlackBerry two-way messaging device is fast becoming ubiquitous
in Corporate America. The twist in the story is that Blonder predicted
these two-way devices would send voice messages back and forth. "I
thought it would be voice because the small keyboards make typing very
difficult, even though voice has the negative that you have to expose
your message in public," he says. "It just didn't seem like
people would be willing to type in short messages slowly. Well, that
words, no one can predict the future with absolute precision. And no
one can stop it, either.