How can IT save the world?

Thousands of delegates mull how to bring technology to the world's people while preserving their privacy and keeping them healthy. Photos: Changing the world

AUSTIN, Texas--For all the complaining that the developed world does about BlackBerry addiction and the blue screen of death, sometimes it's important to remember that billions of people around the world have no idea what you're talking about.

The rise of information technology has undoubtedly changed the world, according to speakers and panelists gathered here this week for the 2006 World Congress on Information Technology (WCIT). But it has not changed everyone's world, and there are still plenty of places that IT has yet to impact.

The WCIT gathers every two years to debate what it considers the most pressing technology issues that affect the entire globe. This year, it and the World Information Technology and Services Alliance (WITSA) chose access to technology, IT in heath care, and privacy and security as the hot-button issues of the conference.

On Thursday, the 2,000-plus delegates from 80 different countries will vote on various proposals made during the conference. The results of that vote, which will be announced Friday, will be implemented as official recommendations of the WCIT and the WITSA. Delegates can then go back to their home countries with official recommendations on what needs to be done to improve IT in their home countries.

Unlike many sessions at the United Nations, most panelists seemed very much in agreement on the issues discussed. Private industry and governments have to work together, because no group can solve these problems on their own, they said. Global standards need to be implemented so programs and policies that work can be implemented in different regions. And information technology has the power to change the world for the better, which isn't that far-fetched a concept to emerge from a gathering of some of the world's elite IT executives and pundits.

"Some ask, 'How can we afford to do this?' I say, 'We can't afford not to do this,'" Hector Ruiz, CEO of Advanced Micro Devices, said during his keynote speech kicking off the conference.

Photos: Onstage at WCIT

But while its heart is in the right place, the IT industry is also thinking with its wallet. Only 10 percent of people with an annual income of less than $25,000 own a PC, said Paul Otellini, Intel's chief executive officer, during his keynote address Wednesday. A faulty 50-cent seal on a shipping container has the potential to disrupt the global economy, said Joseph McGrath, CEO of Unisys. Companies, health care institutions and patients could save millions of dollars with automated health care records, said Tommy Thompson, the former secretary of Health and Human Services, who is an adviser to the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions.

Improving access to PCs and the Internet is a frequent topic these days, with MIT's Nicholas Negroponte pitching a $100 PC for developing nations under his One Laptop Per Child plan. Microsoft's Bill Gates has touted a Microsoft plan for a cell phone-like basic PC, while Otellini and Ruiz discussed their own projects Wednesday. Otellini's Eduwise design is targeted at students, while AMD wants to put in homes.

Yeongi Son, president and CEO of the Korea Agency for Digital Opportunity and Promotion, had a better perspective than most on this topic. South Korea is one of the more wired countries in the world, with 72 percent of the population online at broadband speeds, Son said. His government-funded agency has set up access centers in rural areas of the country, and distributed refurbished PCs to the poor, he said.

Governments should start using technology themselves, making it a priority to embrace technology within their organizations and introduce public-sector workers to the possibilities of information technology, said Don Tapscott, CEO of a think tank called New Paradigm. And easing strict regulations on telecommunications helps to speed adoption of new technologies, said Steve Rohleder, Accenture's chief operating officer.

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