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PC Forum delves into future of tech

Open-source software, security and privacy were among the topics being discussed at the annual high-tech conference.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.--Technology leaders gathered here this week to discuss the future of the industry, but the war in Iraq and the lingering economic slump has dampened their enthusiasm.

Open-source software, security and privacy were among the topics being discussed at PC Forum, the annual high-tech conference organized by Esther Dyson, longtime Internet trend watcher and chair of venture capital firm EDventure Holdings. Now in its 26th year, the show, which ran from Sunday through Tuesday, attracted hundreds of executives, academics and investors to this resort town.

Conference panelists waxed philosophic on issues ranging from morality and open source--discussing questions such as whether or not open source leads to better quality software and encourages the recycling of code--to issues such as machine versus human intelligence and the question of whether computers will ever replace human intellect and if that should that be a goal.

But the war in Iraq and a three-year industry slump dampened the spirits of some attendees. Barry Taylor, managing director of venture capital firm Warburg Pincus, described the industry as being "on pause." Samir Arora, who has faithfully attended PC Forum for years, said some attendees seemed to have lost their enthusiasm for new ideas.

Furthermore, conference attendance was down from past years and some people cancelled their plans to come. The biggest no-show was Oracle Chief Executive Larry Ellison, who was scheduled to deliver a speech Sunday evening. Ellison apparently had trouble starting his private jet and couldn't make the trip from the San Francisco Bay Area. Dyson assured the crowd that Ellison had intended to come, noting his security staff had already arrived.

Passions ran high during many panel discussions, with privacy a frequent point of contention. Cory Doctorow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Gilman Louie of In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the Central Intelligence Agency, both argued that the U.S. government's push to use commercial data mining technology to create "watch lists" was particularly troubling.

Data mining systems are designed to help businesses sift through large amounts of information to answer questions such as whether a person should be offered a credit card. The worst that could happen in this case is that a mistake results in a denial of credit. But a wrong conclusion drawn from a government data mining system could deny a person their constitutional rights, Doctorow argued.

Yet putting too many restrictions on how governments can gather and use data could also backfire, said Mike Hunter, CEO of Anacubis, a data analysis software company. Hunter pointed out that Germany has some of the strictest rules for preventing the government from tracking personal data and that may have attracted al-Qaida operatives to establish cells in the country prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Attendees also voiced privacy concerns over companies such as Wal-Mart attaching tiny computer chips to its merchandise in an effort to track inventory more efficiently. Among the concerns is whether these so-called radio frequency identification (RFID) systems leave consumers vulnerable to people monitoring their belongings after purchasing them. Panelist Kevin Turner, chief executive of Sam's Club, a division of Wal-Mart, said his company plans to disable the chips so they can't be scanned after purchase.

Turner said RFID is one of Wal-Mart's highest IT priorities and may one day replace bar codes. Unlike bar codes, RFID systems can uniquely identify every item, storing information about its location, where it's been and other characteristics. The company, which is testing the technology, envisions a world of warehouses and stores that automatically scan cases of merchandise and monitor store shelves to track inventory levels, he said.

Other futuristic scenarios for RFID technology, according to Dyson, include airlines using it to track the whereabouts of luggage, reducing the likelihood of lost bags.