Harvard Cyberposium highlights hot trends

Security technologies, artificial intelligence (AI), third-generation (3G) networking products and services, voice over Internet protocol and all things wireless are the hot technology areas and trends that IT executives who spoke over the weekend at the annual Harvard Business School Cyberposium have on their radar screens.

The Cyberposium is organized and run by Harvard Business School students. It attracts hundreds of students from campuses worldwide who are working on their master’s in business administration (MBA) degrees, offering them a chance to hear speeches and panel discussions featuring academics, IT executives and leaders of companies that rely heavily on IT. Based on various conference sessions and speeches, these areas are drawing keen interest:

– Security technologies, including biometrics like iris and fingerprint scanning, but also more intrusive and, therefore troubling, identity methods such as body scanning. Over and over again, executives noted that this area is going to be a big one in coming years, spurred by concerns after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

The tricky terrain of maintaining freedoms, including the right to privacy, will continue to be at the fore as security technologies are developed and deployed. Over time, a calmer attitude will prevail and tighter security will be in place where it needs to be, such as at large sporting events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics, and in airports, train stations and subway systems rather than across a broad spectrum of public places, speakers suggested.

There also seems to be agreement that there is a need for technology that improves the ability to analyze huge amounts of personal data stored in various places, in order to help law enforcement agencies prevent criminal activity without hampering freedoms and movement of people just trying to go about their lives and business, speakers said.

For instance, technology already exists that can identify those people who travel a lot and typically will come and go through, say, Boston’s Logan International Airport. Those business travelers tend to follow established patterns. Additional personal information about them – about nearly all of us, in fact – is readily enough available to establish lists of people who pose no threat. When they show up at airports or other places with heightened security, they can pass through routine procedures without being stopped, searched or otherwise inconvenienced.

Those about whom little or nothing is known could be more thoroughly searched, speakers suggested.

The issue is pulling together the wealth of information stored about individuals in disparate databases operated by the government, marketing companies, e-commerce sites and anywhere else a data trail has been left. Executives who spoke at the conference left the impression that inroads are being made to find ways to better analyze data, but that much more needs to be done.

– AI is moving more into the IT mainstream and is key to the concept of pervasive computing, with “intelligent” machines that respond to human needs and patterns.

AI is a mainstay topic at Harvard University and its cross-town neighbor, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and seems to be outgrowing the negative connotations that came to be associated with it years ago, speakers said. Interestingly enough, AI has been pushed forward by the toy industry, home to the first widespread, affordable applications of robots, which rely on AI technologies.

Future applications will involve sending robots into dangerous situations for police and military use, an application that has been employed in Afghanistan and will continue to evolve, said Helen Greiner, co-founder and president of iRobot Corp., in Somerville, Mass.

While Greiner envisions a world where robots clean our homes and offices, freeing us from mundane chores, Michael de la Maza, CEO of Outerware Inc., in Cambridge, Mass., is eating his broccoli with an eye on the future.

“I’ve been eating a lot of broccoli because I think the future is going to be very, very cool and I want to be around to see it,” he said, predicting that within the next 50 years artificial intelligence will be on par with human intelligence, making the agricultural, industrial and Internet revolutions irrelevant by comparison.

When AI does catch up, it will quickly overtake human intelligence. “It will blow us away,” he said.

– Advanced networking and telecommunication products and services, including 3G and wireless advances topped a lot of forward-looking lists at the conference.

Numerous speakers opined that 2002 is “the year of VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol).” Of course, some of us have heard that same opinion offered for previous years. Cyberposium attendees were told that the infrastructure is now ready and the technology is, too.

Wireless technologies also got a lot of attention, and not just wireless computing and networking. All manner of common household devices and functions such as lighting systems will be wireless in the future, said Robert Poor, founder of Ember Corp. in Boston.

Before then, though, the United Statess will indeed see 3G services become more widespread. Infrastructure providers are putting the hardware and software in place for that, said Bruce Claflin, CEO of 3Com Corp. Bluetooth also could well take off, he said, with this year proving a turning point one way or the other for whether that wireless technology gets a toehold.

The focus on future technologies and forecasts was a good change of pace for the business students.

“For me, part of the interesting thing about this conference is that business school tends to be backward looking — you learn from case studies of examples that have happened in the past,” said Ethan Anderson, a first-year Harvard Business School student from Los Angeles. “This conference you learn about things that will be happening in the future.”

He and fellow student Hisham El-Khazinder of Cairo are not daunted by the difficult economy. Anderson hopes to graduate and land a job with a technology company while El-Khazinder wants to finish the two-year business program and work in the financial market, perhaps with investors. They are optimistic about their prospects. As Anderson said, “There will always be business … It seems like a good time to take shelter from the storm.”

And it’s time, perhaps, to eat your broccoli.

The Cyberposium Web site is at http://www.cyberposium.com/cyberposium2002/.