Raising the Floor

Jim - Palo Alto, California
Entered on March 30, 2009

I believe that technology can benefit all of humanity,

not just the richest 10%. That we can use technology tools to solve human problems,

and raise the technology floor for everyone.

Back in college, at Caltech,

I learned how to build a “smart bomb”

that could spot a tank at a distance in the battlefield –

using pattern recognition technology –

and blow it up.

“Cool technology!” I thought.

“But how could we use it to help instead of hurt people?”

My answer was to create the first affordable reading machine for the blind. It used that same technology to recognize letters and words, opening the world of reading to people who had been without equal access to books.

Today,

at my deliberately nonprofit company in the Silicon Valley,

we’re using that same technology

to make books –

information! ideas! inspiration! –

accessible to tens of thousands of people with disabilities.

The opportunity to make a difference with technology

is huge,

especially for the billions of people

at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

As Muhammad Yunus says,

”the poor have as much energy,

and as much creativity as any human beings on this planet.”

They just lack crucial information tools

to help harness that energy and creativity

to make a better life for themselves and their children.

We simply need to build the last social mile to have these existing tools meet the needs of everybody.

Cell phone technology is one tool we could be using TODAY

to raise the technology floor.

Cell phones have already reached

three out of the six billion people on the planet.

Cell phones could bring

essential health information to for prevention, and

digital textbooks to students too poor to afford print books.

The cell phone will see for those who cannot see,

listen for those who cannot hear,

speak for those who cannot speak,

remember for those who cannot remember,

translate for those who do not understand,

and guide those who are lost.

Everybody needs access to information

to be successful in education, employment, health, and social inclusion. Everybody.

Yet too many life-enhancing social applications of technology

simply don’t get produced,

because they don’t make enough money.

So I believe that when the market fails to deliver to everyone

the tools that are crucial for participation in modern life,

that basic foundation, that basic floor

we need to think beyond

the traditional for-profit business model.

Social entrepreneurship –

blending the best of BOTH business AND social action –

is the new model for technologists making change.

Fortunately, the barriers to solving social problems

with technology

are getting smaller every day.

Today’s students are drawn to these needs,

because they LOVE to solve problems, —

and the more challenging, the better.

Technology can benefit all of humanity,

Whether it’s helping to deliver better medicine,

clean water, a healthier environment,

or providing knowledge

for better education and employment,

technologists – and technology available TODAY –

can raise the floor for everyone!