Global Challenges Facing Humanity

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6. How can the global convergence of information and communications technologies work for everyone?

Over 2 billion Internet users, 6+ billion mobile phone subscriptions, and uncountable billions of hardware devices are intercommunicating in a vast real-time multinetwork, supporting every facet of human activity. It is reasonable to assume that the majority of the world will experience ubiquitous computing and eventually spend most of its time in some form of technologically augmented reality. New forms of civilization are beginning to emerge from this convergence of minds, information, and technology worldwide. Mobile phones have already become personal electronic companions, combining computer, GPS, telephone, camera, alarm clock, research assistance, projector, music player, flashlight, newspaper, movie theater, translator, TV, thousands of apps, even on-call armed protectors at the touch of an icon. Ericsson forecasts that 85% of the world’s population will be covered by high-speed mobile Internet in 2017.

As Moore’s Law continues, as costs fall, and as ease of use increases, even remote and less developed areas will participate in this emerging globalization. The race is on to complete the global nervous system of civilization. Collaborative systems, social networks, and collective intelligences are self-organizing into new forms of transnational democracies that address issues and opportunities. This is giving birth to unprecedented international conscience and action, augmenting conventional management. Such open systems seem natural responses to increasing complexity that has grown beyond hierarchical control. Open source software’s non-ownership model may become a significant element in the next economic system. Businesses are building offices and holding meetings in cyberworlds that compete with conventional reality.

One of the next “big things” could be the emergence of collective intelligences for issues, businesses, and countries, forming new kinds of organizations able to address problems and opportunities without conventional management. Collective intelligence can be thought of as a continually emerging property that we create (hands on) from synergies among people, software, and information that continually learns from feedback to produce just-in-time knowledge for better decisions than any one of these elements acting alone. Real-time streamed communications shorten the time it takes from situational awareness to decisions. Search engines and Wikipedia give instant access to “all” the world’s stored knowledge. Google Goggles searches the Web by images taken by smart phones instead of typing or speaking key works. The Web is evolving from the present user-generated and participatory system (Web 2.0) into Web 3.0, a more intelligent partner that has knowledge about the meaning of the information it stores and has the ability to reason with that knowledge, using conceptual descendants of today’s Jeopardy-beating Watson from IBM and Apple’s affectionate Siri.

However, this explosive growth of Internet traffic, mainly from video streaming, has created a stress on the Net’s capacities, requiring new approaches to keep up with bandwidth demand, while the ubiquity of the Internet in society makes its reliability critically vital. People and businesses are trusting their data and software to “cloud computing” on distant Net-connected servers rather than their own computers, raising privacy and reliability questions. The Amazon cloud data center’s outage and Sony PlayStation’s release of personal data for millions of users are examples. Even though Wikipedia has become the world’s encyclopedia, it struggles to counter disinformation campaigns fought through its pages. Governments are wrestling with how to control harmful content. A vigorous debate continues on net neutrality, the doctrine that technical and economic factors for Net users should not be affected by considerations of equipment, type of user, or communications content.

Humanity, the built environment, and ubiquitous computing are becoming a continuum of consciousness and technology reflecting the full range of human behavior, from individual philanthropy to organized crime. Low-cost computers are replacing high-cost weapons as an instrument of power in asymmetrical warfare. Cyberspace is also a new medium for disinformation among competing commercial interests, ideological adversaries, governments, and extremists, and it is a battleground between cybercriminals and law enforcement. The full range of cybercrimes worldwide is estimated at $1 trillion annually. Fundamental rethinking will be required to ensure that people will be able to have reasonable faith in information. We have to learn how to counter future forms of information warfare that otherwise could lead to the distrust of all forms of information in cyberspace. Nevertheless, the value of ICT for reducing the divisions among people outweighs its divisiveness.

It is hard to imagine how the world can work for all without reliable tele-education, tele-medicine, and tele-everything. Internet bases with wireless transmission are being constructed in remote villages; cell phones with Internet access are being designed for educational and business access by the lowest-income groups; and innovative programs are being created to connect the poorest 2 billion people to the evolving nervous system of civilization. Over 2.4 million children and teachers have OLPC (One Laptop Per Child), Kindle e-book readers are bringing global libraries to schools in Africa, the Inter-American Development Bank found that children in Peru in 2012 using the OLPC gained about five months of cognitive development over a 15-month period compared with those who did not use it.

Social networks link hundreds of millions of members into new kinds of “personal” relationships and spur the growth of political consciousness and popular power, as in the “Arab Spring.” E-government systems allow citizens to receive valuable information from their leaders, provide feedback to them, and carry out needed transactions without time-consuming and possibly corrupt human intermediaries. Telemedicine capabilities are uniting doctors and patients across continents. E-government systems exist to some degree for the majority of the world; the UN conducts comparative assessments of the e-government status of its member states.

Universal broadband access should become a national priority for developing countries to make it easier to use the Internet to connect developing-country professionals overseas with the development processes back home, improve educational and business usage, and make e-government and other forms of development more available. Challenge 6 will have been addressed seriously when Internet access and basic tele-education are free and available universally and when basic tele-medicine is commonplace everywhere.

Regional Considerations

Africa: According to, Internet penetration in Africa is 13.5%, up 24% since the preceding year. There are nearly 700 million mobiles, for 70% penetration; Standard Bank expects this to grow to 800 million by 2015. Madagascar offers a mobile cloud phone service based on a login like e-mail so that users do not have to have their own phones but can borrow someone else’s mobile phone to access their number. The new Main One and West Africa fiber-optic cables are cutting cost and increasing speed. QuizMax is a free mobile phone app for math and science education used by 100,000 children in South Africa. Kenya’s Digital Villages Project integrates Internet access, business training, and microcredit. FAO’s Africa Crop Calendar Web site provides information for 130 crops. Tele-education, tele-medicine, and e-government will become more important as African professionals die of AIDS in increasing numbers. Teachers and students in Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda have received over 1,000 Kindles and 180,000 e-books, bringing massive e-libraries to schools.

Asia and Oceania: Asia has the largest share of the world’s Internet users (45%) but only 26% penetration. China has about 513 million Internet users (up from 420 million in 2011) with about 350 million Internet-connected mobile phones (up from 280 million). Controversies continue over control of Internet access in China. Vietnam, India, Turkey, and Iran have tightened controls on Internet access and content. Phones are being smuggled into North Korea to post reports on conditions. The UN continues to rate South Korea the top e-ready country, but that nation is struggling with video game addiction. The BBC offers educational courses via the newspapers, TV, and mobile phones for learner-paced options in Bangladesh, with plans to improve the English language skills of 25 million Bangladeshis by 2017. India is establishing e government stations in rural villages.

Europe: About 73% of EU-27 households had access to the Internet in 2011, unevenly distributed in the region. Russia with 50.8 million Intent users passed Germany (50.1 million) and France (42.3 million) in 2012 to become Europe’s leader. Finland has made 1Mbps broadband a legal right for all Finns and plans to increase that to 100Mbps by 2015. The EU’s Safer Internet Programme is working in 26 European countries to counter child pornography, pedophilia, and digital bullying. The EU policy is that Internet access is a right but that it can be cut off for misuse. Estonians (inside and outside their country) cast their votes for the Estonian parliament by mobile phones in March 2011. Macedonia is providing computers to all in grades 1–3. Montenegro mobile penetration is one of the highest in Europe—and it plans to connect its citizens overseas with its development process back home via the Tele-Montenegro website.

Latin America: About 40% of the region has Internet access (up from 34% in 2011). The region’s children with Internet access will rise from 1.5 million today to 30 million by 2015. Uruguay is the first country to provide all primary students with their own Internet-connected laptop, followed by Costa Rica. Fulfilling the promise of these tools will require more serious attention to training. The Internet was of great assistance in dealing with the Haiti earthquake. Although fiber optic cable has been laid between Cuba and Venezuela, connecting their governments, Cubans still have the slowest access in Latin America. Mexican Internet users average four hours online per day.

North America: Free to all on the Internet, Google and Wikipedia are making the phrase “I don’t know” obsolete. Wikipedia is educating the world with 3.9 million articles in English and smaller amounts in 284 other languages. Silicon Valley continues as a world leader in innovative software due to company policies like Google’s that gives its employees 20% free time to create anything they want. This “20-percent Time” is credited with half of Google’s new products. The United States is in ninth place in the world in access to high broadband connections. Broadband development in rural and underserved areas was undermined by the financial crisis, but it is still a national priority in the U.S. There were 43,889 reported cyber-attacks on U.S. government agencies in 2011, up 5% from the previous year.

Ten Countries with the fastest Internet connectivity. Source Smart Plant from State of the Internet by Akamai

Internet Users in the World by Geographic Regions (December 31, 2011)


Source: Internet World Stats


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