The U.S. lags in the tech race

By James P. Pinkerton Published:

By James P. Pinkerton

Whats the state of the union? George W. Bush will give us his tonight, and the Democrats theirs.

But my answer is different from that of the Republicans or the Democrats. I keep a folder, which I call Page 34 news. That is, stuff that really should be on the front page -- but gets drowned out by the urgent but at the same time strangely familiar news from the Middle East, from Capitol Hill or from a Hollywood tabloid.

Usually, Page 34 news centers on technology, about which most Americans have little interest. Sure, they are eager to consume the latest gadgets, but they give little thought to learning how to produce them.

And so I suspect that one day those who are adept in tech-production will gain a decisive economic -- and, yes, military -- advantage over those who are merely skilled at spending. At that point, Americans will discover the state of our union has been shaken by a huge shift in the underlying techno-tectonics of the world.

But the early warning signs are there, on Page 34. The South Korean government, for instance, has announced a plan to use robots as both soldiers and police men in the next decade. The key to effective robotics is to make sure that the bots are situated inside a network, so that they are always under control. And no country in the world is more networked than South Korea; some three-fourths of its population is wired with always-on broadband.

The South Koreans, to be sure, arent perfect; their national biotech hero, Woo Suk Hwang, proved to be a fraud. But, surrounded by powerful enemies, they are determined to think their way to security as well as prosperity. Which reminds me: They are accelerating their civilian nuclear energy program. Its legal and its no secret -- just hidden away on Page 34.

Meanwhile, a story by Jeff Yang in The San Francisco Chronicle last August put a different spin on what could be the Asian Century: Why Japan, and not America, is likely to be the worlds first cyborg society. Many Americans have stopped thinking Japan. And, in fact, Japan as we know it is fading away; its population is scheduled to halve over the next century, from 127 million down to 60 million. Sounds depressing. But what if the Japanese go cyborg? That is, what if they build 60 million robots? Or 600 million? Who should be depressed then?

And the biotech evolution continues. Earlier this month, London scientists sought an OK to create hybrid embryos by fusing human cells with rabbit eggs. The idea is to study incurable diseases in humans on the cheap -- or, as it were, on the rabbit. Such a manimal sounds creepy, but at least the Brits, always so polite, asked permission from their government. Yet at the same time, we can be sure that some real-life Island of Dr. Moreau is out there, somewhere -- producing God knows what. The news from such a place might well be on Page 1, although, of course, by then it could be too late.

In the meantime, elsewhere in the biotech world, all systems are glow. Taiwanese scientists, who already made the worlds first fluorescent fish, have now used the same transgenic process to create glow-in-the-dark pigs. Such creations are mostly stunts but soon enough such scientific virtuosity will be put to a hard-nosed use. The American reader might note that a lot of this news is coming from overseas. Other countries, especially in Asia, have few American-style qualms about a) bioethics or b) the naked pursuit of national advantage through high-value-added industrial policy.

Are we right to go slow on such matters? Or is our caution just a euphemism for complacency -- and for head-in-the-sand State of the Union pronouncements from both parties? The answers to those questions will eventually find their way on to Page 1, although probably not for a while.

Special to Newsday

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