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IT Confidential

Columbia University in New York held a conference last week on the ethical and societal implications of the accelerating developments in science and technology. The conference, called "Living With The Genie," featured scholars and deep-thinkers from a wide variety of disciplines, from anthropology and architecture to philosophy and sociology. Representing the IT community were Bill Joy, one of the authors of the Unix operating system and the brains behind Sun Microsystems; Mr. Artificial Intelligence, Raymond Kurzweil; and Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development. In the opening session, called "What can we learn from past scientific and technological transformation of society?" Joy pointed out that technology advances not only through slow and steady development but through catastrophes, such as viruses and hacker attacks. "The honest truth is that Darwinian growth is only one way to produce good ideas," Joy said. During a session called "What do we want from science and technology?" Kurzweil posed the question, "How can we continue to benefit from the ongoing progress of these technologies while safeguarding against the dangers?" His answer: "They say war is too important to be left to the generals. Science and technology are too important to leave to just the scientists and engineers." In a session called "How are the products of science and technology appropriated and distributed?" Kapor compared the open-source movement with scientific discovery and suggested that universities "open source" their research and newly discovered technologies, making them available to anyone for free under the agreement that they have to make their improvements available for free as well. Open source creates a sort of "virtuous circle," Kapor said, where "you take it, you improve it, you put it back." He's critical of the way science is increasingly closed, licensing off its discoveries to corporate interests or making them inaccessible via patents. Says Kapor, "It would be great if science can get back to its own roots."

As if Microsoft's senior executives don't have enough on their plates with the company's ambitious Web services strategy known as .Net and Bill Gates' high-priority quality assurance project, outlined in a recent internal (wink, wink) E-mail, called "Trustworthy Computing," how about hackers, lawsuits, and the war on terrorism. Last week, Paul Flessner, senior VP in Microsoft's enterprise servers division, says he narrowly avoided a meeting with an Army official on Microsoft's campus because of the extensive security clearances he would have had to go through (he let a colleague take the meeting). Flessner says the trustworthy computing effort "will have an effect" on product delivery, but declined to be specific about which products might be delayed or for how long. When asked how he's been spending his time lately, Jim Allchin, Flessner's boss and VP of Microsoft's platforms group, says: "There seems to be a lot of attorneys around me." Allchin says he's "incredibly proud" of the quality of Microsoft's software, and the real problem is that hackers have targeted his platform. "They're out to get us," he says. "They're out to get our customers." Looking back on easier days when software development meant simply adding features to a product, Flessner says, "We were kind of fat, dumb, and happy in the software industry."

Is the dot-com bomb fizzling out? Dot-com job cuts have steadily declined in recent months, hitting a new low last month at 670, the smallest number in nearly two years, according to Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. That's a significant improvement over January's total of 1,802 and just a fraction of the February 2001 total of 11,649. But the drop in job cuts shouldn't be viewed as good news for the industry, says John Challenger, president of the outplacement firm. Dot-coms had already trimmed the fat, and then some, so recent job losses are minimal because the online companies decimated their staffs--and Challenger sees no signs of an impending surge in dot-com hiring.

Think positive! I never did get to order my groceries online, and frankly, I miss the Pets.com sock puppet. Dust off your dot-com business models, and your industry tips, and send them to jsoat@cmp.com or phone 516-562-5326. To have your say about ethics and technology, or the coming dot-com surge, meet me at InformationWeek.com's Listening Post: informationweek.com/forum/johnsoat.

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