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2011-02-25

Where Should Our Brains Be? Final Chapter: Electrons

This is the final installment in this thread. (Whew!)

In his presentation, Christensen explored the domain of expertise. He used the example of the development of fiber optic cable materials. A few decades ago fiber optic materials science was not well understood and the technology to fashion new molecules into new fiber strands that could carry light signals was held by only the most capital-intensive companies in that domain. Today, the materials molecular science is better and more widely understood with thousands of people involved in the development of new types of fiber optic cabling using desktop-sized equipment. That moved the science in that domain from an intuitive process requiring high levels of expertise and experience with very expensive capital equipment to an intermediate phase based on evidence as to how materials would react to various operations involved in synthesis to a final state of rules that guide both our understanding of the underlying physics and mathematics as well as their application using sophisticated systems that apply those rules in fabrication. Quite a journey that helps explain the accelerating pace of change in technology.

I would add that another force is at play as well. It's the pathway that successful technology takes--successful in the fact of its widespread adoption. All new technologies--whether interesting molecules or new machines--at first don't work well, require significant expertise to use, and cost a lot of money. If they are successful, they become reliable and effective, can be used by non-experts, and get cheaper. If they are digital, they can even become free. Chris Anderson explored that in Free: The Future of a Radical Price: The Economics of Abundance and Why Zero Pricing Is Changing the Face of Business (a book that was offered for free in digital form. Really!).

In my mind the real transition we are making is to use electrons to assist our work rather than molecules. If a process can be based on unique arrangements of electrons then it has lower costs and higher effectiveness than its older molecule-based method. In English: medical records are potentially cheaper and more powerful if they are in electronic systems rather than paper files. Setting aside the transition question (a deft dodge), electronic health records will allow the physician treating you to see your medical history without asking you about it. Every treatment, medication, and reading--potentially back to birth. But there's more.... Being able to process millions of records of people with similar characteristics or medical issues will allow physicians to become much better in their jobs. Rather than drawing on the few thousands of patients that an individual may treat in a career, being able to analyze millions' of patients records across millions of procedures will enhance that provider's expertise since she/he will be using the accumulated experience of an entire profession. It's sort of like going in to the hospital for surgery. Do you want the physician who has done 10 such procedures on patients or one who has done 4000? (Duh!) Imagine drawing on the experience of 4,000,000 such procedures, and you can get the impact of scale.

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