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Lagging US Competitiveness?

10-31-2003

    An article, IBM Chief's $200 Million Bet, showed up yesterday that will appear on the Science News page a week from yesterday, but I found it sufficiently thought-provoking to present it early. (I'm waiting to acquire further information regarding aging retardation claims, so this might be a suitable window for the subject of U. S. culture.)
    Intel Chairman Andy Grove is exceedingly concerned about the developing competition in brainwork that is developing in such third-world countries as China and India. Not only are blue-collar jobs being exported to these Asian countries:  now, intellectual jobs are making the jump even more easily, since so much can be done over the Internet..
    I applaud the rising standard of living that these jobs will bring to third-world countries. They richly deserve them. I think the "haves" have an obligation to share their wealth with the "have-nots", and Tommie and I are looking at shipping money overseas to help others who, through no fault of their own,  weren't fortunate to have been born in one of the wealthier countries.
    At the same time, I want to see the native-born people of the United States pull their socks up, and outdo the  competition. And this may be what IBM's $200,000,000 is all about.
    U. S. students have fallen near the bottom of the list in science and math, behind such countries as (if memory serves me correctly) Thailand and Indonesia. In the meantime, the U. S. has become preoccupied with celebrities, with the arts, and with video games. Teenage males are learning guitar and forming bands, with which teenage girls can sing. And why not? "Why should I be a scientist working in a white lab coat and making peanuts when I can become a local celebrity by playing in a band?" One of the most popular university majors these days is "media", followed by "business administration". Becoming a TV anchor also rates high on the scale of career goals.
    There was too much of this when I was an undergraduate in the early 50's. We were rescued from this during the latter 1950's by the "Missile Gap", followed by the "Space Race". But the media before World War II consisted of the movies, plus radio. Radio didn't have the hold on us that TV does (although movies had a glamorous grip).
    By now, the media are pushing, and glorifying primarily themselves, and TV plus the Internet has a powerful magnetic pull on everyone, and particularly, on children.
    In the meantime, people from third-world countries entering the United States and other Western countries are strongly motivated, and are becoming the backbone of Western society. They work very hard, and not at becoming TV personalities.
    Where this will end, I don't know, but to me, the outlook right now for U. S. kids embracing science and engineering doesn't appear prepossessing. Last night, I overheard an  announcer say on TV that 14,000,000 additional jobs could be transferred overseas over the next five years. And given well-educated Chinese and Indians, our advantages in high-level technical work could disappear over the next ten or twenty years.
    On the bright side, the entire planet may be involved in improving the human condition, and may have the training and equipment to help it along. Space tethers may open space to exploration and colonization. Robots will become more and more capable and ubiquitous. Internet advances may permit "you-are-there, window-wall" teleconferencing. Genetic advances will allow us to remake ourselves, overcoming inherited birth defects, and allowing us to become smarter and longer-lived than we are today.
    A lot is getting ready to happen, but it may happen to a U. S. public that may become less and less knowledgeable about what it all means.
    Hm-m-m.