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Theodore Gordon

By Rushworth M. KidderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 22, 1987



Glastonbury, Conn.

ON Ted Gordon's desk sits a white model of a Thor rocket. On his walls are photographs of gliders. And on his agenda for the 21st century are flights of technological inventiveness that could both resolve and complicate the problems facing mankind. As he settles into his chair in shirtsleeves for the interview, the former aerospace engineer admits with a smile that ``I'll be talking about a technological future that's all glitter and better mousetrapping.'' His ideas, however, are not merely speculative. Anchoring his vision of the future in the long-term forecasting done by his 70-member, 16-year-old consulting firm, he begins with the ongoing computer revolution.

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``The trends that we see in making computers smaller, faster, cheaper, seem to have in them the seeds of another two decades of growth,'' he says.

The result: computers with 10,000 times the current capability within 20 to 30 years. ``That means machines on the desk that can do what main frames do today,'' he says, ``[with] storage capabilities of staggering proportions.''

What will be the consequences of these developments? ``In the old days we worried about [computers] forcing us into a mold,'' he says. ``The concern was that we would be regimented.''

``I think quite the opposite is the result,'' he says. The new technology, he says, will actually encourage individuality.

To illustrate, he describes an experimental promotion undertaken by Chevrolet. It consisted of a disk allowing users of personal computers to assemble, on their screen, the truck they wanted from a vast list of options - and then determine its performance standards, calculate its cost, and test drive it around a simulated track.

The effect of computers SHOPPERS, Gordon notes, will be able to use computers to assemble such preprogrammed options ``in the way that is most meaningful to the individual.'' Thus computers will ``promote individuality of choice and diversity.''

New computers will also help ``equalize small business and large business.'' In the past, the capacity to handle information differentiated large and small businesses. In the future, ``that threshold will be lowered.''

Education, too, will be affected. In the near term, he says, some textbooks will be accompanied by computer disks providing data bases and models that will help students investigate the subject.

Further out in the 21st century, he sees computer simulation as ``an exceedingly important educational tool.'' So far, he says, it has been applied only to such areas as pilot training.

But imagine computer simulations that teach labor-management negotiations. ``You can play Continental Illinois,'' he says, ``and see if you can pull the corporation out of the tailspin. But it's not just a computer game. You are there across the table from this three-dimensional image that is negotiating with you. You're playing chess, but human chess here in a realistic situation.''

In such simulations ``you are learning in a way which doesn't require your being taught. The learning goes on because you're being subjected to a realistic environment.''

Also on the horizon are major advances in:

Genetics `I CAN'T overemphasize the importance of this frontier,'' he says. The next century, he says, will see the widespread use of microorganisms to produce specific chemicals. And genetic research may also allow the reading of ``the genome,'' the complete set of chromosomes for an individual plant or animal. By reading the genetic code of a human infant or adult, for example, ``you'll able to tell everything about that person that is genetically determined'' - including, he says, a hereditary propensity for certain diseases.

Once people read their own genetic ``books,'' he says, ``there will be an overwhelming need to manipulate [the genes and] to cure before the disease occurs - to change fate to the degree that the genetic molecule projects fate.''

Will we, then, deliberately try to build traits in from the start? ``I suspect so,'' he answers. ``For example, if we consider low intelligence to be undesirable, and we have the ability to manipulate the gene in embryo to improve intelligence, wouldn't we do it? The capability for doing that by the year 2100 is a fair bet - maybe well before that.'' But couldn't one also manipulate to produce low intelligence - to create a slave race, for example? Admitting the possibility, he notes that the entire issue has ``got a lot of hellish overtones to it.''

Psychology `I THINK we're on the verge of a breakthrough in the understanding of how the brain functions,'' he says - a breakthrough that has both ``scary consequences and important and favorable consequences.''