News at Tipitaka Network
A spiritual computing hub?
by Tony Waltham, TourThailand.org, Thursday, September 18, 2008
Thailand could become a global centre for the development of spiritual computing technology with a focus on improving the end user experience to make it more meaningful, a pioneer in this field believes.
Senior advisor to the University of Washington’s Human Interface Technology Laboratory Craig Warren Smith hopes to establish a spiritual computing group comprising several Thai organisations. Next year, from January to June, the professor will be lecturing at Chulalongkorn University Philosophy Department’s Centre of Ethics of Science and Technology.
Prof Smith also plans to organise an international conference here around spiritual computing and is now talking to the European Union about funding, while he hopes Thailand can also be the hub for a network that can reach out to the headquarters of global multinationals to provide an opportunity for them to beta test their best thinking around technology design.
He said in an exclusive interview that this should help put Thailand on the map as “a fundamental place for innovation in technology design” and he suggested the need to bypass multinational companies’ regional corporate headquarters, typically located in Singapore, and to go straight to the top laboratory people at large companies such as Electronic Arts and Microsoft.
Prof Craig Warren Smith hopes to establish a workgroup here.
Also a founder of and a leader in the global movement to close the digital divide, Prof Smith has been an adviser to several major technology corporations that include Microsoft, Google, Intel, IBM, Nokia and Oracle.
He believes that global innovation around the human computer interface based on Asian spiritual traditions can begin in Thailand and that the relationship between open source, open technology and Thailand’s open society should be a key enabler of this.
With its rich Buddhist culture and IT design skills, Thailand could bring together spiritual traditions from Thai and other Asian countries “to help build an ecosystem for meaningful technologies,” said Prof Smith, who has also been a Buddhist instructor for 25 years.
“Many Thais have gone to the West and have come back, and they have seen the West struggling to embrace Buddhism,” he said, pointing to the popularity of the Dalai Lama’s book The Joy of Living and Dying in Peace which sold eight million copies. Prof Smith likened the West’s awakening to Buddhism to Europe’s discovery of Greek traditions which had been the basis of the reformation that began there some 500 years ago.
Prof Smith also said he was concerned about the threat that cellphones on 3G networks might present if the content to be pushed out to the next two billion users around the world in rural areas had been developed in urban settings.
He said this could have a potentially disastrous impact on ecosystems and global warming, while attracting more people to cities, adding that there was an urgent need to introduce meaningful technologies to become an integral part of the human computer or cellphone interface.
“Will mobile applications emerge that strengthen spiritual experience?” he asked.
“I’m hoping that some kind of network could come together here to reach out to the global headquarters of multinational companies and offer them an opportunity to beta test their best thinking on this,” he said.
“We need to be able to put Thailand on the map as a fundamental place for innovation in technology design,” he said, noting that Thailand already had a track record by helping to pioneer new pricing models for Microsoft Windows and Office with the Windows Starter Edition.
Contrasting Thailand with neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore, he cited Malaysia’s relatively unsuccessful attempts to be a multimedia hub with its multimedia super corridor, saying “you can’t do it unless you’re an open society,” while adding “and you certainly can’t do this in Singapore.”
There needed to be a place for global innovation, a place to start thinking about the link between open society and open source, Prof Smith said, referring to the potential here.
He defines spiritual computing as “computing that enhances the meaningfulness of experience,” noting that it didn’t always have the same quality when subjectively perceived, and that it was filtered by the senses in the human body.
It forced the question of what the user really wanted, he added, noting that spiritual computing was the ultimate disruptive technology. “If people are empowered with their own spiritual experience they could not be manipulated by religious authorities.”
Prof Smith said that it was important to make the distinction between spirituality and religion, which were not the same thing, and that religions did not own spirituality.
Spiritual computing was really only just emerging and was being reflected in quests by software designers to maximise the user experience, he said.
“Companies are now asking ‘what does it mean to optimise user experience?’ Companies don’t have the answer yet,” he said.
“User experience is a new competitive factor and I say that they have to go to spiritual traditions to gain insights into that,” he said, noting that user experience could now be considered the driver of technology innovation and that it began to get to questions that the field of software engineering had ignored.
Prof Smith explained that when the field of computing was created, engineers had originally said: “we don’t need to know the nature of reality, we just need to know how to make stuff.”
But he cited Stanford professor B.J. Fogg who had observed that we were now in the behavioural revolution.
Prof Smith, who is also a former professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, noted that digital technologies were having an unsettling impact “like we have been uprooted from the Earth, from our communities.”
This was very unlike the lives of our grandparents who were grounded in their communities, he added, noting “maybe we all need to cultivate spiritual tools and disciplines just to keep our sanity in this digital age.”
There are still unanswered questions around spiritual computing, which aims to achieve continuous meaningful experience. “Could this be measured or even distinguished, and could parents demand this?” he asked.
But, we do not have to wait for Thailand’s Ministry of ICT to regulate companies and encourage them to introduce meaningful technologies.
We could go ahead and operate as a design principle because there was enough goodwill in Thailand, enough IT expertise and enough connections to the human computer interface phenomenon, the P2P phenomenon and the Web 2.0 phenomenon to bring together a framework for a spiritual computing ecosystems or a meaningful technology ecosystem that would shape behaviour here, he said.
“Technology is a more significant driver than public policy... technology innovation can shape human behaviour more than public policy can,” he pointed out.
During a lecture at Chulalongkorn earlier in the month, Prof Smith was asked which Thai institutions might come forward and join forces to further spiritual computing in Thailand, and he suggested the National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre (Nectec), Chulalongkorn University and educators in general, while leaving the question open as to who would be the ideal group to say “let’s make this happen.”
Prof Smith also mentioned advice from former deputy Prime Minister Paiboon Wattanasiritham who had spoken at a colloquium on spiritual computing last year to say that Thailand was ripe for the linking of spiritual computing to the mobile phone revolution and who had also said we should teach everybody mindfulness - that it was not just for monks.
The professor noted that different parts of the world could contribute differently to spiritual computing and that he would be also looking at how different groups could come together in the spiritual computing workgroup after it was established here.
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