The growth of economies in the developing world depends on increasing countries’ access to new technology, Thayer School of Engineering professor Elsa Garmire said in a lecture in Spanos Auditorium on Friday. Garmire spent last year working as a Jefferson Fellow at the U.S. State Department in a program that brings science professionals to the State department to work on important international issues.
As technology spreads globally — half the world’s population now owns a cell phone — the establishment of worldwide standards on the production and use of equipment, particularly communications equipment, becomes increasingly important, Garmire said. While agencies like the State Department should help create these standards, she said, these agencies do not always employ people with strong backgrounds in science and technology.
“The State Department does not have a lot of technical expertise,” she said. “Our job was to offer technical insights on important issues.”
While she acknowledged technology’s potential to damage the environment, noting that 125 million cell phones are discarded every year, Garmire stressed that the proven benefits of bringing technology into the developing world outweigh these costs.
“In Ulan Bator, [Mongolia], we could use satellite imagery, the web and cell phones to determine where the grass was the most green,” she said, discussing her research in the area. “It helped the farmers find good grazing land.”
Much of Garmire’s work at the State Department focused on the intersection between technology and communications policy, she said. As a Jefferson Fellow, she traveled around the world to examine and solve security and communications problems, many of which occur in developing countries which have only recently gained access to certain technologies.
China, for example, made it difficult for international communications companies to repair underwater fiber-optic cables that had been intentionally broken by fishermen by requiring the companies to seek permission before entering Chinese waters.
“The fishermen know that if they pull up a fiber-optic cable and break it, the companies will pay them money because [efforts to fix the cable] interfere with their fishing,” she said.
While Garmire and her team could not prevent fishermen from breaking the cables, she successfully worked to change China’s water entrance policy.
“We negotiated a permanent ability to go in and fix the broken wires without having, each day, to get the permission of the government,” she said.
Using satellites and undersea cables to communicate requires international cooperation, Garmire said, because many countries share communication devices, and most of these devices are located in neutral spaces.
A defunct Russian satellite, for example, collided with a satellite from Iridium, a communications company based in Bethesda, Md., on Feb. 10, she said.
“The issue that came through our office was whether Iridium can sue the Russian government for knocking out their satellite,” she said.
Neither Iridium not Russia has taken any action, she said, since it has only been a month though the incident occurred.
Solutions to all of the world’s major problems — from the international economic crisis to famine — lie in successful global communication, Garmire said.
“The global economy relies on global communications,” she said. “If we can’t communicate, the world ends.”
Garmire spoke as part of the Thayer School’s Jones Seminar Series, which brings science professionals to Dartmouth to discuss society’s relationship with science and technology. The lectures occur every Friday afternoon and are open to the public.