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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 April, 2005, 17:06 GMT 18:06 UK
Reith talks focus on technology
Circuit board superimposed on human face
The first lecture is called the "Triumph of Technology"
Technology and its importance to the future is the subject of this year's BBC Reith Lectures.

Each year the broadcaster invites a prominent figure to deliver a series of radio lectures on matters of contemporary interest.

This year, Lord Alec Broers, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering discusses how technology is shaping and influencing lives around the globe.

"Technology will determine the future of the human race," he says.

Good and bad

"We should recognise this and give it the profile and status that it deserves," he says.

It is time we in Britain, so good at fundamental science, also came fully to appreciate the intellectual challenge behind product development
Lord Broers

While the advances brought about by computers and electronic communications are "awesome", it is developments in transport, medicine, energy and weaponry that have had the greatest impact - both good and bad - on lives, he argues.

New methods of transport have had revolutionary social consequences in the developed world.

Meanwhile, energy technologies have threatened the planet's eco-system, and advanced weaponry has shifted centres of power with unpredictable and unforeseen consequences.

The web has made it possible - in principle - for all of the information possessed by anyone to be available to everyone, he says.

Technologists are determining the future of the human race and it is a race Lord Broers urges Britain not to miss out on.

Great inventions

According to Lord Broers, there is a tendency in the UK to rely on pure rather than applied science.

"It is time we in Britain, so good at fundamental science, also came fully to appreciate the intellectual challenge behind product development," he says.

He expresses surprise that in a recent poll, which asked the public to rank Britain's greatest inventions, the bicycle was chosen over electricity generation, the jet engine, the discovery of DNA and the invention of vaccinations.

"To place it ahead of the fundamental accomplishments of Faraday, Stephenson, Maxwell, Thomson, Whittle, and Crick and Watson demonstrates in my mind a profound misunderstanding of the contribution of advanced technologies to our lives," he says.

Personal satisfaction

Part of the blame for this, he thinks, lies with engineers and scientists who have not explained the importance of technological inventions in a way lay-people can understand.

But there is also a fundamental failure to look forward, he says.

"My contention is that technology is sidelined and undervalued - we become defensive about it and would rather retreat into the past, or into fundamental science, than to strive to stay in the race."

I have found that the possession of an understanding of technology, just as with an understanding of music, literature, or the arts, brings with it great personal satisfaction
Lord Broers
This failure could cost the UK dear in material, social, and intellectual terms, especially according to Lord Broers.

Technology has long been a subject close to his heart.

His father was passionate about radio and photography and was one of the first to receive the BBC on short-wave radio.

"I have found that the possession of an understanding of technology, just as with an understanding of music, literature, or the arts, brings with it great personal satisfaction," he says.

The Reith Lectures began in 1948 and the first one was delivered by philosopher Bertrand Russell.

In conjunction with the lectures, listeners to Radio 4's You and Yours programme are invited to vote on what they think has been the greatest invention of the last 200 years.

The first of this year's Reith Lectures is aired on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm on Wednesday 6 April



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