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This is how tech can help us all survive a modern-day apocalypse

Here’s a practical look at how the industry can affect global health crises, climate change, extremism and poverty.

The Earth as seen from space, with glowing dots connected by glowing lines surrounding it Rost9 / Shutterstock

Web Summit is the world’s largest technology conference, taking place November 6-9 in Lisbon, Portugal. Today, VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger will participate in a debate about the belief that technology should be available and accessible to the entire global population; he’ll also give a fireside chat on how legacy brands can stay innovative in a startup-focused world. This essay is a version of his speech; Web Summit presentations are being livestreamed here.

There’s an ongoing debate about whether or not technology will benefit everyone. As tech breaks out and reshapes so many aspects of business and society, will breakthrough innovation deliver value to everyone on the planet, regardless of geography, background or culture? Or will the advantages of tech innovation be limited to a fortunate few?

I certainly don’t profess to have all the answers. And it’s clear that there are no simple solutions to the complex and deeply entrenched global challenges we face. But after nearly four decades working in tech, I’m hopeful and energized about the future — and about tech’s role in shaping it for the betterment of all. Tech itself is neutral neither good nor bad. It’s up to us to determine how we apply it to the problems of the day.

Part of the reason I’m optimistic is the combination of four extraordinary and additive “superhero” capabilities we now have at our disposal: Mobile + Cloud + AI + IoT. Mobile provides unprecedented reach. Cloud delivers previously unimaginable scale. Deep-learning artificial intelligence enables us to mine massive amounts of data in real time and use those insights to create entirely new business models. Last but not least, the Internet of Things connects the physical and digital worlds and brings technology into every dimension of human progress. Each of these capabilities is powerful in its own right, but together they unlock game-changing opportunities not available to us until this moment in history.

The four horsemen of the modern-day apocalypse

Perhaps the best way to frame this discussion is to look at the greatest threats we face as a global community. Put another way, what are the biggest barriers to improving quality of life for 7.5 billion people today, expanding to 8.1 billion by 2027? In my view, it comes down to what I call “the four horsemen of the modern-day apocalypse”:

Health crisis and the risk of a pandemic: The threat of a disease capable of spreading rapidly to affect large swaths of the human population has been a vital concern since the dawn of civilization. Yet we have reason for cautious optimism, as the state of the art in health care advances toward a major step forward. Deep-learning algorithms are creating breakthrough drugs, improving diagnosis and designing treatment plans far more effectively than any previous approach. Human genome/DNA sequencing and CRISPR editing have enabled a vast leap in our understanding and treatment of disease. And with advances in telemedicine, we have an opportunity to open up access to modern health care to billions of communities in remote, underserved parts of the world.

Environmental crises and climate change: Arguably our most daunting challenge is environmental: How do we clean up the aftermath of the industrial age to sustainably manage carbon, water and waste? Advances in renewable power sources give us reason for hope that we can solve the pivotal challenge of sustainable power generation. We continue to make headway in transportation (25 percent of global emissions), and building management (roughly 20 percent of global emissions) where large-scale IoT and smart-city initiatives can dramatically increase the energy efficiency of the spaces where we live and work. In water, tech innovation is helping drive new approaches to filtration, desalination, monitoring, irrigation, wastewater treatment and more. Technology is also transforming approaches to waste. “Intelligent Assets,” a recent report by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, lays out a powerful view on how the Internet of Things may someday unlock extraordinary potential in the circular economy. In all these multidimensional areas of environmental challenge, tech innovation allows us to track and “sense” the health of the planet with greater granularity and accuracy than ever before.

Extremism: It’s painfully clear today that radically polarized political and religious views lead directly to instability and violence. There are no easy answers here. That said, there’s no doubt that the most effective way to counter extremism is through hope, which springs from education — the internet and low-cost mobile phones are transforming and democratizing the ability to access information and education — and through opportunity, which is rooted in economic growth. Education, job creation and prosperity alone will not conquer radical extremism, but they are critical pieces of the puzzle. And I firmly believe that tech will be at the center of job creation for the next decade. Tech has the power to create jobs that are built for the future, including jobs that we can’t even imagine today. The onus is on us to expand investment and access to skills training to ensure that this new wave of job opportunity is available and rewarding for people across the economic spectrum.

Poverty: The U.N.’s definition of extreme poverty is a person living on less than $1.90 per day. Globally, we’ve made steady progress on this front over the past 30 years. In 1990 there were two billion people living in extreme poverty; today that number has been reduced to 700 million. That’s still 700 million too many, but we’re trending in the right direction. Despite rapid urbanization around the world, extreme poverty continues to be a largely rural phenomenon, where farming is king. For many poor rural farmers in developing countries, the low-cost mobile phone has become a game-changer — as critical to their success as livestock, seeds, water and fertilizer. An inexpensive mobile phone empowers poor rural farmers to gain access to micro-loans, real-time pricing, weather forecasts and direct access to information on best practices in animal husbandry, crop rotation, varietals, fertilizers and more.

Pointing ourselves forward

Each of these challenges is incredibly complex, and we know that technology is not a panacea for all that ails our global community. Yet I would argue that tech innovation is the most powerful tool we have at our disposal, as we work collectively to address these big barriers to human progress and quality of life.

Consider this: The pace of tech evolution right now is the fastest we’ve ever experienced. Yet it’s also the slowest pace of tech innovation for the rest of our lives. In periods of stunning and disruptive change like this, it’s easy to let fear get the better of us. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that technology is inherently neutral. It’s our job to ensure that all the incredible innovations we’re driving deliver on their full potential over the next decade, by providing value for everyone versus a select few.

Now more than ever, we in the tech community have an individual and collective responsibility to get engaged and take action, not only in our own businesses but also in shaping policy and regulatory frameworks globally, in order to ensure that we maximize technology for the greater good.

Pat Gelsinger has served as CEO of VMware since September 2012, nearly doubling the company’s revenues during his tenure. He brings to VMware more than 35 years of technology and leadership experience. Before joining VMware, Gelsinger led EMC's Information Infrastructure Products business as president and COO. Previously, he spent 30 years at Intel, serving as the company’s first CTO and driving the creation of key industry technologies, including the original 486 processor, USB and Wi-Fi. Reach him @PGelsinger.

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