Date: 2006-09-25 Category: Interviews
Ian Pearson, Futurologist: The ITWales Interview
by Sali Earls
Ian Pearson works as a Futurologist for BT, where he tracks technological and societal developments to make predictions for the future. Specialising in the long term, Pearson uses his background in science and engineering, together with analytical tools, business skills and good old fashioned common sense to develop his predictions.
Sali Earls indulged in a bit of crystal ball gazing and spoke at length to Ian Pearson, discussing the sometimes dark, often controversial visions for the future brought about by technological advances. She vows never to eat yoghurt again...
Why does BT have a futurologist?Its kind of like being in a car and having someone looking out of the window as youre driving along - its the business equivalent of that really. If you dont know whats ahead, its very difficult to steer away from the major threats or steer towards the major opportunities that are ahead of you.
How do you and your colleagues make your predictions?I track future technologies that are coming over the horizon, so as soon as we learn that somebody is doing some research in a particular field, we start putting that together with all the other bits of research that everyone else is doing, and try to figure out what people might try to use that for once it becomes real technology in a decade or so.
If one person is doing research on this, and another is doing research on that then companies A, B and C may be able to make products using that kind of basic technology, and if we can anticipate what they might look like then we might figure out how people will use those in society and in business to change their lifestyle.
Its a question of second guessing what people will do, which requires sitting around and talking about it an awful lot really. What we end up with is a whole stack of possibilities of how people could realistically use technology to improve their lives, or get market advantage, or whatever, and if there are good enough reasons for doing that then we can be fairly certain that people will actually do it. If, on the other hand, its just a whacky idea, like networking every single thing in your home so that you can close the curtains from the comfort of the office, then not many people are going to want to do it, so it would probably be a flop in the marketplace. So we use common sense to throw away the things that people probably wont want to do, and filter out those things that are quite realistic, and will succeed in the market.
With the technology world moving so quickly, how do you keep up, and how do you filter out the good technology from the bad technology?In terms of keeping up, I wouldnt say that I do. I stopped keeping up round about 1993 or 1994! Since then things have been moving so fast you cant really keep up, all you can do is hope to not fall too far behind. I dont pretend to keep track of 100 of new technologies now. I keep track of some of the key ones, and there are still some surprises. If you keep track of most of the important things happening, you can still make some sensible predictions.
In terms of filtering them, the only tools that you can really use are ordinary everyday common sense and some business intuition. If common sense suggests that this isnt going to work, then it probably isnt, and thats based on how I feel or how I imagine my wife would behave or how a little old lady living down the street would behave, so I dont just look at it from the engineers point of view. If theres a nice new gadget that I might want to buy personally, I look at it in terms of can I imagine my mother doing this?, and trying to imagine how things would look from a variety of different peoples perspectives gives you some idea of whether its likely to take off.
The BT Technology Timeline, which you co-wrote, predicts that androids will form 10 of the population in the next 10-15 years. Is this not all a bit Star Trek?If you look at the Japanese market, youll find that both Honda and Sony are making little androids already and they are not just doing that for fun. They are doing that because they seriously believe that they can sell millions of these things into the domestic market, for two main reasons. One reason is to do little jobs around the home, and the other one is companionship, and they really believe there are big markets for that.
So I apply some basic common sense - I know that Sonys not stupid, and neither is Honda, and they wouldnt be doing this if they had not done some very thorough analysis of the marketplace. Even without doing that myself, I can use their professionalism, as it were, to conclude that they have probably not got it that far wrong, and that there probably is a market for this kind of thing, and we probably will see these little androids all over the place.
I think where we get it wrong is that people, when they read something like that, they immediately think about the Commander Data from Star Trek, a 200 years hence kind of android, with silicon skin and completely indistinguishable from people, with a brain the size of a planet, and all this sort of thing. I dont really think were going to have all of that, in the next 15 years - what we can reasonably expect in that timeframe is still probably largely metal and plastic robots, and something not very far away from what we saw in the film I, Robot, you know, slightly more humanoid. Well also be starting to mess about with things like polymer gel muscles in a 15 year timeframe, so well start to get some prototypes of something that will look a bit more human with soft muscles, rather than cogs and wheels and wires, which the current ones have.
Well be getting gradually more sophisticated as we move on, but were not going to get the full Commander Data in the first instance.
Also on your timeline, you mention computers writing their own software, and artificial intelligence students achieving Masters degrees, again within the next 10-15 years. Is there going to come a point where this negates the need for computer scientists and Higher Education institutions all together?Yes. Its a deliberately provocative point, because the AI field is pretty much split down the middle in terms of whether these things are achievable or not. Im in the 30-40 camp that believes that theres really not anything magical about the human brain.
Were getting a greater understanding of neuroscience, and starting to get some of these concepts built into the way that computers will work, and computers dont have to be a grey box with a whole stack of silicon chips in it - theres no reason why they couldnt use organic techniques if necessary. So theres really no reason at all why we cant do the same things that a brain does.
The other side of AI says that "my brain is magic, and Im really smart and you cant possibly produce a robot as clever as me". I dont subscribe to that one - I think thats nonsense.
In terms of the 2015 timeframe, I think thats quite realistic. By 2015 well be starting to get prototypes of the first computers which are roughly as intelligent as people. In terms of raw processing power were not far off that right now, but of course its not just a matter of taking an ordinary chip and making it run faster. Its a matter of figuring out how you actually do the thinking inside your head, because its not just a simple computer program, its much more sophisticated. Were starting to get an awful lot of insights into neuroscience and whats happening to the individual synapses, so neuroscientists are going to get a heck of a lot of information about how the brain does things, and well be able to use that to stimulate ideas for new computer science.
In terms of writing software, weve already got a lot of software being written by machines using techniques based on evolution, where you give a fairly basic algorithm to the computer and you let it evolve it until it comes up with something that works a bit better. Those techniques have been used for the last 5 or 10 years, and they work in some areas, and were getting the techniques gradually sussed and I think there are some grounds for optimism, and we can develop a lot more software with those techniques as well.
Once computers start catching up with us in terms of over all intelligence, and start understanding things in the same way as we do, theyll be able to figure out how to write computer programs in the same way as someone doing a Computer Science degree could, and it wont just be based on evolutionary processes, it will be based on human intellect, and then at that point, in around 2015-2020, you could say that we wont need people to write software, because you just explain what you want to a computer and it will write it for you, and theres no reason then to have people working in that job.
Research is being carried out worldwide into cybernetics, and Professor Kevin Warwick of Reading University has become the first human cyborg, having undergone neural implants. Do you imagine a time when we will all be connected to each other via the internet?I think some of us certainly will. Kevin isnt really the first human cyborg - by the time he had the neural connection to the nerve on his arm there were already a couple of million people walking around with cochlear implants which are direct connections to your brain from you ear. Were already looking at ways of connecting circuitry to your body, and people are now starting to get that for medical purposes.
Were looking at a technology called active skin, which will allow you to print electronics directly onto the skins surface and even blast electronic capsules into to the skins surface that go deep enough that we can make connections to nerve endings, and monitor blood chemistry. Were not unique in that - several other companies are looking at that kind of technology as well. There are several reasons for doing that, one of the obvious ones is medical supervision, and quite a lot of people for Parkinsons Disease and things like that, have had implants in their shoulders to effectively reboot the nervous system every couple of seconds to stop the twitching. We are interested in picking up nerve signals from the nerves and recording them, and perhaps re-injecting them at a later date, so that we can effectively record a sensation.
When you touch something, it generates electrical signals in your nerves, which are essentially wires, and we look at it and think, "thats basically IT" - its biological IT, so we need to talk to some biological companies to do that bit, but once weve got them in touch with electrical signals, its basically our domain.
We can transmit that across the network, you can store it on a hard drive, you can build it into computer games. What were hoping is that you can make completely convincing immersive reality experiences in around 20-25 years time where we can do the full 3D video straight into your active contact lenses, and full 3D audio, and also a sensory experience in terms of touch - were not sure whether we could do smell and taste, but in principle you should be able to do that as well. So you could allow people to touch things in virtual reality and feel them, and interact completely with them.
I think people will want to do it, a lot of people will want these fairly non-invasive things - its basically printing circuitry straight onto your skins surface - in that case a lot of people would want to do it because they could interact a lot better with a lot of computer games; a lot would do it because it could make the online virtual environments a lot more convincing; and many would do it for relationship purposes - if youre in New York and your partners in London you might want to make love across the network.
All of those are reasons why people would want to connect, but there are always going to be a lot of people that would be extremely squeamish and certainly would not want to connect their bodies to the network in any shape or form in case people could hack into their nervous system. It certainly wont appeal to everybody, but I would say that a significant proportion of the population would be willing to do it, and wed have large queues at the clinics as soon as they open for business trying to do that sort of thing for games enthusiasts, as a lot of people want to go down that road for that purpose. So it might be 50/50, it might be 60/40, I dont really know but it will be a lot of people.
As you say, a lot of people would be nervous about this because of the risk of hacking, but also weve all seen a lot of Hollywood movies, and heard conspiracy theories about the government being able to control citizens via this sort of capability.I get letters every week from people who think that!
Once this happens, and you have half the population going for it and the other half not, what sort of impact do you think it will have on society and commerce?What were talking about - we even give these things names, and this is called Homo Cyberneticus, just for a bit of fun - is the fact that this doesnt happen in isolation. This is happening in the same timeframe as were finding out a lot more about genetic modification, and people are already talking about the ethics of sports enthusiasts getting genetic modifications to make them run faster or take more weight, or whatever field of sport they are in, and saying that this should be treated in the same way as drugs and made illegal.
And some are saying that its not fair because some are born with better genes than others, so you should level the playing field, and allow me to catch up by having my genes modified so that Ive got the same ones as him, and then its a fair race. Its difficult to argue against that, and its anyones guess into which direction thats going to go.
So we will have people who are genetically customised, one way or another, even if its illegal in the UK or the whole of Europe, youre bound to find some country somewhere in the world which will allow you to do it - there are 230 countries and an awful lot of them need the business - so I would bet pretty highly that youre going to be able to get your genes modified in the next 10-15 years fairly routinely if you wanted to.
In that same timeframe, people are starting to make the first useful implants in terms of electronics, trying to do things like increasing your IQ - its not just a matter of storing sensations and playing the games - and because they are doing this, it becomes a competitive advantage thing, and thats really the guts of what youre asking about.
It is rather more than just allowing people to play computer games. It allows you to work faster, harder and smarter than the next guy, so it makes the next guy much less able to compete with you, therefore is that fair? Its a pretty big question, and I dont know. You could say that if its open to everybody, and people can choose to do it then if you choose not to do it, youre just opting out so accept the consequences that the guy next door with the implant gets all the best jobs. On the other hand people may not want to be forced to do it and think others should not be allowed to do it because hes getting an advantage, and I shouldnt be forced to violate my own body to stay in business, so the country should therefore make it illegal to have that sort of connection.
You can certainly make good arguments on either side - you can make a very good argument about why you want to enhance peoples intelligence, and you could make a pretty good ethics point of view about why its not fair for anybody to do that, if others have to follow suit. Its a bit like smoking - some people say they have the right to smoke, and others say they have the right to breathe clean air - you cant both have your way.
If I get an implant that makes me have a five figure IQ, and I take over the entire economy because nobody else has got it, what are you going to do about it? Do you make it illegal, or do you make it compulsory? I dont know, I think its much too early to call the result of that yet, and there will be an awful lot of debate. Ive had people threaten my life, saying that if I did try to connect my brain to a machine and give myself a higher IQ, they would kill me. Ive no doubt that thats just part of a conversation, but Ive also no doubt that there are a lot of fanatics and maniacs out there that dont like you doing ordinary things, let alone things like that. I have no doubt that people would be facing violence.
Maybe Ive been watching too many Science Fiction films, but one area of concern is that if something like this was made legal and commercial, you could end up with an underclass of people who cant afford to do it.Or an underclass of people who cant afford to do it, but have a compulsory implant from the government so that they dont care that they cant afford to do it.
Its actually very healthy to watch films, because a film usually takes one single idea and really pulls it apart and shows a dystopia or utopia, usually the extremes. The extremes are always a good thing to look at when youre trying to debate these things, because you have to shy away from the extremes when youre trying to build them in reality. You need to know what youre shying away from, thats the key thing that you learn from the films - Star Trek is fantastic for this because it explores just about every science fiction concept you can think of. An awful lot of those things are going to become plausible in technology in the next 10-20 years, and its quite frightening because we dont have the basic constructs to be able to deal with it.
If you go back to the haves and have nots - supposing in the UK we decide that its not fair, but in China or Korea or Singapore, very different cultures, much more technologically enthusiastic than we are, they might have some people who are essentially superhuman. Do we allow those to emigrate into the UK? Do we allow them to come here for holidays? Do we allow them to run UK businesses? Do we block trade with those countries? How do we do it?
We havent got the global government, and were not going to get one anytime soon, so we dont have any constructs that allow us to deal with this yet. It is really worrying, and you can be certain that a lot of companies are working on this stuff. Its no longer science fiction - its become what we call "science faction", we dont know what its going to look like but its based heavily on fact.
Moving from cybernetics to security - its an issue thats at the front of many peoples minds, with issues from identity theft and phishing, to terrorism. How is internet security and security in general going to evolve?Its going to disappear. Its a bold statement perhaps, but I think were already facing some very difficult technologies. Theres always been an "arms race", where its us against the hackers and crackers, and so far weve tended to have the good people on our side. Frankly weve been lucky, because only a few people have been educated up to the standard where they are able to do that sort of thing. The number of people reaching that level of IT knowledge is increasing rapidly and the information is becoming available to them. There are more people that want to attack us, and theyve got better connectivity and more wealth to enable them to do it. So basically youve got several different things that are increasing on the other side, so its going to get much harder to keep up any level of security.
The technology is not going to help - it is getting to the point now where the next generation of games consoles have one percent of the processing power that your heads got. If you connect those together, and they are designed to be connected together from the ground up, then you have the capability to link millions of consoles together, and since people dont care about security very much on those sorts of platforms, they are absolutely ideal networks to be made into zombie machines. If that happens, you can leverage all that computing power to try and decrypt messages to try and hack into bank accounts, and use all of that power to launch enormously powerful denial of service attacks, which cant happen today because they dont have enough computing power. Whats more it can all be encrypted, so you cant find out where its coming from very easily - its going to be very difficult to deal with that kind of stuff.
In fact, we were looking at one potential problem, which is quite amusing to think of at the moment, but it might actually become real. Imagine if graduate researchers at MIT or somewhere; they are playful people who like to see what they can do with technology to see what they can and cant do. Imagine these guys, with access to that kind of computing power, and they experiment to see if they can make the network go "conscious". So you can see some consciousness viruses, and the network has sufficient processing power and connectivity that it will be far in excess of the human brain in terms of number crunching, and if neuroscience people can come up with some sort of algorithm that lets you run synthetic neurons on these machines, even if its extremely inefficient, youve got so many zeros spare that theres a good chance you could do it. We could find that the science fiction concept of Skynet becomes real as a result of a prank. Its a fairly safe bet with the number of kids messing about with technology that somebody it going to try and do that sort of thing, and we dont whether its possible.
Weve had lots of serious debates already about whether its possible for the network to go spontaneously conscious - we just dont know, and no one has any idea what would happen if it did.
But it gets worse than that. If youve got computers with modest levels of AI, and they are going to have very strong levels of AI in a few years time; supposing Im mischievous and I work out some kind of really clever algorithm to enable me to conduct fraud, and I spin that on the internet. If you find me, you can arrest me and lock me up, but you might not be able to get rid of that algorithm - it could be hidden all over the place and spontaneously regenerate and evolve and mutate, and be distributed all over the planet, so you cant shut it down, so it becomes very difficult to deal with. Those security threats are ones that we are worrying about quite a bit.
Theres another one - the security threat from hell. Think of the Terminator movies. The technology of that is pretty much obsolete by the time we get to 2020, a prototype of the T-2 liquid metal robot has already been done, and with nanotechnology it will be possible to make that work. Thats not the problem to worry about.
DNA is already being used in a test tube to assemble macro electronic circuits - basically shove in a suspension of carbon nano tubes and gold particles, stir in some DNA. You can persuade the DNA to assemble the gold particles onto the end of the carbon nano tubes and make simple circuits. That was demonstrated about two years ago, and the company has gone secret since, as they are now working on developing more sophisticated circuits. The idea is that you do bottom up assembly which is the next generation of chip assembly by using DNA and protein clusters to basically grab the stuff and stick it together using clever chemistry. The key point is that you can do this with DNA.
We were thinking, one of the good ways of doing this is spending billions of pounds for a real live bacterium - e-coli, or something you find in yoghurt - and you dont modify it so much that it cant survive because you want it to replicate, but you modify it so that it creates electronic circuits within its own cells. Thats really good fun then, because youve got electronic bacteria - real live bacterium which can replicate with electronics in it. The electronics have nothing to do with the bacteria, they are just there, but they turn it into "smart bacteria", because you can then connect those electronics together using infrared or bioluminescence and make completely scalable electronic circuits. So you start off with one bacterium, which is essentially a module, and you link billions of these together and youve got something that makes your PC look pretty primitive. Youve got a "smart yoghurt" by about 2025, and we did the calculations, and we reckon that its possible to make a yoghurt with roughly the same processing power as the entire European population.
It gets worse. If its yoghurt, you can just bung it in the bin, but unfortunately yoghurt is just the bacterial suspension. Bacteria is all around us, in everything we touch, everywhere you look around your office. Theres also bacteria in your body - in fact more bacterial cells than human cells - and an awful lot of diseases can change your psychological behaviour.
Keeping the Terminator theme, the T-4 robot is totally invisible - its based on bacteria - you breathe them in via the air supply and they directly change what you want to do. You cant fight against that. In the War of the Worlds, there were all these sophisticated space ships that got destroyed by the germs in the end - that could be the future for humanity. In all seriousness, one of the biggest threats we face this century is probably smart bacteria, and as a security risk its enormous.
At the moment were relying on encryption and firewalls and other security measures to stop people stealing your passwords. In the future, all I have to do is let some bacteria into your building; they float through the air conditioning system, land on your keyboard, you cant see them, you dont know they are there. They record every single keystroke and report it back to me. As if thats not enough, they could also be listening to what youre talking about, and even directly interface with your brain if necessary, and they can certainly float in through the vents on your PC and access the chips.
So how do you manage security in that sort of a world? I would say that there will not be any security from 2025 onwards, because I do not see how you could possibly do it. You just cant get rid of the bacteria - you could use bacterial filters in the air supply, but you cant afford to do that for every single bit of air everywhere in the entire country. We dont even have the beginnings of understanding how to deal with that kind of threat, and yet that threat could happen in as little as twenty years time.
There will of course be a lot of technological developments in that time, but the fact is, you can imagine some smart scientist in a rogue regime developing this as a terrorist weapon, and you can certainly imagine people doing this deliberately so that weve got an almost infinite supply of computing on demand for perfectly benign purposes, and then unfortunately it goes wrong. Essentially its a major security threat - smart bacteria is one of the ways you could wipe out humanity, and its an extinction level threat if it goes wrong. Its just one of the things on a list weve got of things based on technology that could wipe out humanity. Its the T-4 robot essentially, and we know people are working in that direction now.
What technologies should businesses be developing to meet the needs of the population in the future?Social technology is becoming really important - its one of the next big things to happen in IT.
What I mean is, traditionally with a phone call, you phone me - its always a one to one. You can do voice conferences or video conferences, but how often to people do that? Maybe once or twice a week at the most. Were wrestling with that technology of dealing with groups is what people really want to do. People really want to talk to groups of people some of the time, and especially teenage girls. My daughter has just started getting into this, and cant live without her friends for more than 10 seconds, and shes not content to talk to one of them, she wants to talk to all of them.
So were looking at technology based on instant voice messaging, where someone could say, "Jane, are you free now?", and as soon as you say that persons name, you instantaneously connect with them via an earpiece and the voice goes straight there. The concept of having to dial up and make a connection will become a thing of the past, it will be automatically connected all of the time, and just need to be routed on the basis of the first name in the sentence. Paradoxically, Star Trek got it completely wrong - when Captain Kirk says "Beam me up, Scotty", "Scotty, beam me up" would be much better because it can route it straight through to Scotty, rather than wait until the end of the sentence before it knows who to send the voice to. So instant voice messaging is one of those.
Also in the social technology field is the fact that theres no reason why your telephone couldnt know where all your friends are. If youre in town on Saturday morning, and your best friend is in the shop next to you, you wont necessarily know that because you dont ask all of your friends where they are going to be every single day. But if they are in town, youd quite like to have a coffee with them, and if your phone knows where you are, and knows who all your friends are because they are on your contacts list, so it can tell you where they are. Obviously you can turn that on and off in terms of being tracked, like you can switch other things on and off on your phone.
Then we get into other areas that are more visual, and I was talking to my daughter about having a 50 inch plasma display on her bedroom wall, and immediately her eyes lit up. Then I said to her, supposing I could put a broadband connection right into the side of that with a webcam straight through into her friends room, with the same set up on her wall, allowing you to have a sleepover every night. Were only a little while away from this, and were starting to launch this kind of technology. For the twelve year olds, its a video sleepover; but its also for older people.
There are a couple of million old ladies in the UK who hardly have any social contact because theyve outlived their husbands, maybe they cant drive anymore, and the only people they see regularly are the shop assistants in the supermarket. This kind of technology will enable them to interact with their families or friends on a more regular basis. People could be "beamed in" for Christmas dinner, or you could get together with people youve met with similar hobbies or interests.
Loneliness is a major issue in this country, and technology like this will allow people to have greater social contact. Its a problem that we can fix - its never going to be as good as someone actually coming to your home and giving you a hug, but its a start.
Another area is something we call "ultra simple computing". Computers are currently too complicated - they crash regularly, are expensive, and have security risks, but it doesnt all have to be so complex. Computers can be redesigned from the ground up with tens of thousands of little chips to distribute the load. It will mean there will be no need for an operating system or even a hard disk, as everything can be saved on the chips with no risk of hacking. These computers will be extremely robust without a hard drive, and they can be smaller with more computing power. The cost will also be very low, with computers costing around 5 - 10. I really believe that ultra simple computing is a great idea for the future.
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