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September 28th, 2006 at 4:50 pm

Interview with Futurist Ian Pearson

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?

It’s kind of like being in a car and having someone looking out of the window as you’re driving along – it’s the business equivalent of that really. If you don’t know what’s ahead, it’s 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.

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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.

It’s 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, it’s 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 won’t 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 wouldn’t say that I do. I stopped keeping up round about 1993 or 1994! Since then things have been moving so fast you can’t really keep up, all you can do is hope to not fall too far behind. I don’t 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 isn’t going to work, then it probably isn’t, and that’s 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 don’t just look at it from the engineer’s point of view. If there’s 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 people’s perspectives gives you some idea of whether it’s 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, you’ll 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 Sony’s not stupid, and neither is Honda, and they wouldn’t 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 don’t really think we’re 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. We’ll also be starting to mess about with things like polymer gel muscles in a 15 year timeframe, so we’ll 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.

We’ll be getting gradually more sophisticated as we move on, but we’re 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. It’s 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. I’m in the 30-40% camp that believes that there’s really not anything magical about the human brain.

We’re getting a greater understanding of neuroscience, and starting to get some of these concepts built into the way that computers will work, and computers don’t have to be a grey box with a whole stack of silicon chips in it – there’s no reason why they couldn’t use organic techniques if necessary. So there’s really no reason at all why we can’t do the same things that a brain does.

The other side of AI says that "my brain is magic, and I’m really smart and you can’t possibly produce a robot as clever as me". I don’t subscribe to that one – I think that’s nonsense.

In terms of the 2015 timeframe, I think that’s quite realistic. By 2015 we’ll be starting to get prototypes of the first computers which are roughly as intelligent as people. In terms of raw processing power we’re not far off that right now, but of course it’s not just a matter of taking an ordinary chip and making it run faster. It’s a matter of figuring out how you actually do the thinking inside your head, because it’s not just a simple computer program, it’s much more sophisticated. We’re starting to get an awful lot of insights into neuroscience and what’s 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 we’ll be able to use that to stimulate ideas for new computer science.

In terms of writing software, we’ve 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 we’re 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, they’ll be able to figure out how to write computer programs in the same way as someone doing a Computer Science degree could, and it won’t 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 won’t need people to write software, because you just explain what you want to a computer and it will write it for you, and there’s 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 isn’t 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. We’re already looking at ways of connecting circuitry to your body, and people are now starting to get that for medical purposes.

We’re looking at a technology called ‘active skin’, which will allow you to print electronics directly onto the skin’s surface and even blast electronic capsules into to the skin’s surface that go deep enough that we can make connections to nerve endings, and monitor blood chemistry. We’re 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 Parkinson’s 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, "that’s basically IT" – it’s biological IT, so we need to talk to some biological companies to do that bit, but once we’ve got them in touch with electrical signals, it’s 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 we’re 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 – we’re 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 – it’s basically printing circuitry straight onto your skin’s 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 you’re in New York and your partner’s 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 won’t appeal to everybody, but I would say that a significant proportion of the population would be willing to do it, and we’d 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 don’t 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 we’ve 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 we’re 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 doesn’t happen in isolation. This is happening in the same timeframe as we’re 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 it’s 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 I’ve got the same ones as him, and then it’s a fair race. It’s difficult to argue against that, and it’s anyone’s guess into which direction that’s going to go.

So we will have people who are genetically customised, one way or another, even if it’s illegal in the UK or the whole of Europe, you’re 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 you’re 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 – it’s not just a matter of storing sensations and playing the games – and because they are doing this, it becomes a competitive advantage thing, and that’s really the guts of what you’re 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? It’s a pretty big question, and I don’t know. You could say that if it’s open to everybody, and people can choose to do it then if you choose not to do it, you’re 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 he’s getting an advantage, and I shouldn’t 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 people’s intelligence, and you could make a pretty good ethics point of view about why it’s not fair for anybody to do that, if others have to follow suit. It’s 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 can’t 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 don’t know, I think it’s much too early to call the result of that yet, and there will be an awful lot of debate. I’ve 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. I’ve no doubt that that’s just part of a conversation, but I’ve also no doubt that there are a lot of fanatics and maniacs out there that don’t like you doing ordinary things, let alone things like that. I have no doubt that people would be facing violence.
Maybe I’ve 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 can’t afford to do it.

Or an underclass of people who can’t afford to do it, but have a compulsory implant from the government so that they don’t care that they can’t afford to do it.

It’s 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 you’re trying to debate these things, because you have to shy away from the extremes when you’re trying to build them in reality. You need to know what you’re shying away from, that’s 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 it’s quite frightening because we don’t 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 it’s 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 haven’t got the global government, and we’re not going to get one anytime soon, so we don’t 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. It’s no longer science fiction – it’s become what we call "science faction", we don’t know what it’s going to look like but it’s based heavily on fact.
Moving from cybernetics to security – it’s an issue that’s at the front of many people’s minds, with issues from identity theft and phishing, to terrorism. How is internet security and security in general going to evolve?

It’s going to disappear. It’s a bold statement perhaps, but I think we’re already facing some very difficult technologies. There’s always been an "arms race", where it’s us against the hackers and crackers, and so far we’ve tended to have the good people on our side. Frankly we’ve 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 they’ve got better connectivity and more wealth to enable them to do it. So basically you’ve got several different things that are increasing on the other side, so it’s 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 head’s 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 don’t 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 can’t happen today because they don’t have enough computing power. What’s more it can all be encrypted, so you can’t find out where it’s coming from very easily – it’s 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 can’t 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 it’s extremely inefficient, you’ve got so many zeros spare that there’s 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. It’s 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 don’t whether it’s possible.

We’ve had lots of serious debates already about whether it’s possible for the network to go spontaneously conscious – we just don’t know, and no one has any idea what would happen if it did.

But it gets worse than that. If you’ve got computers with modest levels of AI, and they are going to have very strong levels of AI in a few years time; supposing I’m 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 can’t shut it down, so it becomes very difficult to deal with. Those security threats are ones that we are worrying about quite a bit.

There’s 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 is will be possible to make that work. That’s 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 don’t modify it so much that it can’t survive because you want it to replicate, but you modify it so that it creates electronic circuits within its’ own cells. That’s really good fun then, because you’ve 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 you’ve got something that makes your PC look pretty primitive. You’ve got a "smart yoghurt" by about 2025, and we did the calculations, and we reckon that it’s possible to make a yoghurt with roughly the same processing power as the entire European population.

It gets worse. If it’s 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. There’s 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 – it’s based on bacteria – you breathe them in via the air supply and they directly change what you want to do. You can’t 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 it’s enormous.

At the moment we’re 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 can’t see them, you don’t know they are there. They record every single keystroke and report it back to me. As if that’s not enough, they could also be listening to what you’re 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 can’t get rid of the bacteria – you could use bacterial filters in the air supply, but you can’t afford to do that for every single bit of air everywhere in the entire country. We don’t 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 we’ve got an almost infinite supply of computing on demand for perfectly benign purposes, and then unfortunately it goes wrong. Essentially it’s a major security threat – smart bacteria is one of the ways you could wipe out humanity, and it’s an extinction level threat if it goes wrong. It’s just one of the things on a list we’ve got of things based on technology that could wipe out humanity. It’s 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 – it’s one of the next big things to happen in IT.

What I mean is, traditionally with a phone call, you phone me – it’s 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. We’re 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 can’t live without her friends for more than 10 seconds, and she’s not content to talk to one of them, she wants to talk to all of them.

So we’re looking at technology based on instant voice messaging, where someone could say, "Jane, are you free now?", and as soon as you say that person’s 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 there’s no reason why your telephone couldn’t know where all your friends are. If you’re in town on Saturday morning, and your best friend is in the shop next to you, you won’t necessarily know that because you don’t ask all of your friends where they are going to be every single day. But if they are in town, you’d 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 friend’s room, with the same set up on her wall, allowing you to have a sleepover every night. We’re only a little while away from this, and we’re starting to launch this kind of technology. For the twelve year olds, it’s a video sleepover; but it’s also for older people.

There are a couple of million old ladies in the UK who hardly have any social contact because they’ve outlived their husbands, maybe they can’t 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 you’ve 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. It’s a problem that we can fix – it’s never going to be as good as someone actually coming to your home and giving you a hug, but it’s 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 doesn’t 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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