[FoRK] Inside the future: interview w/ BT futurist-in-residence Ian
jbone at place.org
Fri Feb 25 08:02:50 PST 2005
Inside the future
By Patrick Gray
February 15, 2005
BT?s futurist-in-residence, Ian Pearson, uses his crystal ball gazing
skills to peer into future worlds.
Ian Pearson rattles off future technologies that range from the
seemingly magical, such as supercomputers that breed like yoghurt
cultures, to using your mobile phone in the mundane act of finding your
mates at the pub.
Pearson is the futurist-in-residence at British Telecom's research
labs, one of the most hallowed halls of deep research in the world and,
along with Bell Labs in the US, a birthplace of early optical-fibre
technologies. Pearson says that within a generation, we will grow
computers from biological cultures that are faster than those we today
construct in silicon, gold and plastic.
"We're looking at the idea of making conscious computers, and it's
possible any time after 2015 that we could have computers as smart as
human beings," he says. "That has a major impact for mankind, whatever
way you sum it up."
As the inhouse crystal-ball gazer at BT, Pearson is responsible for
imagining a future to give direction to BT's commercial enterprises -
and to anticipate over-the-horizon threats. In 1991, he wrote a paper,
2601 uses of a future superhighway type network, which accurately
predicted the commercial applications of the internet. He also chalks
up predicting mobile phones as another success. But he acknowledges his
enthusiasm for virtual reality was misplaced, as the technology
Pearson, who holds a degree in theoretical physics and applied
mathematics, worked for a missile systems company as an engineer and
battlefield strategist before joining BT in 1985.
As he moved towards the cutting edge, he says he realised he was
engineering the near future: "It's a circular sort of argument, trying
to build a future by actually assembling it.
"Already you can use DNA to assemble electronic circuits, very simple
electronic circuits, but the DNA itself is a little tiny machine,"
"In 15 years time you could design a bacterium (similar to yoghurt)
with the DNA in it to assemble circuits within its own cell. Because
it's part of its DNA, it will be able to reproduce. So as long as you
provide it with a food supply, this bacterium will become a quite large
computer over a period of time. It will just breed."
With the merger of information technology and biology comes the
possibility that we will merge our minds with machines, says the
British futurist. Education will be a doddle because we will have
intimate access to the world's information or any of our gadgetry in a
nanosecond. And if "you have a back-up of your brain on the computer,
you don't die," he says.
"It's sounds like I'm a wacko who watches too much Star Trek, but there
are billions of dollars of research today ... going into technologies
which will allow you to connect your nervous system to computers for
exactly that purpose."
The next 20 years will see as much innovation as the last 500, he
"Education (becoming) completely obsolete ... telepathic links between
people, the end of death; those are fairly substantial changes," he
More mundane uses of technology that centre around existing gadgets
such as the mobile phone are also being investigated.
"We're trying to develop all sorts of ideas for how people can use
technology to improve their social lives, and let's face it, their sex
lives," he says.
Imagine being able to look at the screen of your mobile phone and know
exactly where your friends are: "If you're in town on Saturday morning,
your best mate might be 100 yards down the street.
"You could have gone for a beer ... and you didn't. You've missed that
This is where the work of Robin Mannings, BT's research foresight
manager in the research and venturing division - it is based at
Ipswich, Suffolk, north-east of London, England - comes into its own.
Mannings' forte is anticipating technology tsunamis that could turn
industry and society 90 degrees. One of these "disruptive
technologies", people-tracking, expands on Pearson's concepts for
social interactions mediated by new information and communications
Mannings wants a world where you will never miss that beer with your
mate. Contrary to the fears of privacy and civil liberties activists,
Mannings says that in the near future we will demand that our movements
He says wearing a tag with your information in it is like being
surrounded by an ambient, intelligent bubble - as you approach things
and interact with them, the computing in the background starts to make
For instance, upon entering your favourite watering hole, the
radio-frequency tracking tag that you wear will communicate with the
establishment's customer relationship management database, entitling
you to special prices. A device at your hip, for instance, will tell
you where your friends are, and room conditions such as lighting and
music could be adjusted to your personal preferences.
"Suddenly, the idea of being tagged goes into a completely new
dimension," Mannings says. "It's not a case of 'I don't want to be
tagged because I don't want Big Brother to watch what I'm doing'. It's
'please, please tag me because I can have a really fun time'."
Of course, the same information could be used to deny unruly patrons
access, or help people avoid speaking to a drunken hoon or the office
Like Pearson, Mannings has a background in research and development. He
developed mobile radio systems with Philips, researched radio
multiplexing and wireless data at the University of Bath and
established himself as an expert in positioning and tracking systems.
Both Mannings and Pearson say technology will move into the background.
Pearson says "ultra-simple" computing will be a reality in just 10
years. Everything of any significance - clothing, paper or dinner
plates, for instance - will contain some form of computer. These
computers will be a millimetre or less in diameter and will not be
visually intrusive. Large PC boxes in the office will disappear and
paintings on the wall will become computer displays.
Simple background computing devices already have some practical
applications, Mannings notes.
BT, in conjunction with the British Government, is conducting trials of
in-home monitoring technologies with Liverpool Council in northern
England. By attaching a vibration sensor to a house water pipe, for
example, it's possible to know how many times a toilet is flushed in a
day. By building sensors into bedding, a computer can monitor sleeping
patterns. According to Mannings, this could have applications in aged
"Care is very expensive, and also intrusive, and people like their
independence," he says.
As a person's health deteriorates, the speed at which they are doing
things changes, he says, and this can be monitored.
"If they're getting up later and later every day, it might be that the
disease they have is actually getting worse," he says. "Perhaps they
need more care, for someone to come around before there's an emergency
"If you're moving, it means you're awake, but if you hardly move over a
space of several hours ... perhaps you're in a coma, and that is
obviously a problem."
But he is conscious of the privacy implications: "Do I really want the
state of my bowels known to all and sundry?"
Data storage is another area set for major change. In laboratory
conditions, data can be stored at one bit of data per 20 atoms - every
film and music album ever made could be carried in a pocket-sized
device, along with a copy of all of the static data stored on the web,
"Storing computer data on DNA is actually one way of doing it," he
claims. "Our understanding of computing today is very much based on
conventional silicon memory, but if you start to factor in some of
these changes, it does change the dynamics of what ICT (information
communications technology) is going to be."
The destruction of monopolies reliant on intellectual property will
also play a big role in the development of our future - open source
will spread to silicon chip design, smashing current cartels, says the
Grid computing will allow personal computers and even mobile phones to
share each others' processing and storage capacities, he says.
What else is on the way? Pearson predicts that next-generation
technologies geared towards communication and emotion will give birth
to a new, technology-enabled hippy movement.
"People are suffering from a lack of social contact because of previous
generations of technologies. People are looking for ways of making
relationships safer, and technology is absolutely ideal for doing that.
"Social barriers are dropping. We're heading almost towards another
culture, where people are much more open about their feelings for other
Keeping on with keeping up
Mike Carr, the director of research and venturing at British Telecom,
says future-gazing has tangible strategic benefits for the telco.
While BT isn't trying to engineer conscious computers or biological
computers for immediate sale, predictions of far-future technology
ready it for threatening changes. If the future of 20 years hence can
be imagined today, groundwork can be laid for their integration into
BT's business, Carr says.
"Unless you start to worry about nano-(technology) and what it's going
to be doing in ... the future and start to imagine those things, you're
going to miss a trick in terms of some of the directions you take," he
"It's surprising how quickly that stuff becomes real."
Carr's department looks at what he calls "inventive" pursuits, and it
is up to another department within the telco to turn those inventions
into commercial products and services.
One of those early inventions was the optical-fibre amplifier, which
enabled fast trans-Atlantic data links, Carr says.
He credits research work on Multiprotocol Label Switching to BT's
success in that area.
These days, near-term research at BT concentrates on what he calls "the
complexity problem". The lab's research output will help organisations
with "really clever ways of managing things (and) really clever ways of
automatically integrating things."
Fruit flies bristle with intelligence
While futurists predict artificial intelligence will eventually give
birth to conscious computers, British Telecom's AI guru Nader Azarmi
says the technology is already useful.
Since 1998, the telco has used AI techniques to allocate engineering
resources to logistically complicated tasks such as telephone-line
maintenance and repair, says Azarmi, who heads BT's Intelligent Systems
The platform has had a "major impact" on how the organisation allocates
daily work schedules to its 29,000 engineers, he says.
"It's about predicting the volume of work coming into the country, the
location of the work coming into the country, and essentially trying to
redistribute the workforce across the UK," he says.
Soon, BT will build an AI model of a customer to help improve
Elsewhere, BT has turned to nature for inspiration. Richard Tateson, a
senior researcher with BT's research and venturing department, seeks to
marry nature and computer science. For example, he studied the
formation of hairs on the back of fruit flies and applied what he
learnt to cellular communications networks.
"When I came here I knew a lot about fruit flies and nothing at all
about telephones," he says.
Fruit fly cells are self-organising and decentralised. For example,
Tateson says, when a fruit fly is developing bristles on its back,
several cells will attempt to become bristle cells in competition with
other, identical cells. Eventually, some cells will go on to form
bristles, and the cells that fail to do so will form fruit fly skin.
The same logic can be applied to the frequency or channel allocation
problem common with cellular phone networks.
"Why not allow the base stations in a mobile phone network or in a
radio network on the battlefields ... communicate with each other and
decide among themselves who gets to use which channels?" Tateson says.
By using a decentralised approach, cellular networks are better
equipped to handle sudden change, such as the loss of a base station on
a battlefield. Tateson's methodology is used in military applications
and may be used in civilian commerce.
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