Something to look forward to...
Found this in an Aussie newspaper. My favourite bit is where they try to glorify personal tagging. Can't wait :roll: Plus they throw in a little occult crystal-ball gazing for good measure.
Inside the future
By Patrick Gray
February 15, 2005
Email to a friend Printer format
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 flopped.
AdvertisementPearson, 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," Pearson says.
"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 predicts.
"Education (becoming) completely obsolete ... telepathic links between people, the end of death; those are fairly substantial changes," he suggests.
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 social opportunity."
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 technologies.
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 are tracked.
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 things happen.
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 bore.
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.
"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 situation.
"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, Mannings says.
"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 research manager.
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 people."
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 says.
"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 lab.
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 subscribers' satisfaction.
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.
Do we really need all these high-tech gizmos? I mean, we are already slaves to technology (says I who is surfing the net!). Let's just hope the Good Lord returns before this planet goes too far off the deep end.