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British Researchers Plan Future Electronic Society

July 1999
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

Information becomes the manufactured good that defines productivity, economic activity.

The 2020 citizen returns home from an afternoon of outdoor recreation to resume work. Recognizing him as he strides up the walkway to his door, his house’s computers unlock the door and activate hallway lighting systems. As he walks through the house, environmental controls that are sensitive to his presence switch lights on and off and adjust each room’s temperature. Similarly, his intelligent clothing loosens and thins out for greater body heat dispersal as he cools down from exertion.

Responding to a cue from his central computer, he voice-activates a wireless personal diagnostic system that monitors his health, paying particular attention to his newly implanted artificial liver. Other biosensors compare metabolic rates and vital signs as he begins to relax from an afternoon of vigorous exercise. If need be, the system can automatically alert the nearest health care center of any need for treatment or order prescribed medicines for delivery from a pharmaceutical house. With this recent biomedical data in hand, his kitchen automatically begins to prepare a meal based on his medical profile and his dietary needs arising from the exercise.

Having passed his home physical, he moves into the room that serves as an entertainment/work communications center. Thanks to the recent development of a home video recording system that can finally be programmed by adults, he knows he can quickly review the latest high-definition digital newscast in near real time because his home information system has excerpted news items in his areas of interest. With several hours of work ahead, he has little time for entertainment, even though classic movies, soon to be replaced by holographic television, are available on demand online.

As he reclines in front of his flat-screen wall display, his home computer establishes links with his employer’s headquarters several miles away. His work assignments are listed in order of priority and potential time of completion. As he begins work with a series of voice commands, the 2-second delay in responding to his entries annoys him slightly, and he wonders when the company will replace its obsolete 4-year-old information system with a new 1-billion-processor parallel computer. It certainly would make life a lot easier, he reflects.

A future society built around believable, but as yet not invented, technologies has long been the purview of researchers, futurists and science fiction writers. Yet, the year 2020 is only as far ahead in the future as today is from the ascensions to power of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan—about 20 years. Those past two decades saw a technology revolution that is as amazing as it is familiar to computer users who came of age during that time.

One company positioning itself for the long-term information age is BT, London. The firm, which owes its origins to the United Kingdom’s national telecommunications service, is conducting research across the full spectrum of information technologies as part of its planning for the future. This approach is based on the firm no longer viewing itself as a telecommunications company, but instead as a technology partner in the information age, according to company officials.

Dr. Peter Cochrane, head of research at BT Networks and Systems, explains that the company pays attention to technology and sociology trends as it prepares for near- and long-term information systems developments. His office maintains a calendar of technology forecasts through the year 2040. While that date may see the use of nuclear fusion as a power source, global environmental management corporations and a moon base the size of a small village—as this calendar suggests—other intervening years offer the potential for a host of technological innovations that can reshape government, economies and society as a whole.

In addition to considering these potential technological innovations, Cochrane’s division is planning for the widespread changes in the workplace that the electronic world is bringing. Long-standing industries will go the way of buggy whip manufacturers as global connectivity eliminates middlemen and alters employment, consuming and recreational habits. Convenience and efficiency will supplant tradition, and many companies will have to reinvent themselves or face failure against energetic, innovative competition. This is not a new trend in a free-market economy but one that is accelerating in the dynamic information era.

Five years ago, BT researchers compiled a list of projected technology developments through the year 2025. Some of these forecasts already have come to pass, and others are about to appear well ahead of predictions. “This says that the technology is speeding up,” Cochrane warrants.

The latest technology calendar forecasts a steady stream of innovations across the spectrum of biology, computing and material development. The next five years probably will see familiar developments such as handheld videophones, interactive vehicle highway systems, and personal wearable health monitors, along with 1-petaflops supercomputers, 0.01-micron semiconductors, computers that write their own software, and multiple channels of greater than 100 gigabits per second on a single fiber.

By 2010, optical storage cards, DNA storage devices, quantum cryptography and 1-terabit memory devices may emerge along with optical neural computers, quantum computers, artificial brains with more than 10,000 cells and expert systems that surpass human learning and logic abilities. Humans could be treated by devices roaming under their own power through blood vessels. People might vote online, employ intelligent housework robots or be rescued by firefighting robots able to see through smoke.

The year 2015 may include advances such as reconfigurable buildings; intelligent materials with sensors, storage and effectors; nanotechnology plants and toys; and 100-gigabyte nonvolatile erasable random access memory in a few centimeters square. Viewers could enjoy holographic display and three-dimensional television and videoconferencing without special glasses.

In 2020, obsolete electronic asynchronous transfer mode switches may be replaced by photonic versions. Other innovations could include molecular memories with a density of 1 terabyte per square centimeter, a 1-petabit memory chip, room temperature superconductors, and artificial insects and small animals with artificial brains. By then, human knowledge could be exceeded by machine knowledge.

The year 2025 may see artificial brain implants and peripheral nerves, thought recognition as an everyday means of input, and learning superseded by a transparent interface to a smart computer. Developed countries could have more robots than people.

Ultimately, by the year 2030, humans may be able to establish a full direct brain link with their computers. This in turn could lead to an artificial human brain by 2035.

Currently, most of the limits to processing capabilities involve input rather than processing power. Cochrane compares a 300-megahertz laptop to a common garden ant. The computer has far more processing power, yet the ant, with its 200 neurons, is smarter. The main difference is that the computer lacks the varied sensory inputs possessed by the ant. Once sensory capability, massive interconnection and uncertainty are added to information systems, “we will see some very magic stuff,” he allows.

“At some point, in the long term, true artificial life—artificial intelligence—will spontaneously erupt out of the silicon world without our intervention,” Cochrane predicts. “We won’t have to do a thing. Something big enough, interconnected, with enough randomness, will just happen. We may not be smart enough to recognize it.” This artificial life, however, might be smart enough to know not to communicate with humans lest they fear it and switch it off.

Instead of thinking of “Intel inside” information systems, people will be thinking in terms of “third-generation mobile inside,” where all electronic components communicate with each other. “There are 6 billion people and 14 billion microprocessors,” Cochrane states. “Within the next decade, there will be more things online than people.” This includes appliances as diverse as televisions, audio systems, washing machines, hair dryers and microwave ovens. BT provides substantial funding to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory, which is pursuing digital links among diverse electronic appliances and components.

In 10 years, Cochrane notes, digital televisions will take over the entire market in the United Kingdom because, at that time, analog systems will be switched off. Many of these television sets will have World Wide Web browsers that can be easily used by most viewers without a keyboard. Also in 10 years, most cars will be equipped with global positioning systems as readily as they now have air conditioning.

Just as microprocessors are embedded in everyday appliances and hardware, they may soon be embedded in food products. A chip embedded in a cooking chicken, for example, could communicate with a microwave oven to let it know how long to cook the food and at which temperature. The oven would set its own time and turn itself off without requiring any programming or intervention from the user other than switching the machine on.

A related development will equip most of these appliances with hard drives or other types of data storage systems. Everything an individual watches on television could be recorded automatically for review or discard.

This also opens up possibilities for electronic commerce. Cochrane notes that movie viewers may opt to purchase soundtrack tunes that they enjoy from movies residing on their home information systems. These songs then can be downloaded into hard drives or automobile sound systems.

The automobile can serve as a major commerce enabler. Gas stations may feature display screens at pumps for self-servers to view items for sale. The customer could order items for purchase and delivery, or even download software or music into the car’s hard drive. Map and tourist information also could be downloaded into an automobile navigation system. A 10-gigabit hard drive now costs about $300, and it is only a matter of time before these are installed in automobiles to serve as storage or transfer devices. Cochrane offers that these downloading gas stations could begin to appear in only five years.

BT’s research is not limited to the information infrastructure, however. Recognizing that electronic devices are fast becoming elements of the human body, the company is conducting research under a program known as the BT wired man. This effort studies the potential for combined communications to both the outside and the inside of a human being. Focal points range from advanced pacemakers to electronic pain relief modules and an anti-epilepsy unit connected to brain lobes. Embedded biosensors could relay information to an intelligent ring that would store data for later download or to an armband personal computer.

Cochrane relates firsthand experience on the digitization of everyday life. He has a 100-megabit local area network in his home, and he recently spent more than £1,000 ($1,600) on cabinetwork to store compact discs (CDs). His son took all the CDs, converted the music to MPEG, or Motion Pictures Expert’s Group, format and stored it on a hard drive. “I have 2,000 tracks on my laptop,” he states. “When I fly, I no longer listen to the airline’s music—I listen to Peter Cochrane’s music.”

This technology is also serving to change people’s tastes as they have access to a greater range of recordings. “The classics of the 21st century will not be things like Beethoven, but instead themes from movies,” he predicts. “The classics were about ballet, opera, concerts and visual scenes. For the modern generation, the visual scenes will be things such as [the movie] Air Force One.

“The whole essence of the electronic world is not about copyright; it’s about access rights,” Cochrane declares. “That is why the music industry is going to be totally flamed—because it is into medieval monks with quill pens that chain the books to their legs,” he analogizes. “The electronic world is about everybody having it. They won’t charge 20 pounds [per item], but 20 pence; they won’t sell 1,000 [copies], but they will sell 10 million.

“This is an interesting opportunity and threat at the same time,” he says of these types of technology applications. “One of my purposes is to wargame businesses and try to destroy them. There are going to be some very great changes in companies—the way they work, the way they operate and, inevitably, the way they think. They have no choice because the technology is going to do it to them.”

One BT wargame involves taking three top employees from a company and treating them as if they have been fired one day before vesting, for example. With this attitude in mind, three BT experts join these employees in setting up an imaginary company geared toward putting the original client out of business. This highlights the client’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities. “Usually, [business] death comes as a surprise and from a direction where you are never looking. Most companies are looking in their own sectors for a threat; they will die from a threat from another sector,” Cochrane explains.

Part of the issue is that firms still relate to production in a material sense—atoms, versus production in the form of information, or digital bits. “It is a real problem for people coming from the world of atoms to move to the world of bits,” he emphasizes.

One reason he cites is that humans cannot cope with volumes such as 6-billion-squared items of electronic mail per day. This burgeoning information overload is evident among computer user web browsers with bookmark lists that seem to grow exponentially. Intermediaries will be required to help individuals sort through the massive amounts of information and media that people will receive.

“The world of atoms will be unbelievably disintermediated,” Cochrane declares. The result will be that banks, insurance companies, bookstores and other institutions will be wiped out. “But, in the world of bits, there will be even more intermediaries than you can imagine.”

Cochrane’s company already is implementing some of the elements necessary for this future. The firm can install large bandwidth and routing capabilities “virtually anywhere on the planet.” Customers routinely are invited directly into the laboratory to be shown technology and to consider how it might be engineered into their solutions.

“When the telephone network had three or four calls a day, at random, for three or four minutes, the system worked,” Cochrane relates. “Now, the network is full of strange attractors.” An emergency call system can crash when a multitude of cellular telephone users call to report a traffic accident, for example. A conference of 4,000 people might suddenly flood a telephone system during a five-minute break. Cochrane notes that the peak-to-mean ratio on the Internet, which is more than 1,000:1, is beginning to occur on telephone networks. He explains, “We are now looking at a society where communication between people means we get swarming and chaotic action.

“It’s not about just your attention span, but your ability to cope in space,” he says.

Sociological Change Threatens Top-Down Companies, Economies, Governments

Being a technological futurist requires a vision of global economic growth, and BT Head of Research Dr. Peter Cochrane is not ambiguous about the effect that the information revolution will have on economies and governments. The rapid pace of change will obsolete governments as well as companies that cannot re-engineer themselves, he states.

Already, a significant part of global economic growth involves “trading in bits,” where information and services are traded over cyberspace without conventional accounting and tax procedures. “That business is now massive and growing, and it is not in the gross domestic product equation,” Cochrane declares. He adds that a graph projects the Internet growing to eclipse the telephone network by 2003. Fancifully extending that Internet graph line shows that the Internet’s productivity will eclipse the world’s gross domestic product as it has traditionally been measured by 2013. This is not as far-fetched as it may seem, Cochrane allows.

“In a world of atoms, you have a finite number of sources, a finite number of manufacturers, a finite number of customers and a finite amount of product. In a world of bits, all are infinite. There is no limit; Adam Smith got it wrong,” he offers.

“The emerging electronic economy has no singularity for market stability. It has multiple stable points. It is actually conditionally unstable, rather than conditionally stable.”

In this world, hierarchies tend to be ill-suited. Cochrane cites this as one reason Japan is having great difficulty in adjusting to the new business environment. Hierarchies are well-suited to predictable, stable markets. However, Internet space mandates management and manufacturing systems that are “extremely fluid and incredibly irreverent,” he says, adding that, “Mother Nature doesn’t crave control. There isn’t a single instance where Mother Nature uses a hierarchy.

“It has taken the United States about 15 years to create this new electronic economy and a society that has been dragged along,” he relates. “The United Kingdom will probably do it in about 10 years. I’m intrigued to see if Japan and China can do it in a shorter period, or whether it will take a longer period for them.” He compares it to the industrial revolution, which England inaugurated and took about 80 years to build, but which the United States achieved in about 40 years. Later entrants learned from their predecessors and shortened the time frame. The time period for developing an Internet economy and society currently is about 10 years, and shortening this, Cochrane believes, will place tremendous social strain on a national system.

Workplace trends also will change radically. “The duration of employment will be much shorter—it will be a serial-parallel multiple,” he says. “A person will have a main job, a day job, but they will do other jobs as well.” People might have workplace contracts that commit them for 100 days a year, but leave them free to work for others the rest of the time. “Management must understand that it will not have 100 percent loyalty, but 50 percent loyalty. In an [electronic] e-world, that will be very positive because people will be bringing in new skills, information and contacts.”

Cochrane’s own company reduced its payroll from 242,000 to 110,000 people in seven years without labor actions or critical headlines. The next step will be down to 60,000, which will be concurrent with an increase in market size, customer numbers, turnover and profit. “We will reduce the number of people and strip out tons of technology,” Cochrane states. “It will be a lot more brittle than the first leap.”

The subsequent step, which he predicts will be even more stressful, will reduce the number of personnel from 60,000 to 30,000. This will depend on mastering technology to an ever greater degree. “Half our work force is managed by an artificial life system,” he notes. It assigns workers to specific tasks based on their skills, equipment and location, and it reschedules them when and where needed “on a second-to-second basis.” Similar technology aids will enable these force reductions by increasing efficiency and assuming mundane tasks.