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Peter Cochrane's Blog: Accelerating society

What will IT systems do for us in the future?

Everything is speeding up
13.05.05, 15.35 GMT, Fleet Service Station M3, UK

During a meeting this week I was asked to succinctly characterise my life. The vision that sprang to mind was that of a combined harvester with the blades reaping the corn just 3m ahead of me, whilst beyond lies a scene of tranquillity. Only 10 years ago my diary was reasonably packed for six months ahead, and beyond that the pages where relatively blank and spare time was in abundance. But five years ago the distance had shortened to just three months, whilst today it is just three weeks.

The blades turn right under my nose, everything changes, all is moving and only three weeks from now I will face an ocean of tranquillity. It never happens of course. I can see it but I can't reach it! Life has become integrated with no boundary between work, rest and play. The cause? IT and networks! With instant access and ubiquitous communication, business and private life have accelerated. Productivity has gone up but so has activity and travel. In fact IT seems to be doing for travel what the PC did for the paperless office.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. I rather like the prospect of being able to do and achieve over 10 times more than my father in the same (or hopefully longer) lifespan. And I look with some envy at the prospect for my children and what they will be able to do. But I suspect they may achieve slightly less unless the next generation of IT realises the necessary aids for the people using technology.

Speeding up communication, taking out delays and providing more information inherently creates chaotic environments beyond human ability to cope. We are now the ultimate limiters in the transaction loop, the definers of progress and advancement. It is our inabilities that define the rate of progress here on in. Without intelligent machines helping us manage everything, we will not continue to ride the exponential rise in work output and achievement.

A net result of human limitations can be seen in companies and governments where the inability to quickly subsume the complex and make good decisions is all too evident. The good news is - the support systems are coming! And can you guess where they are being deployed first? In the military - as ever! In the arena of war, where lives are at stake, it really is vital that the right decisions are made, and fast. Information can be tsunami-like or sparse, and it is seldom complete or 100 per cent accurate, but decisions still have to be made. Sound familiar? If you are in business it will!

What will these future systems do for us? In an ideal tech world they will restore stability and allow us to reach the tranquillity we supposedly crave. However, I suspect the reality will be different. I for one can see that engaging with these systems will make us even more productive. It will be hard to resist a new working relationship, a new intelligence and the new modes it will allow. My guess - it will be essential, and will become irresistible!

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About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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