Peter Cochrane's Blog: If I had to start again...

I'd study not just IT but biology, chemistry and evolution

Written on UA930 flying San Francisco to London and dispatched to a few days later via a free wi-fi service in Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK.

As a youngster I lived in a time of electronic revolution. The spoils of advanced WWII electronics saw a rich environment for innovation and change. A transition from 'tubes' (or 'thermionic valves' in UK-speak) to solid state (transistors and integrated circuits) was underway and I chose to join the exciting industry that was being built.

I had my good fortune to benefit from excellent college and university teachers who gave me a good grounding in the scientific process and engineering basics.

I was soon employed as a device and circuit designer, and I progressed to system design, integration, production and deployment. Software and complex systems followed, as well as artificial intelligence, artificial life, virtual reality, augmented virtual reality, and robotics.

In due course I found myself leading a large team developing optical fibre transmission systems, signal and data encryption and data processing. Remarkably, I witnessed and was a part of several generations of optics and electronics, each providing significant advances over their predecessors.

What fun, and what a ride!

So it was interesting to be asked recently the following question by a group of eager young students: "If you were a young person starting out today, what would you focus on? Where would you go?"

I was able to answer almost without thought because it is a question that I have asked myself periodically for this past 20 years or so.

I parsed my reply as follows:

  1. I would start with a much broader and richer education.
  2. I would fly in the face of all accepted wisdom and especially the trend toward increasingly narrow and specialised degree courses, and I would study both 'dry' and 'wet' science.
  3. I wouldn't concentrate on physics and computer science alone but include biology, chemistry and evolutionary systems.
  4. I would spend time looking at and trying to understand nature, including energy and food cycles, and the emergent behaviours of plants, insects, animals and of course mankind.
  5. I would take on a far wider mathematical brief to increase my overall church of understanding and ability, especially in the sphere of modelling, emulation, synthesis and animation.
  6. Finally, I would focus my energy on the obvious hotspot at the intersection of IT communications, nanotech and biotech to zero in on the design, build and understanding of complex systems. See my illustration below...
 The hotspot at the intersection of IT communications, nanotech and biotech

The hotspot at the intersection of IT communications, nanotech and biotech
Image credit: Peter Cochrane

What would my overall mission be? Initially, understanding pure knowledge! But in the long term it would be to master the non-linear and chaotic - and to enable the mining of the riches in that domain that we so sorely need.

In future trying to offset or solve ecological problems using the same technology that caused the problem in the first place won't work. Trying to stabilise financial, social and political systems using the same techniques and measures that caused the problem won't work either.

As an engineer my mission would be to provide solutions that would solve the problem and not make it worse. And in that regard I would be particularly interested in the connectedness of things and people, and the emergent behaviours that result as delay is gradually removed.

Today I would gladly reset the clock and start again. I find the prospect irresistible - but, I'd just like to add one proviso: I would like to take my brain and all my experiences with me!

About Peter Cochrane

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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