After Hours

Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Looking back from 2020

And the winners are...
With this column, Peter Cochrane and silicon.com are pleased to announce the winners of our competition for the best 'Uncommon Sense' idea.

The first-prize winner is Ian McNairn, an IT professional, trained biologist and serious photographer living in Buckinghamshire, England. He's been reading Peter's columns on silicon.com for over two years.

His idea: "I would like to suggest that a 'backward looking' column, from the perspective of 10 to 15 years hence, would be a powerful tool to use to both predict what may happen, and to enlighten, as you so effectively do, the masses, and hopefully the decision-makers as well, as to some of the hard decisions that need to be made now."

The four runners-up are: Dick Winchester, Richard Sheppard, John Scott and Norman Bartlett.

All will receive copies of Peter's latest book.

Without further ado, here's the column based on McNairn's suggestion...

*****

Writing as the year 2020 comes to a close, it's amazing to think how far we've come in the past 15 years.

Take the MP8 player everyone wants for Christmas. It looks great, but best of all comes with a copy of every musical track recorded in the history of mankind. Seems strange to look back at the MP3 wars between customers and the ancient recording industry.

The sheer amount of energy wasted trying to resist the transition from spinning CDs to hard drives and then holographic storage was astonishing. And it was such a restricted and contained world with almost no customer freedom compared to today. Mind you, we could soon be watching an action replay when similar devices in the lab do the same for the movie industry. Bollywood is not best pleased and the legal eagles are hovering already.

Remember all those quaint interfaces that required fingers, thumbs, eyes and ears to navigate around the simplest of devices? What a boon natural language interfaces were. Everything immediately became more of a friend rather than an instrument of frustration and mental torture.

It is now hard to imagine what a big deal the TeraFlop supercomputer was in 2005 - costing around $2m - because today we can all afford one. Turns out Gordon Moore (of Moore's Law and Moore's Wall fame) was more than right. Faster and more powerful machines begat even faster and more powerful machines that not only decoded the human genome but also cracked the mystery of protein patterns. All of this indirectly led to the great advances in molecular computing, nanotech and a revolution in programmable materials that was a real 'stage left' tsunami.

Don't take for granted the instant communications, robotics, security and monitoring systems, automated health care, production, delivery, education and training as well as intelligent machines we enjoy in 2020. It wasn't always this way. For sure the knowledge existed to create these things years ago but without joined-up machine thinking and modelling we were just poking at a hornets nest with a stick. The non-linear and chaotic system we constructed by 2010 was beyond our understanding and we had to get the machines to stabilise almost everything.

Up to about 2000 we had been waiting for technology but by 2005 we had severe technological indigestion. We bought mobile phones, PDAs, cameras and laptops by the colour of the knobs in much the same way we started to buy automobiles in the 1980s. We had little understanding of what it was we were buying and what it was capable of. We called it 'feature death' at the time but it was really 'interface blindness', an overtaxing of our human input/output capabilities.

Revolutionary interface design cured a lot of the problems but it was relenting on the Swiss Army Knife Design School Philosophy - one thing doing everything badly - that really solved the problem. At the time the IT industry was besotted by convergence but the customer wasn't, and the customer eventually won.

Looking back over the past 15 years we have passed some terrific milestones:

  • 2005: The UK and US lost their grip on the electronic games industry to Korea. The reason? They had 100Mbps broadband in the last mile, whilst the West was still pushing 0.5Mbps.

  • 2006: Electronic game spectators paid to watch players who had become celebrities on a par with footballers. Rolling power blackouts were the norm in summer and winter due to the removal of 'uneconomic power plants' to the point where the well-established 15 per cent overcapacity had been reduced to five per cent. So peak demands for electricity saw artificially brittle power systems unable to cope.

  • 2007: Most traditional telephone companies were taken out by voice over IP (VoIP) and companies such as Skype. And of course, the usage models had also changed. Why call a loved one or family when you can open up a communications channel 24x7? The telephone concept mutated to an intercom and audio conferencing paradigm. This resulted in the telcos abandoning the last mile to new companies and customers so they could concentrate on bulk bit transport and a few network-centric services vital to national, corporate and individual security.

  • 2008: Videoconferencing still wasn't selling but Wi-Fi services were almost ubiquitous throughout the world and available at very low or zero cost. VoIP mobiles were everywhere - with mobile phone companies struggling to compete. 3G was close to moribund and still trying to carve out a market. The first 'auto-immune system' was established for the net with autonomous 'killer bots' locating and negating all virus, worm, Trojan horse and spyware attacks.

  • 2009: The last circuit-switched services were taken down and we began to communicate via 100 per cent Internet Protocol (IP) networks. Second generation auto-immune system trials demonstrated the feasibility of tracking down hackers, spammers and criminals. All company IT and security departments disappeared - just as typing pools once did and for many of the same reasons. If you were not tech-aware and self-sufficient you were almost certainly out of a job.

  • 2010: New slimmed-down network operating companies emerged with capital and operating expenditures that were less than 10 per cent of the existing phone companies they soon replaced. Japan and Korea upgraded to 1000Mbps home and office broadband connections whilst the West still pondered why anyone would want 100Mbps delivery. One-terabyte (TB) storage on home and office machines became a minimum requirement along with 10GB of RAM and 10GHz clocks. The first voice interfaces for noisy environments became available and invoked a new design revolution.

  • 2011: Radio, TV, games, gambling, healthcare, medicare, mobile working, communications, appliances, logistics, surveillance, security, retail, travel - all became available on IP-based networks. At last videoconferencing took off because the industry discovered what Hollywood knew in the 1930s - emotion matters in communication.

  • 2012: The human protein stack was decoded - 10 years earlier than predicted -through the use of massive computational power and nanotechnology devices. The first self-sustained silicon life forms spontaneously emerged in a global network of supercomputers and brought about a radical change in the way we thought and the way we produced software and designed systems.

  • 2013: Evolutionary system design, manufacture and command and control were finally accepted as the only viable solution to all major problems and systems. At last corporations fully embraced the notion of business modelling as a vital decision making tool.

  • 2014: Human prosthetics and implants based on nano-material and biological programming of proteins equalling and/or exceeding the performance of the original piece parts appeared. As a result human life times exceeding 100 years became the norm in the rich countries.

  • 2015: Natural language interfaces became standard in all appliances and devices. We didn't know it but we'd see even more change in the five years leading up to 2020 than in the previous 20.

So why was all this so hard to predict? The five-year horizon for technological advances is always relatively easy to pin down because everything is in the lab being developed. The 10-year horizon is more problematic because some elements are not yet developed, whilst for 20 years we have very little relevant information on which to make judgements. Worse, we are almost clueless when it comes to predicting what people will do with technology and how society will reshape. However, with the next generation of supercomputers we might just overcome this.

Winning column idea chosen on 14 December. Worked a very full day and cogitated on the near future. Started typing late pm on the 14th. Consumed copious amounts of coffee and despatched column to silicon.com from my home office very early on the 15th via a Wi-Fi link.

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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