TTI speaks to Ian Pearson, Futurologist

Set the controls for AD 2050 and take firm hold of your crystal balls as TTI fast forwards into the future with BT Futurologist Ian Pearson. What are things going to be like in a few decades time? Will giant robots rule the Earth? Probably not. But it still seems more likely than technology putting a stop to misery, war and famine. Those robots may not be smart enough to take over the planet yet, but they just might be after your job. If you’d rather not see the results of the next few years of technological development, look away now…

future
Life expectancy has grown at a fairly regular rate for about 150 years now, do you think there is any chance of a significant deviation from this pattern in the next 50 years?

Nobody knows how much life expectancy can be expected to grow, some people think that the limit will be about 130 years, with quite a lot of people living to 100.

You’ve predicted a decline in manual jobs, which isn’t much of a surprise. You’ve also predicted that technology could reproduce the skills of footballers, TV presenters and experts who rely on experience to make judgments. If I want a job that isn’t going to be automated, where should I look?

The idea of a job for life is already history. People in the future will have multiple careers over a lifetime. The average time that people spend with one company decreases every year, and over the last 20 years most jobs have changed beyond recognition. The idea of picking one job for life is a thing of the past.

I think in the information economy jobs that require intelligence can largely be automated. Administrative jobs can quite easily be automated, and the industrial sector robotics will be able to replace people. What’s left are jobs that require human contact, emotional, caring roles, and these are the things that people will largely be doing in 20-30 years time. We’re not talking about people having their jobs wiped out, but they will be focused more on the people issue.

And you’ve said that you think creativity could go that way too?

I think so. Already computers are creative in any sense that you choose to define it. Computers can already produce art, write poetry and things like that. The quality isn’t very good, but when you think that a supercomputer isn’t as powerful as the human brain yet that isn’t entirely surprising. As we get better AI we will start to see computer enhanced creativity. I don’t see it as a threat to human creativity, it will allow us to indulge our creativity.

I compose music, but I’m not very good at it. If I had machine creativity at my disposal all I would have to do is give a few hints about what I wanted and it would help me to compose something that Mozart would have been proud of.

Do you think all this means we can expect to enjoy more leisure time?

People in the past have predicted that we will have much more leisure time because machines would automate a lot of the work. That has happened, but instead of taking more leisure time we’ve decide to go for a much, much higher standard of living. Because I can get a job working 55 hours a week I work 55 hours a week and have a high standard of living compared to my parents or grandparents. If I was prepared to accept the same standard of living as my grandfather then I could work 10 hours a week, but do I really want to live in a very basic house with a 14” TV?

On the other had we do see a phenomena of downshifting at the moment. People opting out of the rat race and the materialistic life style and deciding to concentrate on their quality of life. Its impossible to predict how common this will become.

We often hear about the knowledge economy, and certainly it is the case that many more people have degrees in the UK than used to. Do you think it would be prudent to think a bit more about a masters or PhD to compete with future generations?

I think being highly qualified will be useful for the next 10-15 years at most. For the early part of your career it’s probably a good idea to have good qualifications to set yourself apart from everybody else. But in the long term the qualification stands for diddly-squat because if we believe that we are moving towards an economy where all the intelligent work will be done by machines then a PhD is of no commercial value whatever.

What counts are things like emotional and interpersonal skills, having a nice personality and being good at meeting people. For my 13 year old daughter’s generation I think qualifications will be irrelevant.

When I speak to education conferences I say that most of the useful stuff that kids are learning in school is on the playground not in the classroom. Learning to motivate and empathize is not on the curriculum in most schools. The popular guy who sits at the back of the class and messes about is actually likely to be in a much better position in 30 years time than you are working really hard.

Do you detect and increase in the rate of change of technology?

Change is accelerating, there’s no doubt about that. When I first started this job in the early 1990s I could keep up with technological change relatively easily. Now I can’t: it’s a positive feedback system where every new wave of technology helps to make the next wave even faster. For example bio-technologists might discover a new protein which can be used for organic computing, and the faster computers that result from that could in turn be used to better understand proteins.

This leads to a phenomena known as a singularity, where the rate of change as shown on the graph would be essentially vertical. This will be probably happen around 2025, and the pace of change will be similar to ET landing and giving us all the technology from his space ship.

Obviously we perceive technology’s march, but is there a way of putting a number on the rate of change in technology?

There probably is, although I’ve never tried it. If you look at the number of patents filed each year there’s likely to be an exponential rise. There’s also an exponential rise in the quantity of information in the world. 30 years ago the amount of information in the world doubled every 10 years, now it doubles every year.

Its quite exciting to think that every year half of the information in the world is new – almost everything we know we’ve only just discovered.

The might of countries like China and India is increasing at the moment. Do you think these countries will come to dominate the west, and if so will we notice a big difference in our everyday lives?

Historically these things have been cyclical. If you look to the distant past China has been responsible for a lot of technology, and India has also been through a phase of being very powerful. Europe has gone past its peak and America has enjoyed the international lead for quite a long time, although it’s slipping fast, with China and India catching up, with China very much further ahead than India.

It’s no big surprise — China has a quarter of the worlds population, so on a level playing field you would expect it to dominate. Meanwhile Europe has an aging population and a lot of our young people are not very well educated. In 30 years’ time Europe will be an also-ran on the world stage.

True so. One last question — why is the future always depicted as a dystopia?

People aren’t interested in the nice side of things, they are only interested in things they have to worry about. In evolutionary terms people have always had to be on the look out for predators, in the same way people naturally look for threats when discussing the future, rather than seeing the opportunities. I don’t lose any sleep over the future – at the end of the day I believe that we’ll muddle through because we always do.

Interview by Jimmy Tidey
Illustration by Jack Noel

So no giant robots stalking the earth just yet… But if our interview with Ian has whet your whistle for dystopian visions of the future, check out our other article in this series, ‘Cracking Cheese, Gromit!’ where according to Lucy Langdon, the likes of Blade Runner and Brave New World have nothing on cuddly plasticine duo Wallace and Gromit as a model (pun, alas, intended) of our future.