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Interview: BT predicts future of computing

Futurologist says AI entity will win the Nobel prize

You might not believe a word he says, but BT does. Ian Pearson has been BT's futurologist since 1991. His job is to imagine where today's technologies will lead us. Artificial intelligence, genetic modification, intelligent viruses, imaginary civilisations and Second Life 10.0, as well as some pretty nasty scenarios involving robots such as the Terminator are all real possibilities he included in his Technology Timeline.

In this interview, Pearson talks about his profession, explains why he doesn't think we will understand intelligent machines when they finally arise, and warns to the big ethical dilemmas our technological civilisation will have to face sooner or later.

Why does BT have a futurologist?

You can use the term futurist, if you prefer. It is pretty much the international term. Futurologist is peculiarly a British one, but everybody else uses futurist. We like to think having futurologists in BT is kind of [when] you look out the window on your car when you're driving alone through fog. You can't see a very clear picture of what is ahead. You try to look at every obstacle. Sometimes you will misinterpret an apparent shape in the distance, but few of us would drive through fog without bothering to look out the window. Blurred vision is a lot better than none at all. The same is true for business, which is why BT employs me.

So the further ahead that you can see, the better you can plan. It's a useful function, but BT didn't have a futurologist before me. It just considered it as part of planning. People would think ahead a little while, but there wasn't very much very long term thinking before I came along. I joined BT in 1985 but I only became a full-time futurologist in 1991.

Royal Dutch Shell has a famous scenario planning research team. Do you work the same way?

We work in different ways. Shell basically invented the field of corporate futurology, as far as I can tell. But what they do mostly is what is called scenario planning, different possibilities for what lies ahead, and they may plan for each of those different possible scenarios. What we do in BT is to use that here and there throughout the company for various reasons, but I personally don't think it works very well in terms of thinking what the future actually looks like. We can look at different scenarios. But when you think about the future a lot in a tech-dominated area like telecom, you can work out pretty much what it is going to look like, rather than just planning scenarios. Therefore I find it much better to try to predict what's going to happen than to have a list of few possibilities.

How do you make your predictions?

I do a lot of reading. I try to keep in touch with what's happening. I read some business and news magazines and technology journals and websites, to try to keep up with what's happening around the world. And then I spend a lot of time listening to other people and giving them insights on what they think will happen on their respective fields. Reading consumes a lot of my time as well as being in touch with another people, one way or another. Then I spend a long time daydreaming, thinking about how the thing interacts, and gradually I come up with a view of the future. When I talk with other people about it of course they argue with me sometimes. For example someone can say: "That is a very stupid conclusion," and I think again. This allows me to refine my ideas by sharing it with other colleagues, and find better conclusions.


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