By September 9, 2012 Read More →

Intel outsources the future

When you’re building computer chips you have to be able to plan, 5, 10, 20 years into the future.  One way Intel fuels innovation is by searching out different visions and soliciting the opinion of a broad range of scientists, artists, psychologists, and thinkers. Intel Futurist Brian David Johnson’s Tomorrow Project has been established as a repository of  conversations and publications about the future. Kathleen Maher of GraphicSpeak and Jon Peddie of Jon Peddie Research were invited to participate in the latest round.

Thinking about the future is such a luxury. Most of us are so busy racing into the future, we don’t have time to slow down enough to look ahead and see what’s coming. For big companies, though, looking ahead is pretty important, those juggernauts tend to run off the road pretty easily. So maybe it should not be surprising that a company like Intel, with a certain amount of spare cash lying around and a history of successful tea-leaf reading, has an on-staff futurist. Now that is a luxury.

Artist, writer, filmmaker Brian David Johnson has been Intel’s Futurist since 2002. His job is to work within Intel to try to formulate a vision of the future, which will help Intel’s engineers as they think about new products to design. Currently Johnson is tasked with creating a vision for 2020, a date that’s steaming towards us faster than most of us would like to think (but it’s not so far away when you’re planning chips).

Intel’s Brian David Johnson heads the Tomorrow Project

Intel, as you may know also has a team of cultural anthropologists and ethnographers led by Dr. Genevieve Bell. Johnson works with Bell because, apparently, Intel believes that you can’t really talk about the future without trying to understand the right now as much as possible.

This isn’t new, Intel has long had programs that bring in scientists to help the company look beyond its walls and cultivate new ideas. The tradition has been passed down from CTO to CTO. However, Intel’s current CTO Justin Rattner has thrown those projects in high gear. If you look at his entry on LinkedIn he says “My goal: reach the singularity by 2028.” The singularity, the idea that the work we’re doing with computer technology with ever expanding digital intelligences will reach a point of super-intelligence beyond the intelligence we’re working with on our own as humans.

The singularity, the big uh-oh to some; after all, what if we create this great super-intelligence and it doesn’t want to be our friend? Johnson has a way of humanizing Rattner’s and Intel’s potentially scary ambition by suggesting we take control of the future, as best we can anyway. He’s bringing in ideas from a broad range of people, many of whom think of themselves more as artists than scientists. He talks about trying to think ahead to create better future.

Johnson gives talks and writes about the need for everyone to think about the future – to think about what would be great to see in the future and what we should be afraid of in the future. The work he’s doing is gathered and documented as the “Tomorrow Project” and it includes a series of essays, short stories, and interviews. For one of the first publications of the Tomorrow Project, Johnson talked to writers and theorists Corey Doctorow, will.i.am, and Douglas Rushkoff. The site is now awash in conversations Johnson has gathered to provide different views of what might lie ahead. As it turns out, there are a lot of different road maps to the future. But, the thing is, we are going to get there.

In a new phase of the Tomorrow Project, Johnson asked Industry analysts and science-fiction authors to write short stories about how they see the future. The group included Kathleen Maher, Jon Peddie, Roger Kay, and Rob Enderle as well as writers Karl Schroeder and Madeline Ashby. We were thrilled to have been invited.

The research and analysis side of Jon Peddie Research is involved in a certain amount of forecasting and looking forward but we try to avoid straying too far into the realm of science fiction, thus it was tremendous fun to let loose and play, and now it gets personal.

As I worked on this project, I kept coming back to the idea of how we handle information. Information is power, sure, but what happens when there’s just so damn much of it? No one can deny that there are huge amounts of data out there just waiting for people to come along and make sense of it, but what is real, what is useful, and how do you sort it out? I do believe we’ll develop better ways to visualize information but at the moment we’re three-year-olds when it comes to making sense of huge amounts of data. I hope to see a day when the idea of communicating complex ideas with pie charts, Venn diagrams, graphs, and bars is laughable; as old fashioned as a crank telephone.

In the end, getting to the truth of something maybe isn’t the job of a scientist, and it certainly can’t be communicated in spreadsheets. I’ve looked and I’ve looked and I can tell you that the great whatsit does not live in a spreadsheet.

The Tomorrow Project is a way of getting at the ideas that are hiding behind algorithms, formulas, numbers, spreadsheets, words, pictures, song, dance, visions. The people Johnson talks to do their share of practical, plodding hard work but humans aren’t really driven by that. There’s something we’re all always reaching forward to even if we’re not really sure what it is. Companies can be the same way. And all of us humans singly or together in groups can get something out of real forecasting; out of taking a look at what’s happening now and tracing a path to what might come next. In fact, maybe taking time to think about the future isn’t such a luxury, but a requirement that can help create a better future, or prevent disaster.

Here is something I do know. When thinking about the future, there are two things one should always remember: change takes longer than you hope, and happens before you’re ready for it.

To see what has been generated by the Tomorrow Project so far go to http://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/research/tomorrow-project/the-tomorrow-project.html. The new book will be available at http://tp-idf.com/. This is a participatory project, if all this sparks some ideas, Intel welcomes your involvement. Contact them at http://www.tomorrow-projects.com/contact-us/.

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About the Author:

Kathleen is the editor-in-chief of GraphicSpeak and a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research. She has been writing about movies, music, art, and technology for almost all of her working life.

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