The Future of Connectivity

Posted by Peter Cochrane on June 25, 2009

Posted on Sunday, June 28th, 2009 at 11:02pm. #

I was lucky enough to be able to chair a rather splendid evening recently at the RSA: The Future of Connectivity from the Club of Amsterdam. I heard three rather excellent speakers, and made rather hasty notes so that I could kick off questions.

It’s probably worthwhile you knowing the format for this: three speeches (15 minutes long), followed by 30-minutes of drinks and chat, followed by 30 minutes of Q&A. A rather nice format, I felt, which made for a good evening of discussion.

Dr Ir Egbert-Jan Sol was first – who went through a rather good presentation extrapolating Moore’s Law to encompass many other elements. The size of computers will shrink amazingly in the next ten years or so, if innovation keeps up; and the same goes for the cost of bandwidth. He argued that bandwidth would practically be free in ten years time, and that in fifteen years time, we’ll be down to computers the size of your pen lid. In 2020, he says, the amount of connections to the internet will be equivalent to 250 embedded wireless devices per human being. Wow, that’s some future.

His practical outcome of this was the truly ‘auto’mobile – a car capable of driving completely automatically, keeping a safe but close distance from the car in front, by 2040.

Professor Peter Cochrane was next up – the former BT Chief Technologist, he argued that we do things the wrong way round. Nature makes simple things which combine to do complex tasks; on the contrary, we make complex things to do simple tasks.

He pointed to there being over 4 billion mobile phones worldwide, with over 50% of those being internet-ready; and mentioned his Linked-In account, which shows that there are already 7,982,000 people just three degrees away from him.

He said that, in 2006, the internet had the same number of nodes as a human brain; by 2012, it would have a thousand times the number of nodes; and by 2018, a million times the number of nodes. He says that laptops aren’t smart: they have no sensors, and no concept of adaptability; but that as we build more sensors into things, our machines will be capable of being much smarter. He points to the iPhone, with its camera, its compass, its accellerometer. He says that humans can’t get more intelligent, while computers can. They can access more data, and extract knowledge from it easier. He points to a future which is more run by computers than before.

Finally, Hardy F. Schloer started shakily (“I haven’t received a fax for… nearly four months!!” he announced to a slightly bemused audience, wondering what a fax machine was), but rallied quickly to point to computers’ use being a changing one.

He says people used computers for two things: “getting information” (getting emails, temperatures, stock information, etc), and “posting information” (writing documents, sending emails, managing robots and power plants, etc). The computer is in the middle of us humans, he argues – and that the human’s role in all of this is going to disappear.

Very soon, he says, there’ll be no financial industry left. Computers can learn how to run the stock markets just as well as humans can: you won’t need humans to do this work any more, he argues. He points to chess: the interest in chess as an international sport completely died after computers started beating Grand Masters. And he points to many things – running busy ports, motor racing, banking, etc – being capable of being done almost solely by computers.

And, as was twittered by @kuxi, he said “those who are able to change will survive”.

It would seem, in the discussion afterwards, that entertainment is one of the only things that can’t be done by computers. You might want to tell that to the overnight radio presenter who’s job was replaced by a playout system, but I see what he means.

A fascinating evening, and one that – as always – opens up new thoughts and horizons.