Futurologist Ian Pearson discussed technologies of the future to more than 200 IT, security and finance delegates on the Aurora cruise ship.
He spoke of IT security threats from smart bacteria, gadgets which are installed in the skin, the soaring of tax rates precipitating the emigration of graduates to low-tax economies, oil at 30 dollars a barrel, and the reversal of globalization.
Gadgets of the future
Electronics in the human body will record holiday and other experiences - bungee-jumping for example - and replay them into your nervous system, or someone else's. They will be able to feel the same sensations you did on holiday. This would surpass showing holiday snaps to friends and family. Games headsets are already recording some simple thought processes.
Pearson also referred to "active skin". Tattoos would be applied to the skin to provide interactive, touch-sensitive video displays. One drawback: hackers may try to access your nervous system, though this threat will not deter all.
Pearson referred to the "digital mirror" in which you see yourself as you want to, not as you are. And you could use "active makeup" to change your look during the day.
Smart bacteria - the biggest IT security threat to mankind?
Pearson said that smart bacteria could be the biggest security threat known to mankind
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Robots will replace IT workers - the human-machine convergence
Pearson referred to an optical brain in a conscious computer - a billion times more powerful than the brain with emotions and senses. The conscious computer could be fully sentient - benign or malicious. He showed on a slide the stages of man from homo erectus and homo sapiens to what he called homo machinus and bacteria sapiens within 150 years.
By 2018 there may be a "robot as smart as you are". Robots may have a higher IQ than humans - and take over many intellectual and IT jobs today. "Today many people work as smart machines. Machines will become much smarter." Research is being funded into making computers thousands and even a million times smarter than humans, he said.
Why humans will still be needed - the female-dominated economy
"But humans will add value because of the need for compassion. A robot will never be able to sit beside a patient, give them a cuddle and make them feel better. A robot can clear up a bedpan and give an injection, prescribe drugs. Compassion needs humans. A PC will be able to do what a human does today in an intellectual capacity. But a human will add value because of emotion and compassion." He said that workplaces will be designed for meeting people.
Pearson spoke of the male-dominated economy coming to an end. "Everything I do I could do with a piece of software if I spent enough time writing it. What my wife does, dealing with other people, I cannot do that at all. So she will have a job in 2020 whereas my job will be automated. We are heading very rapidly towards a female-dominated economy. "
Globalization in reverse
Globalization is increasing. But it will soon start reversing. "You cannot shake hands with someone or give them a cuddle across a network." Globalization, he said, will start to reverse thanks to the refocus on the care economy over a 100 year period.
Oil at 30 dollars a barrel by 2030
Pearson made a case for the world's energy coming from the Sahara and other deserts within 22 years, and oil at less than 30 dollars a barrel.
He said that solar power from the Sahara, even at 12% efficiency, could replace carbon-based fuels such as oil, petrol and diesel. "The Sahara alone could supply 40 times more energy than we need for the whole planet." One barrel of oil is the equivalent in energy of a solar panel, which measures one square metre, working in the Sahara working for six months.
He spoke of solar farms in the Sahara, and "super-cables" to transmit the energy. "By 2030 you cannot sell a barrel of oil for more than 30 dollars. At some point the maximum obtainable price will fall below extraction cost and the rest will be left in the ground."
Obsolescence is great for IT and the environment
Pearson said that the faster that technology becomes obsolete the faster miniaturisation will happen, which will reduce the drain on the world's resources. Eventually "we get a total sustainable future where everyone has all the IT they can dream of and almost no environmental impact".
He added, "The faster the obsolescence the faster we get there. If anyone tells you obsolescence is a bad idea, ignore them or argue with them but do not believe them. Do not ever limit your obsolescence cycle. That will slow down progress and increase environmental impact. As an example miniaturisation will 'bring everyday IT down to lapel-pin size'."
Agility is more important than being best-in-class
Business will change faster. "You should not focus on being best-in-class. You need agility. Optimisation is only a good strategy in a stable environment."
Security - too much will kill your company
"You cannot have a watertight security policy - you have to give enough freedom to employees to do their jobs. In an extreme, your security department can kill your company better than any hacker."
He said that boards of directors should beware of setting extreme goals for their heads of IT security. "How can you have sensible security while making sure your employees can do their jobs well? Most blue chips do not do that very well at all. They stop their employees from doing their job."
He warned that employees will bypass the corporate systems and do their jobs on home PCs, where there will not be any security at all, and then they will have their ideas stolen. "Or they [employees] will be so inefficient you will not have a company."
Tax rates will soar - sending graduates overseas
Pearson said there is nowhere near enough money in the government's pension funds to cope with a population that is living much longer. Tax rates for young people will go through the roof but only in developed countries, he said. "In the developing countries tax rates will be very low."
He said that graduates will object to paying up to 60% of their salary in tax and will emigrate to Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, India or China which he said would be viable economies but would have "very low tax rates by comparison". He added, "We will obviously see a brain drain. We cannot expect our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to support us when they do not have to."
Power in future will be web-based - as will the threats
"Future power will be web-based. Like-minded people will find each other easily on the web and may organise campaigns and denial of service attacks to force people to listen."
Global pressure groups will apply pressure instantaneously, using the economic and IT muscle of billions of people.
Five-year plans are a waste of time
"You have to think about the future. The pace of change is so fast that you cannot plan five years ahead with any degree of accuracy. New technologies and regulations are on the scene so quickly now that whatever strategy you have will be OK for the first two to three years and then is obsolete. So for years four and five, if you have any serious plans, investment plans - for example - they will be a millstone around your neck. Do not have a five-year plan. It is a waste of time. Have a two-to-three-year plan. You need to be adaptable - that will keep you alive."
Manufacturers will not keep pace with advances
"Twenty years from now the rate of technological development will be faster than the ability of factories to manufacture."
Who is Ian Pearson?
He told delegates on the Aurora, "I study the future but I do not try to predict it with 100% accuracy. I am not like Mystic Meg. I am an engineer. I keep abreast with what is happening in engineering. I know what Sony or Nokia or BT will be bringing out in two to three years time.
"I look at the engineering basis for what is happening and extrapolate from that, and try to figure out what gadgets you will have in your pockets, briefcases and desktop in 10-15 years. And how you will use technology to knock socks off the competition.
"Once you figure out how people will use technologies in their businesses and everyday lives, you get a pretty good view of what the future holds. Studying technology you can get 85% accuracy over 10 years. I hope that sounds impressive. As a reality check, 85% accuracy means that 15% of the following presentation is complete and utter crap."
Pearson is a graduate in applied maths and theoretical physics who worked for Shorts Missile Systems. From 1991 to 2007 he was BT's futurologist, mapping developments in IT and considering the technological and social implications. Now he does the same things as an independent. He is a fellow of the BCS.
Pictures from Rex Features
This was first published in November 2008