This Week in the Future: Farewell, A Call to Action and Questions About the Future

It’s funny: Being a futurist means you rarely get to end things. I’ve often joked with people that the future is relentless; it just keeps coming day after day. There’s always a tomorrow. It’s my job to have a fact-based, science-based understanding of where that future is going, and then work to not only bring it about, but make it better for people.

The FutureI love what I do and take it very seriously. The future is far too important to be cynical about. We are the ones who will build our tomorrows. We can’t just punt. We can’t wait for someone else to do it. The future is made every day by the actions of people. It never ends. Our futures just keep coming and I think this is beautiful.

That’s why it’s quite rare and special for me to get to end something. By design, this column was only meant to last for three months while I was on my sabbatical from Intel. Shelly Palmer and I cooked up the idea behind it as a way for me to have conversations and discussions about things that I wouldn’t normally delve into with my day job as a futurist for a global technology company.

The Madness Behind the Future

If you’ve been following the column, you know that each week, on Wednesday, Team Shelly Palmer sends me a prompt… something in the news that caught their eye, some fresh controversy or a question about what the news of that week meant for the future. That meant that every week, I had no idea what I was going to write about until that email came in on Wednesday morning. It was exhilarating. It felt like futurist as a contact sport.

Once I had my topic I was off and running: a man on a deadline. I had about 24 hours to research and write the piece. I pulled out all the stops. I called anyone I knew who was an expert or simply had an opinion. I even enlisted my family to help.

Every week was a different and wide-ranging investigation of the future. That’s one of the most remarkable things for me as I look back over the columns of the last three months. They provide us an interesting snap-shot of the final months of 2012: our fears, our hopes and our petty pastimes.

When I started this column, I had no idea I’d be writing about everything from terrible catastrophes (Hurricane Sandy), the future of religion (The Pope Tweeted!) and what tomorrow might look like for our pets (Know Thy Kitty, Know Thy Self), just to name a few.

Too Much for the Web

In my mad dash to explore what it would feel like to live in the future, I always wrote more than we could pack into a single column. Team Shelly Palmer was great and would sometimes post a part two, but there was always material that didn’t make it in. There were extended interviews with people like activist and author Cory Doctorow or space scientist Joe Kunches that just couldn’t be packed in.

Never fear! There was a plan for that as well! We have collected the extended columns into a book that would allow me and Team Shelly Palmer to follow up on the topics, go a little deeper and explore the implications of each subject on our future.

That’s what’s next for me. I’m going to take the eleven columns I’ve written and expand them into a book. But I need your help!

Uncle SamWanted: You and Your Thoughts!

My goal for This Week in the Future was to take the current issues of our day and explore their implications, however small or large, on the future. Ultimately, I’m exploring what it will fell like to live in the future. Here’s where you come in. I need you to send me your answers to these three questions:

  1. What kind of future do you want to live in?
  2. What topics didn’t we cover that you’d like to know more about?
  3. What do you want to know about the future?

Send us your questions and prompts to twtf@shellypalmer.com, and we’ll incorporate them into the book. I’ll track down the experts. I’ll research the science and technology behind where we are headed. I’ll talk with everyday people to learn their visions for the future.

Questions about the Future

To get things started this week, we asked for your prompts for this week’s column. The response was great! We can’t answer all the questions or go into them with as much depth as I would like, but that’s what the book is for! But let’s get started with a few

What does a future look like where every piece of clothing is part of a smart mesh of semi-intelligent pieces? from Mike Lonergan ‏(@ParanoidMike)

I am a futurist that doesn’t make predictions, but one thing we do know about the future is that we will have more computers. We also know that these computers, along with other devices and gadgets, will continue to get smaller and thinner. These incredible shrinking devices are being driven in part by the fact that the size of the computer chips inside all those devices keep getting smaller and smaller.

Being a technological futurist and working at the Intel Corporation, I feel very lucky to have a front row seat for this show. One of the most amazing things that my colleagues tell me is this: As we approach the year 2020, the size of meaningful computational power will approach zero. That means that year after year, the chips that are the brains inside our computers, devices and gadgets will become almost invisible. This changes how we thank about the computers that we build.

Can vs. What

For decades in the technology business, we had to ask ourselves CAN. Can we make a computer small enough to fit on our desk? Can we make a desktop think enough to work on our laps? Can we produce a laptop that’s so small that it would actually fit in our pockets?

But when the size of meaningful computational power approaches zero, we can turn anything into a computer. When chips get so small that they are pretty much invisible, we can put them in anything. We could turn your chair into a computer. We could turn your shirt into a computer. We could even turn your own body into a computer (if you wanted to).

This means that the real question we need to ask ourselves is WHAT. What do we want to do? Sure we can turn that chair into a computer, but why? What do we want it to do? What problem does it solve? What will it do to make people’s lives better?

When computers get this small, it will become pretty easy to turn clothes into a computer. Today, we already have small computers in our athletic shoes. It only makes sense that you would have your shoes talk to your shirt or you belt talk to your hat. But what would they say?

That’s a Smart Shirt!

Smart ClothesWhat would you clothes be able to say about you that could make your life better? I don’t think we know all the answer to that question, but we know some.

Smart Safe Uniforms For Our Military: Having a smart mesh would make a lot of sense for our men and women of the military. They are in extreme environmental condition, under constant stress, and their physical wellbeing is of vital importance. There are a whole host of problems that a smart mesh in our clothing could help.

Clothes That Are Smart About Our Health: We’re not always the smartest about our health. We’re busy. We make bad decisions. Sometimes, we can’t monitor everything about our health. What if our clothes could do some of that for us?

Experts call this shifting the cognitive load. This might sound a little silly, but not if you have a collection of chronic conditions that could benefit from a little help. Managing blood sugar levels, stress levels and heart rate could go a long way towards preventing a nasty collision of conditions.

The other good thing about avoiding a crash? These crashes are expensive and recovering from them costs even more. A smart mesh could keep health care costs lower, which would not only help the patient but their family and the broader healthcare system that is trying to keep them healthy.

Thanks Mike – that’s a great question. I bet you can think of a bunch more examples of problems our smart clothes could solve!

How will we retrain the middle aged for the future? from Rick Taylor ‏(@jricktaylor)

Over the past few years, I’ve done a lot of work on the future of work. The statistics that I find most interesting and telling about our future are population demographics. As we approach 2020, we know that we’re going to have a lot of aging people and also a lot of young people.

The problem is that they’re going to be in all the wrong places. This is not just a problem for the kids and the gray hairs; this is a problem for all of us.

We’re Men and Women! We’re Not Vinyl Records!

Remember These?For too long, we have thought about educating people like pressing vinyl 45 singles. You remember singles, right? (If you were born after 1990 and you’re reading this, you might want to click here.) We pressed them once and that’s the only tune they could play. When that song didn’t work anymore, it was time to buy a new one. This was a great solution for the record industry for years, but it’s not very efficient. Music moved on from that approach a long time ago. So why do we think about educating people in the same way?

The idea that we would “train once and work for life” doesn’t work. This is especially true in a world where the work force we will so desperately need is going to be spread all over the world. We can’t afford to continue to train and rehire when we need new skills. The workforce just won’t be there.

The solution could be to foster a culture of ongoing training and knowledge development. This would be a culture shift for not only employers but workers as well. These workers could change how they think about who they are in the workplace. When was the last time you took a class, learned a new tool or mastered a new piece of piece of software? We have to make sure not to think of ourselves as vinyl 45 singles.

How Do We Prepare?

Many blame computers and the Internet for this rapid acceleration of technology. People feel like they can’t keep up. Funny enough, I think computers and high tech can help us with this culture shift. People want to know how they can prepare for a future where we will be surrounded by ever more intelligent machines. We dove into this in a few previous columns but the short list is:

  1. Be Human
  2. Learn to Code

The burden shouldn’t all be on people. If we design our technology with a different outlook, we can allow our machines to radically personalize themselves to the specific person who is using them. Computers are getting smart enough that they could tailor their display of information to the specific skills and training of the person using them. Then it wouldn’t be a question. Not: Are we smart enough to use the computers? Rather: Were we smart enough to design the computers correctly so that everyone, from the kids to the gray hairs and the middle agers in between, can use them?

Rick, I’m passionate about this topic. It’s not only important for America and the global economy, but could foster a very different view of technology’s role in society.

I’d like to know if Moore’s law will end in the next 15 years. From Steffen Christensen (‏@Wikisteff)

Get ready to get your geek on!

Moore’s Law gets its name from Gordon Moore, one of the co-founders of Intel. In 1965, Moore wrote an article called “Cramming more components onto integrated circuits” for Electronics Magazine.

Firstly, I have to say how much I love that Moore uses the word cramming when talking about technology. It’s a mindset that has carried over to Intel.

Cramming. It’s wonderfully evocative. It’s not high-minded and academic. It’s an old school engineering word. Cramming. When you hear it, you think of cramming another sweater into your over-packed suitcase, not the incredibly high tech world Moore was pioneering.

What’s Moore’s Law, Anyway?

Gordon MooreIn his article, Moore put forward the idea that the number of transistors that would could cram onto an integrated would double every two years. The effect of all this cramming is that chips got smaller and faster each year. In a podcast Shelly Palmer and I did together, he gave me a hard time that I like to simplify Moore’s Law from the uber-technical to the simple fact that computers will get quicker each year. But that’s really the effect.

In the 1980s and 1990s, if you were either a computer nerd like me or working in technology, you got to watch the fruits of Moore’s Law on a year-by-year basis. It was a big freaking deal when your new computer was twice as fast as your last computer. It meant that, in some cases, you could literally get twice as much work done in the same amount of time. Gordon Moore looked like a genius and Moore’s Law was mighty and powerful. Just like so many mighty and powerful things, people starting asking when Moore’s Law would end.

Moore’s Law is still in effect today. The number of transistors continues to double, the chips get smaller, and the machines get faster. But the sizes we’re talking about and the number of transistors is just nuts. Your newest smartphone has more computing power than the computers NASA used to go to the moon. The hard drive on that smartphone in your pocket has more memory than the entire bank of “hot swappable” hard drives in the machine room where I worked in 1995.

But Moore’s Law Has to End Soon, Right?

It doesn’t look like Moore’s Law is going way any time soon. I just finished working on the 2019 chip and things look pretty good.

When I’m asked when Moore’s Law is going to end, I often wonder if Moore’s Law really matters anymore. Nothing against the mighty Moore’s Law, but its effect isn’t felt by people today like in those heady days of the 80s and 90s. We refer to Moore’s Law as if it sits up there in the books next to Sir Isaac Newton’s Three Laws of Motion.

Moore’s Law is neither a scientific law nor a physical law. It was an observation and projection. Intel and the technology industry have used it as an engineering benchmark, and more broadly as a form a deep inspiration. At some point, Moore’s observation will bump up against the boundaries of the physical world. People might actually then get to witness the end of Moore’s Law, but it will be so small that no one will actually be able to see it.

From Cramming to Quantum

How most people have actually witnessed the fruits of Moore’s Law is the effect it has on their lives. Faster computers make us more efficient and also give us games like Angry Birds to waste our time with the same efficiency. If and when Moore’s Law bumps up against the limitations of the physical world, many have explored shifting to quantum computing.

Quantum computing was suggested by a personal hero of mine: physicist Richard Feynman. He wondered if we could build a computer based upon the laws of quantum physics. Using properties like “spooky” (this is Albert Einstein’s work, not mine) engagement to give us those ever increasing computational speeds that we all know and love.

I realize that I’m getting dangerously close to a complete nerd-out, so maybe we’ll get into this more in the book. It’s simply fascinating because the world that Gordon Moore glimpsed back in 1965 is still growing and changing today.

QubitIn September 2012, an article appeared in Nature magazine until the enthralling title “A single-atom electron spin qubit in silicon.” Authored by Jarryd J. Pla and seven others, this incredibly dense paper showed that we could cram a qubit, the smallest unit in quantum computing, onto a piece of silicon. This creates a kind of hybrid solution for the future of computing – a mix of traditional Moore’s Law silicon process with the expanded processing power of quantum computing.

Eventually, we might see integrated quantum circuits that are even smaller and even more powerful than anything we have today.

This got me thinking that we might be able to come up with Johnson’s Law:

“The number of qubits we can cram onto an integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years.”

I know, I know… nerd alert. But it’s a beautiful idea.

Steffen, thank you for giving me the chance to geek out! I’m excited about the future of computational power and the effect it will have on people’s lives.

Ladies and Gentleman… Team Shelly Palmer!

Before I jump back into being Intel’s resident futurist and explore your questions for the book version of This Week in the Future, I’d like to give a huge thank you to Team Shelly Palmer. This column never would have happened if Shelly and I had never gotten into an argument when I was on stage and he was busting my chops from the audience. It also never would have happened if that day sitting in the world headquarters of Shelly Palmer we hadn’t said, “Hey you know what would be fun…” I really appreciate the respect and arguments with Shelly.

Also, This Week in the Future would have gone nowhere if it wasn’t for Joey Lewandowski, my editor and partner in crime. I knew Joey was getting into the spirit of the project when he started saying, “I know this is crazy but how about we look into the future of…” I couldn’t have had a better time.

Finally thanks to all of you who wrote in, re-tweeted and gave your support for the project. This has been a fascinating experience for me and I look forward to hearing you further questions about This Week in the Future.

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DISCLAIMERI am Intel’s futurist. I am currently on sabbatical from Intel.  My thoughts, observations and analyses are mine personally and I am not speaking on behalf of Intel.

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Author:

Brian David Johnson

The future is Brian David Johnson's business. As a futurist at Intel Corporation, his charter is to develop an actionable vision for computing in 2020. His work is called "future casting"—using ethnographic field studies, technology research, trend data, and even science fiction to provide Intel with a pragmatic vision of consumers and computing. Along with reinventing TV, Johnson has been pioneering development in artificial intelligence, robotics, and using science fiction as a design tool. He speaks and writes extensively about future technologies in articles and scientific papers as well as science fiction short stories and novels (Science Fiction Prototyping: Designing the Future with Science Fiction, Screen Future: The Future of Entertainment Computing and the Devices we Love, Fake Plastic Love, and Nebulous Mechanisms: The Dr. Simon Egerton Stories). He has directed two feature films and is an illustrator and commissioned painter.

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