Saturday 3 December 2016

The man who sees the future

Cyborgs, scanners and wearable tech will transform our lives, futurologist Dr Peter Cochrane says. And bankers, doctors and accountants will be replaced by machines

Published 23/10/2015 | 02:30

Education is key: Prof Peter Cochrane with the presentation he made at DCU. Photo: Damian Eagers.
Education is key: Prof Peter Cochrane with the presentation he made at DCU. Photo: Damian Eagers.

Lewis Carroll's Queen of Hearts often believed six impossible things before breakfast. Futurologist Dr Peter Cochrane, who visited Dublin yesterday for a launch at DCU, could give her a run for her money.

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Dr Cochrane works with companies to identify trends and to construct a range of possible futures and scenarios. Last year, he compiled a report for Phillips that envisioned a world of wearable technology, health scanners and routine tasks carried out by machines with artificial intelligence.

"Everything you're going to buy in the next five years is already in existence," he says. "It's not science; it's engineering. If I take you five to 10 years out, about half of it is already being played with, and the other half is science. And if I take you 10 to 15 year out, it starts to be science and a bit more 'guessology'."

The problem with predicting the future is not the technology, however, it's us. "You can predict the technological development, but it's much more difficult to predict how people will use the technology," he adds. For instance, he's not sure users will take to Google Glass or the Apple Watch. "Predicting what people will accept is extremely hard," he says.

The classic example of this human unpredictability is the text message, which was included in mobile phone technology almost as an afterthought but then became one of the most popular functions.

"Vodafone and Nokia both had versions of the iPhone ready to go 20 years ago. But their focus groups told them that they didn't like the big screen and didn't like the soft keys; they wanted buttons to press. Then along came Apple and Steve Jobs and gave it to them, and it turned out they did want it," he says.

Dr Cochrane (68), who began his career digging ditches for the UK Post Office before rising up the ranks of BT to become the company's chief technical officer (CTO), was in Dublin to launch the DCU/Shaping the Future development programme.

The €323m initiative - €100m of which will be raised from private sources and philanthropic organisations - involves increased support for a range of DCU research centres, including CHAnge (Centre for Healthy Ageing), the Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction, FuJo (the Institute for Future Journalism and Media), the DCU Institute for Education, and the DCU Water Institute.

Education is key in preparing for the future, but we're getting it wrong, believes Dr Cochrane. "We're educating people for jobs that are already gone," he says. "When a newly graduated doctor starts work, 50pc of what they've learned is already out of date."

We're also not teaching enough of the right skills: "There is a worldwide shortage of data analysts," he says. "Where are they going to come from?"

Dr Cochrane is emphatically supportive of the plan, announced recently by Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, to give an iPad to every child over five. And he is dismissive of the research that shows use of information technology has a detrimental effect on learning.

"You're trying to fit new technology into an old system. What you have to do is change the system to fit the technology," he says.

In education more generally, he foresees a system where a handful of world experts deliver courses to a global audience, and teachers and university lecturers become more like mentors. "We will move to a more Aristotelian model of the master and the pupil," he says.

University lecturers aren't the only ones in line for a status downgrade: accountants, bankers, journalists and doctors, especially surgeons, had better start working on a Plan B.

"The two areas that most excite me are scanning technology and artificial intelligence," says Dr Cochrane. "In the future, I will be able to scan my food - a bowl of fruit, say - and know whether it's ripe or if it's gone off. I will know the composition of everything I eat. And my toilet will be able to scan everything that comes out the other end."

Machines, it turns out, are much better at medical diagnosis and will soon be better in the operating theatre. And they're better with figures too. Most trades on the financial markets are already done by computer, and that trend is going to grow. Accountants will soon be replaced by algorithms, and so will much of the mundane reporting work done by journalists.

"Most financial documents - company statements and press releases, etc - are already written by machine," he points out.

The rise in the popularity of social media and citizen journalism will mean an increase in partisan information. "We will have 'truth engines' to tell us whether something is accurate or not," says Dr Cochrane, citing the example of IBM's Watson supercomputer, which can now debate human opponents on any topic.

"We will still need journalists to make sense of it all, to sift through it and verify it and express it in a way that makes sense and interpret it," he adds.

There is, however, one small problem with all this. "No one person knows exactly how a microchip works. They are experts in parts of it, but no one knows everything. So, with artificial intelligence, we are going to get emergent behaviour with machines, behaviour we didn't intend and didn't expect," he adds.

Dr Cochrane, a native of Nottinghamshire, is paid to think big, but sometimes the little things get to him. "When I send an email to my wife Jane, Google offers me a list of every Jane I have ever emailed in no particular order. It should know that 99pc of the time, it's my wife Jane I want to email. It drives me mad."

Irish Independent

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