A Glimpse of the Future (a web of unnatural laws)

August 31, 1998

Peter Cochrane is Head of BT Research Laboratories. He joined BT Laboratories in 1973 and since then he has worked on a wide range of technologies and systems and, since 1993, he has been Head of Research there. He is a visiting professor to UCL, Essex and Kent University, a member of the New York Academy of Science and he has published and lectured widely on technology and the implications of IT. He has led a team that received the Queen’s Award for Innovation and Export in 1990 and he has had a number of distinguished recognitions of his expertise in this field.

My laboratory is ranked Number 1 in Europe and Number 3 in the world. We have 6,000 development engineers, 660 researchers, 300 visiting professionals, a £600M budget and only two layers of management. Our philosophy is to build futures and live them: try technologies and see what works and what does not. As a result of our experience I can tell you that the future will be dominated by chaos in the mathematical sense. It is about the speed of change and our inability to cope.

Ten years from now my laptop will be 1000x more powerful, and twenty years from now it will be 1,000,000 more powerful. The ten year prediction is certain because all the technology is on the bench today. The twenty year prediction is almost certain, but thirty years from now machines will be over a 1,000,000,000x more powerful than today and I see no end to this progress – it will just keep going.

Seymour Kray built the world’s most powerful computers. In 1985 his XMP machine cost $8M, consumed 60kW and had no graphics. Last year I bought my son a Nintendo 64 for $150. It consumes 5W, has superb graphics and is just about as powerful as the XMP. In 12 years a toy overtakes the best mankind can do. That is the rate of change. If I tell you something doubles every year, you do not immediately jump to the conclusion that, in ten years’ of doubling, that will be a 1000x change. That is what we are seeing. In my business we can double the number of bits transported by an optical fibre every year and every two years the cost per bit drops by a factor of three. So the IT business is giving you exponentially more for exponentially less. In 1956 a telephone call across the Atlantic was £2.80/minute – about half a week’s wage for some people. Today that same call is less than 30p/minute.

Most of our time has been spent as hunter-gatherers. We have had a little time as farmers and far less as industrialists. The information age came and went and we are now into an age of experience. The time to industrialise: UK 70 years, USA 40 years, Japan 25 years, China 10 years. Time to informationise? Well, I do not know. I think the UK will do it faster than the USA, who are in the lead, but Japan may well have trouble because of their culture, and who knows about China?

But here, in a nutshell, is the problem for our species: no one knows anything anymore. There are no educated people; lawyers, generally speaking, know nothing about medicine; medics know nothing about technology, and technologists, well, they may know a little bit about optical fibre or software, or integrated circuits, but by and large, they know nothing. So, when you look at my research teams, I have to recruit a wide range of people: entomologists, geneticists, psychologists, biochemists, physicists, mathematicians, engineers, designers, artists and, yes, we even have a theologian, whose job is to pray for success.

My dream is to be eclectic, holistic and omnipotent. I would like to understand everything and I would like to be able to influence everything (a little!). So I experiment in living the future. I will not have any paper in my office. It goes in the bin. If you write to me, it is scanned in and it will appear on my screen. The reason? I travel 4200,000 miles a year and I work on my screen continuously. And I maintain a 12 hours, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year reply commitment irrespective of location or whether I am on vacation or not. I experiment with ways of working faster and better; I look for the edge of capability for humans as individuals, and the technology; the impact on work, social and home life. One thing I can tell you for sure, unless we get intelligent machines, our society’s progress is going to stop. We are approaching the point where we cannot output any more, we will saturate.

We live in a world that is making a transition from domination by atoms to domination by bits. Not only is the bit economy growing, the control of the atoms by the bits is complete. There is nothing that you wear or consume that is not produced, controlled and delivered by IT. This networked world is different, without form, boundary, or nations. It is illegal to transport encrypted information through France. It is illegal to use 128bit encryption in the USA. In the UK you can do both. So what do I do as an individual? I encrypt information, I send it into the Internet and it gets routed to the USA through France. Should I care? Have I broken the law? And curiously the American system says it is okay to receive my 128bit encryption but it is not okay to encrypt to 128. What a curious world!

People are becoming empowered in new ways. Knowledge is no longer the exclusive domain of the professional. You can go on to the Internet and within 20 minutes you can find a site that will give you a breakdown of all the cancer types, the five-year survival statistics, the treatment options and side effects. If you go to see a specialist, you can have more knowledge, more information than they have, and they can get very upset. Then you look at the Internet and ask, is that a bona fide site? It is not the Royal Institute, it is not any medical institution. How do you make a judgement on the validity of that information? And who is responsible for bad information? So there are some very interesting implications.

Coffee is now a strange attraction in a world of chaos. You go to a large conference, no one in the audience is making a mobile phone call, they are all being attentive. At 10.15 coffee arrives; everybody streams out and hundreds pull out their mobile phones, try to make a call. The cellular system falls over and they complain the phone company is not doing a good job. That is chaos. On the M25 people are making random phone calls – until there is an accident, and then, within two minutes, we have >1000 people trying to make a call and the system falls over. Phone-in TV and radio programmes have the same effect.

Telephone networks were dimensioned for each of us to make three or four phone calls a day at random – for three or four minutes. It was designed to share resources, for switching and transporting information with a peak to mean traffic ratio of 3 or 4. On the Internet this same ratio is >1000. Swarming and chaotic action now dominate and they are very difficult to engineer for.

The chip cost of a new car is now greater than the metal cost. Soon the software cost will be greater than the metal cost and cars will have hard drives. Pull in to buy petrol, and while you are stood there holding the hose, there will be a screen so you can buy games for the children and music – all downloaded through an IR port. Instead of having all those tapes and CDs rattling around your car, containing only 30% of the music you like, you will be able to customise your choice. When you get home you will be able to download the contents of the hard drive into your hi-fi and your computer system. You can also wear the new hard drive or carry it in a handbag. We may see the Pony Express make a come back. You will have the choice; do you send the information down an optical fibre via a satellite link or do you carry it with you.

Hierarchies of electronics, optics and human beings that are steep and very rigid do not work in a world of chaos. Only low and flat works, and it is something that we do not particularly like as species. Here is the most important formula for the 21st Century for any manager.


It says; the mean time between decisions is very much greater than the mean time between surprises.

Whilst a company and an organisation is contemplating what to do, what decision to make, forming a committee and a study group, the small, low flat company comes in, makes a decision and takes the business away. That is happening right now and it is going to become increasingly fierce.

Another important thing that is going to happen is that the number of machines communicating will overtake us. Right now there are 5.7 billion human beings on this planet and 14 billion microprocessors. These microprocessors already have more conversations per working day than we have as a species cumulatively all the way back to the creation of Eve. By the year 2010 over 95 per cent of all telecommunication will be from machines to machines without human intervention.

It is not by accident that motor manufacturers, retail stores et al are becoming banks. Banking is now incredibly simple because there is no money anymore. There are only bits and databases. Gold and money have gone and we will soon see some very interesting changes. Electronic dog tags can be used for an animal, people and goods identification. They can control the routing of luggage through Heathrow Airport, or the details and orders of a soldier. The components can be stitched into a shirt collar, a trouser belt or a tie. So instead of wearing a 16th century signet ring our 21st century version can carry our passport, driving licence, bank account and entire medical record.

I step into the street, get hit by a taxi, go into hospital; I have my medical record. I go to the airport, waive my hand and walk straight through security and passport control. I go to a store, there is no cash register, there are no staff, I pick up a pair of trousers, a shirt and a tie. As I walk out the store the radio systems at the door recognise the items, decrement them from the manifest of the store and orders replacements, and take the money off my electronic ring. The operating costs of the store will drop by 20%, and I will probably buy 15 – 20 per cent more goods because I do not have to wait.

Look at transaction costs. Go to a bank branch, 64p; by phone, 32p; an automatic teller machine, 27p; the Internet, 0.5p .You can see what is coming – a no money world. But what about security? On a train between Ipswich and London I went down the carriage to a fellow passenger and put my business card on the table in front of him. He chased me down the carriage and remonstrated with me in full public gaze because on that card was his name, address and phone number, Mastercard number, and bank branch details. He demanded to know where I had got all this information. So I just looked him in the eye and quite firmly said, ‘When you use a mobile phone, you shout’. When people use mobile phones they think they are in some kind of very private bubble. They will discuss all kinds of embarrassing things, and they shout. Now, this same person would tell you the Internet is unsafe. But there has not been a single recorded instance anywhere, anytime, in any country where anyone has had their financial information intercepted on the Internet. It is usually people at the ends. So these same people who worry will go to the garage, they will hand over their credit card and have a copy made, and leave a legible signature with somebody they have never met before. But that is secure, is it not? I do not think so!

People are curious. They will worry about losing a wristwatch for a few hundred pounds, or a pen, whilst leaving their car unattended with the keys in. People are silly; in a word, ‘human’. But there are lots of places where we have to worry about security and it is not just the bits in terms of raw information. It is also things to do with the security of the bits that are transported and the life-threatening nature of those bits. Medical examinations and operations online demand a security regime of their own.

Paul McCreedy put together The Gossamer Condor, the first man-powered flying machine and then he built a machine that flew around the planet on a single tank of fuel. More recently he has moved into micro machines and miniature aircraft of 18 inch or less wing span. In a recent demonstration he flew a photo-cell powered machine at 35mph inside an auditorium complete with video camera. Now we have cameras in the street, on the motorways, in some cars, mounted on helicopters, and now flying camera platforms that are almost transparent. You can hardly see or hear them, and they are a tremendous surveillance tool. But they are also potentially a tool for assassination.

I am now spending 15 days a year of my life searching through newspapers, journals and magazines desperately trying to find something to read. One in three Sundays now I find something in the Sunday paper worth reading. By and large, newspapers are becoming a worthless instrument of communication because the information has arrived by other mechanisms. I desire agents that go out, in very much the same way that a human researcher might, and find information relevant to me, whilst retaining a degree of serendipity. To do that, I have invoked a new series of new disciplines at my laboratory. We now study sex as an evolutionary mechanism in IT. It creates interesting solutions to problems like finding information, people, routing networks and arranging information.

The travelling salesman problem is a classic mathematical problem where you have to visit a number of cities minimising the distance travelled. It turns out that you and I cannot crack this problem for more than five or six cities. Certainly once you get past ten, it is beyond us. This laptop cracks this problem faster than the world’s biggest supercomputer and the way it does it is to evolve the solution using artificial life and it never gets the optimum number, as the mathematicians will, it gets reasonably close, within 4 per cent. Mother Nature optimises nothing. Only engineers optimise things; human beings optimise things. Mother Nature only gets to it for purpose. Once you become a lion, you do not become a lion plus ten per cent.

In IT terms, the practical application involves millions of nodes having to be visited by agents and be routed to them. A thousand visitors a day come to my home page. They take 700MBytes of information. If you look at my home page, no one is there. Then 50 people come and go; 30 come and go, then 100, then 20 and so on. I have no idea where they come from, I have no idea where they go to, but they just come in clusters. It is chaotic and a natural consequence of this very fast and independent IT world.

My purpose is to experiment and discover, to find what works. I have taken everything that I have published, every book chapter, every book, and put them on my home page. The reaction of the publishers was interesting: ‘Can you do some more, because book sales are going up?’. Isn’t that nice? A new paradigm, an unexpected result. That is what technology does – it changes the rules – it modifies laws. If we were always go by the letter of the law, rather than the spirit, we would make no progress. The problem for us is that technology is forcing the pace, and creating a web of unnatural laws that may be beyond our ability to adapt.