Brian David Johnson has one of the coolest—and most challenging—jobs in the world: he’s the resident futurist at tech giant Intel. He travels the globe to follow cultural and computing phenomena from Africa to the Americas and beyond, and how these phenomena affect one another. It’s a role that draws upon his engineering background as well as his creative experience as a writer of science fiction. In fact, Johnson believes science fiction is a tool to help imagine how to apply real technologies in forward-thinking ways. (And who will argue that the Star Trek tricorder didn’t predict today’s smart phones?) In a highly animated conversation leading up to the TED Salon, he recently discussed, among other topics, three trends much more related to science than to fiction that will affect our lives in 2020.
RJ: The research you do is radically open. Can you explain your process?
BDJ: In my lab at Intel, people call what we do is ‘future hunting.’ We use a process called future casting. We create models that turn into specifications. These specifications then turn into actual technology at Intel. Our goal is to figure out what it will feel like to be a human in the year 2020-25, and what we can accomplish via computational power.
We start with social science. The lab is run by a cultural anthropologist. We study people, not markets, countries--but instead, families and communities. We’ve been to every continent. We go to Africa, India, London, Wisconsin. We ask, what is possible 5, 10, 15 years from now? How can use technology that is being developed now to help make people happier, more productive, and healthier? Then and only then do we look at the math of the future: the statistics, the trends. And then we talk to consumers. We do so via science fiction that I help create. It allows us to have a common language among people.
In this model, we’re starting to learn some things, including that this model is imperfect. I’ve realized that I also need to talk to governments, military, businesses, and other ecosystems. And I need to be open to them telling me I’m 100% wrong. When I hear that I’m wrong, it’s my favorite thing. As a principal engineer, I’m not trying to say “this is right,” but trying to get it right. When I hear something’s wrong, I can’t fix it and make it better.
RJ: Why is it so important to be wrong?
BDJ: I tell my team, based upon all of the science, the research, at this moment, is 100% true. But I guarantee them that it will change. We embrace the fact that it will change. We keep the model open. We embrace the uncertainty. We need to remain flexible. People’s tastes change, the technology changes. There’s a moment in engineering when you fix a problem in a system, you’ve given it an expiration date. But it’s the crazy, stupid ideas that can be open to change and move and adapt. Those stay around.
RJ: Can you name three trends that you believe will affect our lives in 2020?
BDJ: One is what I call “The Ghost of Computing”: chips get so insanely small they become nearly invisible. When it gets so small, computational power goes into your shoes, walls, body. We’ll live inside of a computer. It’s less about devices, and less about command and control. Everything we do now with computers is via commands. In the future, our devices will know us. They will be able to understand our moods or the conditions in which we’re working or communicating. I emailed a colleague recently with my cell phone number, and this colleague never called me. Turns out, I was typing fast on my phone, in a cab, and typed the wrong number—and I’ve had this number for 10 years. In the future, my device would understand I was in a rush, and correct me.
Another is “The Secret Life of Data.” We all know we’re producing massive amounts of information, and now we’re fire hydrants of data, spewing it to the cloud. But algorithms and machines will talk to each other. Our data will be going out and doing things for us. But we need to understand that data is meaningless until it touches the lives of people, only when it makes us healthier, more efficient.
A third is “The Future of Fear.” When people are afraid of new technology, they’re usually not scared not about the tech. It’s more about our human fears. We’re only going to have more tech, so we need to figure out how to deal with our fear of it. There are four stages people go through when new tech emerges: first, they think it will end the world. Then, they say, “It will corrupt my kids!” Then, acceptance, but with a personal rejection of the tech. Finally, the line is crossed--when someone uses a touch screen or voice control for the first time and it works. Ultimately, my goal is to help people see that tech is not separate from us and that we should be scared: we make it, we control it. We can’t let the future happen to us. We can’t be passive. And I should add: I am a declared optimist. It’s one of the most radical things I’ve done, saying the future is going to be awesome.
RJ: Back to the idea of the importance of being wrong, can you name an instance when you were “wrong” that was very helpful to your research?
BDJ: Cory Doctorow, editor of boing boing, activist, and a wonderful science fiction writer, told me that I was wrong about the Ghost of Computing. My response was, really, why? Tell me! He brought up SABRE, the old, mainframe system used by travel agents and now used by sites like Orbitz, to make airline reservations. His point was that there’s all this legacy code that’s still in use today. Then, I realized, both of these futures will be true: There will be the Ghost of Computing scenario, but we’ll also drag the legacies of computing with us. We’ll have to realize how they can work together.