You might not agree with him. You even might not believe what he says. But British Telecom does. Ian Pearson has been BT's futurologist since 1991. His job it to imagine where today's technologies will lead us. Artificial intelligence, genetic modification, intelligent viruses, imaginary civilizations and Second Life 10.0, as well as some pretty nasty scenarios involving robots like the Terminator are all real possibilities he included in his 2006 Technology Timeline. In this interview, Pearson talks about his profession, explains why he doesn't think we will understand intelligent machines when they finally arise, and warns to the big ethical dilemmas our technological civilization will have to face sooner or later.
Why does BT have a futurologist?
You can use the term futurist, if you prefer. It is pretty much the international term. Futurologist is peculiarly a British one, but everybody else uses futurist. We like to think having futurologists in BT is kind of like to think you look out the window on your car when you're driving alone through fog. You can't see a very clear picture of what is ahead. You try to look at every obstacle. Sometimes you will misinterpret an apparent shape in the distance, but few of us would drive through fog without bothering to look out the window. Blurred vision is a lot better than none at all! The same is true for business, which is why BT employs me.
So the further ahead that you can see, the better you can plan. It's a useful function, but BT didn't have a futurologist before me. It just considered it as part of planning. People would think ahead a little while, but there wasn't very much very long term thinking before I came along. I joined BT in 1985 but I only became a full-time futurologist in 1991.
Royal Dutch Shell has a famous scenario planning research team. Do you work the same way?
We work in different ways. Shell basically invented the field of corporate futurology, as far as I can tell. But what they do mostly is what is called scenario planning, different possibilities for what lies ahead, and they may plan for each of those different possible scenarios. What we do in BT is to use that here and there throughout the company for various reasons, but I personally don't think it works very well in terms of thinking what the future actually looks like. We can look at different scenarios. But when you think about the future a lot in a tech-dominated area like telecom, you can work out pretty much what it is going to look like, rather than just planning scenarios. Therefore I find it much better to try to predict what's going to happen than to have a list of few possibilities.
How do you make your predictions?
I do a lot of reading. I try to keep in touch with what's happening. I read some business and news magazines and technology journals and Web sites, to try to keep up with what's happening around the world. And then I spend a lot of time listening to other people and giving them insights on what they think will happen on their respective fields. Reading consumes a lot of my time as well as being in touch with another people, one way or another. Then I spend a long time daydreaming, thinking about how the thing interacts, and gradually I come up with a view of the future. When I talk with other people about it of course they argue with me sometimes. For example someone can say: 'That is a very stupid conclusion,' and I think again. This allows me to refine my ideas by sharing it with other colleagues, and find better conclusions.
Ten years ago, in May 1997, Deep Blue won the chess tournament against Gary Kasparov. Do you consider, like Kasparov did, that was the first glimpse of a new kind of intelligence?
Yes, it's a very good example of what you can do with computer-based intelligence. What it pointed out was that it doesn't have to do things the same way that people do in order to achieve goals that people use their intelligence to do. Deep Blue didn't work the same way as people. Deep Blue used a great deal of number crunching. It was not a conscious machine. It was just a very dumb machine that was not aware of its existence. It just crunched numbers in order to be able to solve problems that might require one of the finest human minds on the planet to solve. But it was a big breakthrough. I think it was a very important breakthrough for the thinking instead. A lot of us realized then that it wasn't going to be necessarily to figure out exactly how the brain works to do a lot of problems which require intelligence, because to solve these things one can use computers rather then a big computer with consciousness or self-awareness.
Nonetheless, I think the task of producing machines with consciousness or self awareness is still important. We will probably make conscious machines sometime between 2015 and 2020, I think. But it probably won't be like you and I. It will be conscious and aware of itself and it will be conscious in pretty much the same way as you and I, but it will work in a very different way. It will be an alien. It will be a different way of thinking from us, but nonetheless still thinking. It doesn't have to look like us in order to be able to think the same way.