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Homepage / Food For Thought / Want to Live?

Peter Cochrane
At a recent meeting with students a philosophy major asked me if we needed all this technology. I just asked him if he wanted to live! The reality is that our society now depends on IT for its very existence. Switch off the networks and we all die. Strong words you may think - but consider the prospect of no heat, light, power, water, sewerage, automated manufacture, high intensity farming and logistics. Like it or not we live in world where the bits now control the atoms. No bits - no nothing.

Everything we eat, wear, use and touch is produced, organised, and delivered by machines and IT. Without technology and intensive farming the UK land mass would only support a population of <10M and not the 60M of today. Should we worry about this? Well, our technology dependence started when ancient man threw the first projectile, and it has grown since that time.

Today the fastest rate of change is most visible in IT. Faster and denser chips, better displays and networks, the disintermediation of old businesses and the creation of new. Can you imagine travelling back a mere 20 years and trying explain how an Internet business called YAHOO would grow from nothing to $8Bn in 4 years? Or going back only 50 years with stories of mobile phones!

The science and engineering of technology is tough, challenging, fun, and extremely rewarding. Technology now totally underpins and supports human society and our existence. Joining the ranks of the thousands of technologists world-wide means assuming the yoke of responsibility handed down from previous generations. Unlike most professions it is not acceptable to tackle complex problems and then be in a "no answer - no solution" mode. Technologists have to find solutions - fast. The difference is perhaps best epitomised by the following short story:

A mathematician, physicist and engineer stay in three different hotels. There is a fire at each hotel at exactly the same time. Woken by the fire alarm, the physicist rushes into the corridor, sees the fire, sees the hose, works out the necessary trajectory, turns on the tap, puts out the fire and goes back to bed. The engineer rushes into the corridor, sees the fire, grabs a bucket of water throws it on the fire and goes back to bed. The mathematician strolls into the corridor, sees the fire, sees instantly that the problem is solvable, and goes back to bed.

When I graduated with a BSc I had the feeling that my eyes had just started to open. Two years later when I had completed my MSc I was beginning to realise what an incredible future lay ahead and how much I did not know. Two doctorates, and 20 years later I am still attending courses, still learning, and still having fun. My recent past was concerned with reasonably linear, well behaved, and probabalistic engineering. Today my life is full of non-linearity, chaos and ever more exciting and challenging problems. I started as an electrical engineer, moved into telecommunications, worked on everything from copper telephone, cables, to optical fibre, switching, networks, modem design, machine programming and artificial intelligence.

I am now deep into biology, genetics, behavioural science and artificial life. I study how networks and systems fail, and build technology futures in which I live before customers are subject to their unforeseen impact. Every day I learn something new and exciting. I travel, meet, talk, experiment and work with some of the greatest minds our species has seen. I recruit, train, educate, and nurture young people from a vast range of disciplines. My team currently includes; entomologists, geneticists, mathematicians, cosmologists; biochemists, linguists, physiologists, physicists, chemists, and engineers of all persuasions.

Why would a phone company R&D lab recruit such a wide range of people? Well, BT is no longer a phone company, it is in the solutions business, in a sector that is inherently chaotic. By and large there is no mathematical or physical understanding, or model, for a lot of what we do and engineer, or the market space we occupy. So we have to exploit all the techniques available from a multitude of study areas to solve the problems that confront us.

It turns out that artificial life is a powerful modelling tool for econometric, network, company, competitor and people behaviour studies. In addition, we now use sexual reproduction and genetics in machines to create software, hardware and network solutions. How has this come about? From the simple observation that the world is inherently chaotic, and that mother nature copes well with chaos, whilst human systems do not, it follows that aping nature might result in interesting results. When I first realised this, I coined the chicken scenario, where the chicken is a metaphor for anything:

    There are three approaches to understanding how a chicken works;
  1. Thousands of philosophers over thousands of years have sat staring at chickens trying to think how they might work. Frankly they have made no progress at all.
  2. Physicists & biologists just club chickens to death and take them apart. As a result they know vastly more about chickens than the philosophers ever will.
  3. Engineers on the other hand persist in trying to build chickens. From this route will come the most fundamental of understanding and ability. But on the way we will see some really weird chickens!

    Now it is the Software engineers who really worry me - all they want to do is specify a chicken!!

More than ever I see a future of man, woman and machine. Men and women think and solve problems differently, as do different races, creeds, and disciplines - and long may that continue - it is what makes us powerful and creative. But we need a third approach - the machine with its ability to cope with vast complexity is now an essential partner.

A few years ago at a public presentation I was asked if I worried about dying. I replied that I do not, but I do worry about dying before my lap-top is proud of me. At the time I was semi-joking, today I am deadly serious. For those of you about to embark on a career in technology, be assured that you do so at a time of expanding possibilities and excitement. I would gladly reset my body clock back 30 years and join you - it will be an incredible journey. Good luck!

Word Count = 1072 Peter Cochrane