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The Man Who Can See The Future
The Business, 5th March 2003
He has a worldwide reputation as a man with an uncanny accuracy for predicting the way hi-tech innovations will shape our lives - from mobile phones to online shopping. Dr Peter Cochrane tells KEIRON PIM more about his views and shares some tips on the technology of tomorrow.
What questions do you ask a man who describes himself as a futurologist? While it's tempting to see if he knows where your career will be in 10 years' time, Dr Peter Cochrane is more comfortable discussing the future of the relationship between business and technology.
And as one of the world's leading technology prophets, he's developed quite a reputation for accuracy in doing so.
A decade ago, Dr Cochrane foresaw the massive take-off in mobile phone use and text messaging that has revolutionised the way we live and work today.
Similarly, he predicted correctly that the 3G phones would not see the same success, and he also envisioned the rise in online shopping.
But intriguing as these predictions are, it's clear that Dr Cochrane's interest is part of a fascination with the way the world interrelates - and, more to the point, how different elements could be linked more productively.
"The question to ask is 'am I using the appropriate technology for my business?'", he says. "If you look at business processes there's a lot to be done in terms of streamlining. The reality is that most people's businesses have become more complex. Without the right type of technology, operating costs are too high."
The role played by technology in creating business as we understand it today cannot be overestimated, he feels.
"The transformation of business through technology is absolutely staggering. Without technology we wouldn't be able to live any more because the planet could not sustain the 6bn people that live here. It allows us to do business and communicate and do transactions faster. Unfortunately it puts people out of work - we no longer employ monks to write books with quill pens."
Herein lies the problem: how do we reconcile the ever-greater leaps in technology with the negative effect they seem to have of making people increasingly irrelevant?
Accepting the onward march of technology and remoulding our culture accordingly is the key to finding greater cohesion, he suggests.
He provides an example of what he sees as a stifling bureaucratic culture: "I think the medical profession is extremely resistant to change. You have more time devoted to administration than looking after patients."
This drive for efficiency can prove counter-productive. "The bed manager in the NHS fills beds. He gets over 99pc occupancy of beds, but now the beds are so full there's no time to clean them of bacteria so you get cross-infection.
"And surgeons no longer have their patients in one place - they are distributed over several wards, so valuable time and resources are wasted. These are business process problems. This is why you have to carefully model things."
One solution he envisages would reduce the time wasted in dealing with medical records. "We could keep medical records ourselves. Are you going to lose them?", he asks, likening them to a passport or other vital document. Or even better: "Why not get them implanted in a chip? That way, if I have an accident in New York all my details will be there with me."
Dr Cochrane lives at Martlesham Heath, near Ipswich, but flies around 400,000 air miles a year, dividing his time chiefly between the UK, USA and South East Asia. This gives him an insight into differences in business culture, which are closely linked to a country's infrastructure.
"It's very expensive to do business here. I think we need to get a lot of the wealth-generating business out of the South-East and into places where there are more roads and housing. There's so much jammed in the corner of the country that it's not sustainable.
"I think East Anglia is doing quite well but the problem is lack of infrastructure. No roads, trains or airports of adequate capacity or standard present a formidable barrier to business expansion. There are 16-mile queues into Cambridge every morning, and Ipswich and Norwich are difficult to get into as well."
Dr Cochrane was in California a fortnight ago as a founder of ConceptLabs. The business is based in San Francisco, where he found a perfect example of that difference.
"The distance between San Francisco and San Jose is about the same as Ipswich to Norwich, which takes me an hour and a half. But San Francisco to San Jose only takes 45 minutes on a 50-mile, six-lane highway.
"If you want to reduce pollution, you don't build fewer roads. Concrete doesn't pollute - traffic jams do. The worst crime is to disable the nation by not having a good infrastructure. We don't have a single motorway in Suffolk or Norfolk."
Online shopping is another phenomenon that he believes reflects the difference in infrastructure on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
"Four per cent of Christmas shopping in Britain was done online last Christmas, compared with 1pc in America," he says. "That's because shopping in America is a pleasant experience because they have shopping malls, whereas here it can be a real pain."
Surely this reticence towards change is part of our culture, however, with its tendency to wallow in nostalgia?
"The British march into the future looking backwards," he agrees. "They wax on about the war while the rest of the world gets on with doing business. It's a bit like resisting decimalisation. You can resist if you want but it's going to cost you."
The difficulty is that we associate technology with novelty, and with the teething troubles that often plague new inventions."Our perception is that technology gives us pain but the vast majority works perfectly," he says. "Computers are at a very early stage and have not settled down yet."
Maybe we are too quick to forget how far we've progressed?
"You don't consider your car to be technology because you go out, turn the key and it works, whereas 25 years ago you had to engage the choke and turn it over," he says. A century ago the car itself was cutting-edge.
The paradox is that technology is evolving at an exponential rate, making it easier for us to interact and do business with more people, while the human brain that creates the technology retains the same capabilities as in the pre-industrial era. The result: an ever-greater dependence on what we have created.
"A few thousand years ago we lived in tribes of a few hundred and would have met 3000 people in our lives. Now we live in a tribe of millions and we meet thousands of people a month. Will computers become more powerful thinkers than human beings?" he asks. "If you ask 'how long before a computer is equal with a human being', I'd say 2015 - that's when they'll overtake us.
"Computers already play a better game of chess and run production lines, but until they have a sensory capability they won't understand affection.
"When will machines become cognisant? That threshold is a moving feast. A few centuries back people thought the soul resided in the heart. Then they thought it was in the head. Now if you ask someone, a lot of people will say they don't think there's a soul."
When that threshold is crossed, however, it could alter the balance of power on a planet in which man has become accustomed to dominance. This change would bring profound implications for the way we work.
Historically our self-understanding has changed in tune with changes in culture, says Dr Cochrane - and the driving force for cultural change is technology.
His holistic approach blurs the boundaries between business thinking and general philosophy, correctly seeing the former as a practical application of the latter.
Sceptics and technophobes may see shades of Frankenstein's monster or a sci-fi nightmare in which humanity creates robots to help us but is instead overwhelmed. But Dr Cochrane believes "we're on a path to convergence". There's no turning back and the trick will be to ensure that our future technology is "appropriate", a word he employs often.
So what can we expect in coming years? Understandably, he suggests the roots of the future lie in the present.
"The simplest thing to do is to extrapolate from what we've got today," he explains. "You can be sure that certain trends are spot-on. But the big question is what comes in obliquely from the side. All your forecasts go out the window because they take a step change upwards."
First of all, and this will come as a relief to anyone who likes to relax when they're travelling by train, Dr Cochrane foresees a welcome innovation in mobile phone technology.
"There are technologies coming along now where it will be possible to whisper in a noisy train or at the side of a busy road and make yourself heard," he says. The phone will be able to pick up what you're saying without you having to shout, while cutting out intrusive background noise.
Apart from removing any remaining excuses for those who like to inform the entire carriage that they're "on the train", the innovation could prove a godsend for anyone broken down on a motorway with cars and lorries rumbling past.
Another change is the introduction of radio frequency identification tags, which will affect the way shops and supermarkets do business.
"RFID will mean that those barcodes on all your food and clothing are going to be replaced by tags. When some food or wine is contaminated you can drive out the exact one, and not have to get rid of the whole batch."
As well as saving the stores money and preventing waste, RFID should speed up service for customers.
Transplant technology is another arena set for drastic change, though this is an example of an emerging trend being taken to its natural (or some would say unnatural) conclusion.
"The first artificial eyes are being implanted in human beings now," he says. "They are incredibly crude, they allow you to recognise something the size of an automobile. In 20 years' time you may be able to read large print in a newspaper. But in 40 years I think we may be able to grow an eye from stem cells.
"The crux is that you can get replacement organs in metal or you can grow them from stem cells. I think it will be quite a battle. I think I would prefer the physiological version."
If this does seem unnatural, he points out that we are already in an interim stage that shows the extent to which we're embroiled in technology. "There are people now with pacemakers and artificial ear implants. If all my body parts are gradually replaced then I become part of technology, I become a cyborg."
Specifically regarding business, he feels that the next 20 years will see a growth in "wargaming", the practice of preparing for all possible eventualities and having effective business models in place.
One idea that he admits hasn't caught on as much as he expected is the use of virtual reality in medicine.
"Doctors could perform operations from New York on someone in Norwich," he enthuses.
"The ambulance crew could have a pair of cameras mounted on spectacle frames. The surgeon would wear a virtual reality helmet and the medic on the scene could do his bidding. I thought that would have taken off, but it's always interesting what goes and what doesn't."
Dr Cochrane fell in love with electronics as a youngster in Nottinghamshire and went to secondary modern school. He has one O-level, two A-levels and six doctorates.
He was head of research at BT from 1993-99 and was then appointed chief technologist.
While there he oversaw the exploration of cutting-edge computer and communications subjects.
In November 2000 he retired from BT to start up ConceptLabs, which he founded with people from Apple Computers in Silicon Valley.
For Dr Cochrane the thrill is not so much in the technology itself as in the scope for its application. "We have mapped the human genome but it can't tell us how a human works," he points out.
It's the "how" that's important, and Dr Cochrane's approach is utilitarian, taking what is being created and showing how it can best benefit the greatest number.
"I look around and I can't see any limits to what people are trying to do," he says.