TORONTO—Brian David Johnson gets paid to predict the future. He is not a con artist, and his trade requires neither crystal ball nor tarot card. He is the first, the one, and the only futurist at Intel, charged with envisioning how people will interact with technology a decade from now.
This weekend Johnson was one of the keynote speakers at WorldFuture 2012, a gathering of some 500 futurists at Toronto Sheraton Centre.
Like Johnson, many ply their skills predicting what tomorrow will bring. It’s a craft born part of science, part of fiction, and the visions people cast of coming days range from practical and predictable to unsettling and alien.
The annual WorldFuture conference attracts hundreds of professors, consultants, technologists and others who attempt to chart the course of the future under the title of “futurists.”
This year’s conference also featured talks about how genetic modification will change the taste of foods, how future governments will focus on strong community networking, and how to preserve the human brain to live “forever.”
Johnson says conferences like this, which was hosted by the World Future Society, help inspire his work by giving him a sense of what other futurists are anxious about and fear from the future.
Currently, Johnson’s task is to foresee what life will be like in 2022. The main difference between then and now, he noted, is the prominence data will play in people’s lives.
At Intel, knowing the future is key because it takes five to ten years to develop the hardware for computerized devices.
—Brian David Johnson
He said we already have tracking devices and sensors, which makes it easy to understand that machines will be talking to machines. But machines will also communicate with humans. Technology will be made to adapt to humans and be able to recognize behaviour patterns and give suggestions according to the time of day, setting, or mood.
At Intel, knowing the future is key because it takes five to ten years to develop the hardware for computerized devices. Johnson is accountable for precise visions, because if he misses by a margin, it will cost him his job, he said.
Johnson is an Intel-initiate, fully cognizant of the role the little silicon chips his employer creates play in people’s lives. Intel’s slogan, “We touch the lives of every person on the planet,” is incomplete in Johnson’s view, so he adds the words “and make it better.”
What you can imagine, we can build.
—Brian David Johnson
When showing a picture of a young girl surrounded by technology, he said visions of the future need to focus on real people and realistic, “comfortable” situations.
He first plans to contribute to health management practices. He uses an example of caring for an elderly parent who might live far away, and when calling them you don’t get through and start to get worried. You’re faced with the decision of whether to visit them or not.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could just tell that phone to get up and go find them?” he says.
“What you can imagine, we can build,” he adds.
‘Learn to Code’
Johnson is a proud geek, in his words, and an optimist. His rapid-fire address to the gathering of futurists draws on a decade of experience at Intel and experience as a designer and engineer.
Ultimately, for all consumers, it will be about screens.
— Brian David Johnson
For those already resistant to the ubiquitous presence of computers and web-based services, his message is a disquieting one. It is not enough to muddle through using technology, Johnson said, people need to learn how to communicate with it.
“Learn to code,” he advises, proclaiming that those awkward but logical computer codes will be the universal language between machines and people. “You can’t let the future happen to you, we all have to be active participants in our future.”
When Johnson started working at Intel he declared the future of computerized technology would be entertainment. Intel wanted to show him the door, but Johnson convinced the tech company that people are looking for ways to use tablets, phones, TVs, and computers to better connect with their loved ones and enjoy entertainment.
So far, his prediction has turned out true, giving credence to what he expects from the future. That future, he said, is already apparent.
“Ultimately, for all consumers, it will be about screens,” he said. Every screen, be it television, phone, or laptop, will give people access to other people and to entertainment.
He also predicts a future where computers will be talking to computers, living a secret life fuelled by algorithms and data that affects people but is little observed.
“For regular people it will feel like data has a life of its own,” he said. “Data will have a secret life.”
Born to Geek?
Johnson comes by his profession honestly. After learning to read, his radar technician father taught him how to decipher technical schematics and would bring home decommissioned parts for his son to study inside and out.
“It has always been second nature to me to understand technology, to understand how to read technology, and also understand how to communicate it,” he said.
At age 10, he got his first job teaching people how to use mainframe computers at a local college. Working for a smaller tech company in Europe, Johnson was designing interactive TV systems five or eight years into the future.
That’s when Intel asked him to undertake the same process for them, giving him a lifetime’s worth of access to social science research in the process.
Now, his System on Chip (SOC) idea has been adopted by Intel and is used on all their mainstream devices. The SOC runs at lower power and is more compact, like what you would find in your cell phone or tablet.
He rounds out his time writing science fiction novels like “Screen Future” and “Fake Plastic Love,” and travels extensively to talk about his futurist ideas and to listen to others.
But Johnson still finds time away from technology. In Portland, Oregon, where he lives, he likes to go up to Mount Hood and disconnect from the devices he helps create.
“I like to go to places where there’s no electricity, no running water, and no cell phone service,” he said.
Johnson also started The Tomorrow Project, an open source information platform for the public where users can see what futurists are discussing and can comment on the ideas or voice their concerns about future developments.
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