VentureBeat: What did it make you think about the last 50 years and how much change happened there?
Bell: It’s funny. I’ve been thinking a lot about 1968 recently, for all kinds of reasons. Partly because of Intel’s 50th birthday, but partly because of all the other things going on that year. Both in terms of massive social upheavals — Prague, Paris, all those things – but also the stuff happening in the technical space, and how it’s both long ago and a very short time ago.
There are three other events in 1968 beyond Intel that I think are really interesting. They all happen in the same place, in San Francisco, and two of them at the same conference. In December of 1968, at the Association of Computing Machinery conference, George Forsythe, who was a professor of mathematics at Stanford at the time, turned up at the conference and offered the first named curriculum in computer science. It’s the first time the term “computer science” came to mean something. It was a two-year journey for him to get to that meeting, where he turned up with the thing that basically became what computer science is now.
There were a lot of other reasons why it’s 1968 and why it’s him, but effectively, computer science as it’s now taught in universities came into existence at that conference because someone turned up with a curriculum. It was about, how do you get beyond the fact that—at that point there was Fortran on IBM and COBOL on GE and Honeywell. There was a notion of what it would mean to create a level of abstraction around computers and what we would call it. So in 1968 computer science gets invented and that’s kind of trippy.
At the same conference, in a different room, Doug Engelbart does the mother of all demos out of SRI down at Stanford. He does it over a live TV feed. He creates a telecommunications channel to make it happen. He has Stewart Brand operating a camera. How crazy is that? He demos cut and paste, hyperlinking, the internet, the mouse, the GUI, and he does it all live. In his day even Steve Jobs wouldn’t have done something so dramatic. It’s this amazing performance. We have a man demoing what will basically be the entirety of the personal computer revolution, embedded in which is the internet, which will get built the next year.
The thing I didn’t know until a month ago was that not that far away, in the Exploratorium, there was an art exhibit called Cybernetic Serendipity. It was a traveling exhibit that had come from London, of art made about and with computers. It included six prints where someone used algorithms inside Fortran to make art. The most beautiful one of which, to me, is called Return to Square A. It’s using a Fortran calculation to make a woman’s face.
There was this moment where computers were about to become a thing for all of us. In this moment of wild speculation, you have someone creating the discipline, someone creating the next user interface, and then someone making art. And then down in the Valley you have Gordon and Andy and Bob making a business.
For me there’s something wonderful about imagining there was a moment when all of those bets were on. You could make the silicon, but you had to think about what the interface was going to be, and by the way, you’re thinking about who is going to build it. And you’re not imagining these things would only ever be used for business. There’s something so extraordinary about that, and all at that one moment in time. I want to have been there. [laughs]
VentureBeat: We’re here in this age now where we have Twitter and Twitch and Fortnite.
Bell: We have people doing things that are kind of spectacular too. There are these moments that are extraordinary, in terms of how we think about, for me, the open questions. How does all this new technology we’re building get used to make things that are beautiful? Not just things that are productive.
We spend a lot of time talking about AI in terms of impact on business. We don’t have as much time thinking about impact on creativity and wonder. Those are conversations I’d like to have more of. We spend a lot of time talking about the business side, but not so much talking about the implications around how we think and how we make the next generation of practitioners. I wonder who’s going to build all this stuff 10 years from now.
VentureBeat: 5G seemed to figure pretty prominently here.
Bell: Did you find that as interesting as I did?
VentureBeat: Yeah, it seems like the next bit of magic to happen in technology.
Bell: If you imagine that it’s not just a mobile standard, but a data standard, it becomes really interesting. It’s not just about how you connect phones, but how you make all these other cyber-physical systems, all these smart objects, start to have greater capacity. It becomes extraordinary to imagine. The early experiments in it are quite interesting in terms of what you can deliver with all that extra data.
VentureBeat: I think of things like—maybe it’ll light up the game business in India. Wired cable modems aren’t so popular there, but if every home is capable of accessing 5G, then you have pretty good cloud gaming machines in data centers there feeding that population.
Bell: Absolutely. My suspicion is it will remap again what games are like. You remember the data at the point that mobile phones became gaming platforms, and the change from gaming to this split between core and casual gaming, and how much turned up on mobile phone platforms that engaged people we wouldn’t have thought of as “gamers.” I’ve been really struck thinking about a few of those. Pokemon Go, we hardly think of that as a serious game, but it was fascinating for how many people it energized.
If you have this data overlay and devices in everyone’s hands and a bunch of other stuff that becomes smart and animated, what’s possible then? What does that mean, both in terms of devices that become conduits to gaming and things that become part of a game? That’s fascinating to contemplate.
VentureBeat: Does it seem a given that in 50 years, everyone on the planet will have the internet?
Bell: Does everyone on the planet have electricity now?
Bell: I always think about that. Now, of course, the early data about mobile phones taught us that not everyone needs to have a device in their hands to feel connected. Is the model that every home needs to be connected to the internet, and every person needs a device? I don’t know that that will ever be true on this planet. What I do know is that you don’t need to have a device in everyone’s hand for everyone to feel connected.
Fifty years from now, do we imagine that the world will be more connected than it is now? Yeah, I think so. Would I speculate about the nature of that connection? I think it’s going to be like it is now, insofar as the range of possibilities will be great and the distribution very similar. There will be some people for whom the internet is a thing they carry in their pocket. For others it will be a thing that is everywhere around them and they don’t think about it very often. Because in fact, that’s what makes the transportation system run, or ensures that there’s a bicycle near where they’re going, or ensures the water is moving in the pipes. Those will all be experiences of the internet that you never have to see or know that they’re there. There may be some people for whom that it’s a resource that’s slightly distant. I imagine all those things will be true.
VentureBeat: When you guys were doing some of the qualitative work here—I wonder what that was like. Were you coaxing people to think further into the future than they normally would? Or talk about these consequences of what would happen next, after something big happened?
Bell: This one was very quantitative. This was textually driven. It was a survey. I imagine, were you to do a follow-up with people and probe them, you’d get an interesting elaboration on these things about why it was that certain scenarios were true. We know that from other work we’ve done. When you start to push people and open up their thinking, the stories are divergent. Not everyone is equally skilled at thinking about the future beyond the moment they’re in, which I totally understand.
VentureBeat: The attitudes of millennials here, did they stand out in any way?
Bell: Some of the attitudes around millennials were kind of fascinating. In no small part, in some ways, because they were remarkably like their peers. Much like other parts of the sector. If you looked at millennials looking at things like, for instance—there was stuff that was perfectly reasonable. Millennials imagine they own more AI and know they own more AI. That makes sense.
They were as likely to be anxious about privacy and security as everyone else, which was fascinating given that we’ve often talked about that crew as not caring about their privacy. The data suggests that really isn’t true, that they’re equally concerned about what it means around privacy in particular. I thought it was interesting that they were not that far off their older cohorts around issues about the social piece. Did they feel like they were overly dependent on tech? They look pretty much like their older relatives in that regard. And then they’re remarkably similar around the stuff on privacy.
I was interested by the fact that the delta wasn’t as strong as you might have expected. We’re often told the story in the tech field that millennials are completely different from everyone else, and this suggests they might be a bit like you and I. Or maybe that just means we’re millennials and we didn’t know it. [laughs]