Intel turned 50 years old this year, and the biggest maker of PC chips has helped drive amazing progress in that time. If cars had seen the same improvements microprocessors have, your vehicle would be able to go 300,000 miles per hour and would cost just 4 cents, according to Intel. We all know that hasn’t happened, but thanks to the accelerated development of chips and technology, you might very well get a self-driving car before too long.
Intel recently did a study, dubbed Next 50, in which it interviewed 1,000 consumers about the future of technology. In partnership with research firm PSB, Intel wanted to dive deeper into prevailing perceptions about the impact technology will have over the next 50 years. The study found that Americans are excited about the potential of technology, but 40 percent believe emerging technologies will introduce as many new problems as solutions.
Genevieve Bell, vice president and senior fellow at Intel, oversaw the study and examined the responses from both mainstream respondents and those who claimed to be “technology elites.” Bell said the results reminded her how diverse the human experience is and cast a light on the hopes and concerns that many people have.
Some predicted that we’d still be using computers and smartphones, but other predictions about the direction of technology were more interesting. I talked with Bell, who is also director of the 3A Institute and a professor at the Australian National University, about the survey, as well as her own expectations for the future. It was a fun conversation, and you‘ll want to be sure to check out Bell’s recent keynote at the Intel DevCon event.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
VentureBeat: It’s fun to think about the next 50 years, if we get through the next few days or weeks.
Genevieve Bell: Exactly!
VentureBeat: I was interested in how you started thinking about how to handle this kind of project, getting people to think about 50 years from now.
Bell: It’s partly in the context of, well, Intel is 50 years old. We have that legacy to look at, and then thinking about what the next 50 years will be. If you go back to that original Gordon Moore paper, back in 1965, he has this lovely line about—it’s not the line that’s famous, the one about halving and doubling that became Moore’s Law. But he has this paragraph right before that where he talks about what the world will be like when integrated circuits are everywhere at scale. He predicts this world that’s remarkably prescient in some ways.
We have the capacity to make ideas about the future. They’re always reflective of the current thinking, but there’s something lovely to me about having a moment in this space to ask what the next 50 years will look like. This particular set of data—again, I’m only talking to Americans. I suspect it would look a little different if you had other countries in here too. But a couple of things about it were really striking to me.
It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve seen equal amounts of trepidation and fascination with the future. Usually you get people being blithely optimistic. This time there were a lot more people saying, “Well, maybe, but maybe not?” That ambivalence that ran through the data was very interesting to me. And the fact that it was not necessarily generation-specific. It wasn’t the boomers saying, “It was all better in my day.” It was everyone saying, “Hmm, I don’t know.” That was interesting.
That said, as much as there was ambivalence, there was also a comforting amount of optimism about emerging technologies and the places where those technologies were interesting to consumers. That was fascinating to me. The abundant sense that–thinking about the role of new technologies in sustainability and environmental issues comes up a lot, as does the piece around medical and biomedical breakthroughs. Those were interesting facets.
It’s telling in some ways that most of the quantitative research was done in May of this year, very much happening against the backdrop of conversations that were going on in the U.S. It wasn’t surprising to me that you see two factors: one about the sense of concern about what people are doing with our data – the privacy and security piece is running through all of this – and then likewise, I thought it was interesting to see that tension played out again—we used to see this in field work. People say, “I love my mobile phone, I want it with me all the time, but I’m also concerned that I’m overly dependent on it.”
That piece for me is interesting, the bit where it’s like—I love this thing. I want it with me. I use it all the time. It’s great for all this stuff. And I don’t know how I feel about it. It’s this interesting contradiction that people keep managing with.
VentureBeat: Is it a bit frustrating that you ask people to look at the next 50 years, and they think about the headlines of today?
Bell: Oh, sure. The thing about the future – and we know this – stories about the future, wishes for the future, promises for the future—this is what technology really is. Technology is always and already a promise about the future. But you can’t help but make those promises through the lens of today.
We once talked about science fiction and the notion that science fiction tells you as much about the present as it tells you about the future. That’s always true. What people think about the future of technology tells you as much about their current lived experience as their new ones. That said, if you look at what people thought would be important 50 years now, it’s interesting where their opinions fall out. A bunch of people still think there will be smartphones and computers, but they also know it’s going to be smart home technology. The notion of where other things fit in that are fascinating, to chart people’s imaginations in terms of what they think will sustain and not.
The general public is interested in the devices. The tech elites in this data know you can’t have devices without the infrastructure.
VentureBeat: I wanted to hear more about those tech elites, what kind of people these are and how they’re distinguished from general consumers. Is that more the qualitative part of this?
Bell: I think of it was more qualitative. It’s partly based on attitudes to technology, ownership of technology, and a certain amount of economic clout. In this particular survey we actually went after a group of people who fit that bracket.
VentureBeat: You wanted both kinds of opinions, then? Both generalists and people who are pretty steeped in technology.
Bell: I think you need to have both. It’s always one of the things that’s interesting about being in Silicon Valley and then not being in Silicon Valley. [laughs] When you’re in the Valley, all the conversations seem perfectly normal because they’re the conversations everyone there is having. Then you go somewhere else and you realize, “Nobody is talking about this. Why is that?”
It’s useful to be able to see the contrast and be reminded that tech elites aren’t always a proxy for where the conversation is going, but it’s a point of view. It’s a point of view that we often celebrate, but it’s not the only one. One of the things that was always very clear to me in my days of being Intel’s researcher was that we sometimes forgot that not everyone was exposed to as much tech as we were. You forget that for everyone else, that’s not necessarily their lived experience.
VentureBeat: I was also curious about attitudes toward AI. The parents seem to be very optimistic that AI can help them out, but I wonder about the prevailing sentiment of science fiction. A lot of concern about AI taking over. There are people predicting everything from AI will eliminate jobs to AI will cause the end of the world. I don’t see as much of that in these results, though.
Bell: [laughs] No, but if you look at them right—slides 13, 14, and 15 were particularly interesting that way. Partly you’re right. It’s hard to escape the rhetoric of AI and robots and how that’s just going to be the end of days. What’s interesting for me about these ones—it’s two things. One is that there is a sense, in a number of the data points, about family in particular. That’s not the story that’s being told here. The story is, maybe AI will help with things around the home. Maybe it will help with tasks we don’t like doing that can be replaced. That’s partly how I hear that.
What’s also interesting about that data for me is the very strong delta between male parents and female parents. It’s a pretty small data set, 150 or 160 people, but it’s fascinating in terms of what’s going on there. I don’t have a strong hypothesis. I just know that there are more questions to be asked there. You do have a gender difference in people’s excitement about AI, with men being more excited about it than women, a 1X greater increase.
VentureBeat: I’d not heard of that before.
Bell: I hadn’t seen it before either. I track this kind of stuff, but I hadn’t seen anyone break out relationships and feelings about AI by gender before. It was interesting to see it broken out that way, and then to think about why men and women might have such a strong delta there.
VentureBeat: If PCs and smartphones are not that sexy to think about being used from 50 years from now, is there something that really knocks you out as far as what people predict we will use in 50 years?
Bell: I thought there were two things that were interesting about that. It’s interesting how slight people have gaming on their list. Do they imagine that gaming somehow moves into every other domain? I was interested by the fact that it was at some level not seen as being—29 percent thought it was very important. It has the least degree of importance of things in the future. Overall it’s pretty stable, but the people who thought it was most exciting, not so much.
I’m still struck by the fact that—you asked a reasonable question. Can you reasonably ask people to think 50 years in the future? People think that in 50 years their smartphone’s going to matter. My suspicion is that if you pushed people about what makes the smartphone matter, they don’t mean the form factor. They mean that set of experiences. The notion of being connected to others, of being able to know where you’re going, of having ready access to information. Those things endure.
As far as other stuff, the ones that were interesting to me—I was hopeful about what they were most excited about. It was actually the stuff about genomics and planetary things, renewable energy, all that stuff. People thought those things were important. That’s good, right? We know there are still problems that technology should be solving. The genomics stuff and renewable energy stuff, especially renewable energy, it was striking how high that was.
VentureBeat: I happened to be reading Michio Kaku’s book on the future of humanity just now. If we can solve that immortality problem, we can put people on spaceships and get them to another planet before our planet dies.
Bell: [laughs] There we go. Gosh, can you imagine, though, what it would do to social order if you could live forever? The most interesting conceit I thought about that—Altered Carbon, that came out last year, the science fiction show? The most interesting conceit in it was the notion of immortality, of the body no longer mattering. If the brain never dies, what is that like? The show played that out in ways that were fascinating in terms of novel preoccupations with it. The idea of the social strata that would arise around it.
VentureBeat: I didn’t see that one, but I did watch the Black Mirror episode, where your memories are preserved in servers forever.
Bell: For Altered Carbon, the conceit was that your memories could just keep being placed in new bodies, but what ends up developing is a group of people who decide it should be one body and done. You only have one life. That becomes the radical proposition, the stated resistance to the singularity. Dying when your body dies. It had some really interesting notions wrapped around it. If you take the singularity as read, what does the world look like?
VentureBeat: I’m kind of interested now about what a thousand science fiction writers would come up with.
Bell: Oh, gosh, me too. I just bought a new book that came out in Australia this last month, of science fiction written by aboriginal people, indigenous people. It’s on my bedside table taunting me as we speak. I’m really interested to see if that feels like a different experience.
VentureBeat: It’s interesting that, if one of these things comes true, there are consequences that will affect other things on the list.
Bell: Absolutely. We know that the impact of this technology at scale has energy requirements. Solving that one is a big deal. There are certainly pieces around some of this stuff about—if you change the nature of the body—this affects both the genomic medicine stuff and how we start to think about what computation does to cognition. They become cascading things. We were asking people to rank a series of world views, though, rather than entirely write their own.
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]