Google's prototype driverless car

David Wood: why the future matters

He may have been a main player in developing smartphone software at Psion, but David Wood is not concerned with the past. His mission is to ensure society acts smart and doesn't squander a future that's there for the taking.

Despite being a main player in the development of software architecture for the smartphone, David Wood prefers to describe himself as the chair of the London Futurists, a meet-up group dedicated to seriously discussing a range of 'desirable outcomes' for society. The world of engineering and technology might know him better for the part he played in the development of mobile computing; Wood's concerns are not with the past, but the future.

But sometimes the future starts with a little history. Wood worked on the personal digital assistant (PDA) at Psion, which was Europe's leading manufacturer of handheld computers for several years, and coined the term 'organiser'. Realising the technology that went into making the PDA possible was also suited to a category of technology that could be 'dimly glimpsed', Wood moved on to Symbian, where his "role was in envisaging future smart technology. I was a software architect for many parts of the resulting software system, which became known as Symbian OS".

Wood's contribution to the phenomenon of smart, connected mobile devices has earned him plenty of recognition, including an honorary doctorate, which he describes as "not quite the same as a hard-earned PhD". He has also been voted one of the top 100 most influential people in technology by a consumer technology magazine. And while others with a similar track record might consider their mid-50s to be the time to start growing wine or spending afternoons on the golf course, Wood thinks his "next 25 years will take that same vision and give it a twist. I now look more broadly at how technology can help all of us to become smarter and more mobile".

Back to the future

If we were to look back a quarter of a century from the vantage point of 2015, it's hard to believe how primitive the world once looked in terms of digital technology. As a commercial entity, the Internet was a mere fledgling, mobile phones weren't very mobile, portable computers were so heavy that they earned the disparaging nickname 'luggables', and it was all somewhat - despite being in living memory - prehistoric. Given that most of us back then could not have foreseen the future we find ourselves in today with any accuracy, how on earth can a futurist describe where we will be in 2040?

"There are two possible futures, broadly speaking," says Wood. "Concerning the first, we will continue to develop our current great curve of progress. But it is also possible that the engines of society will fail and collapse in the next 25 years too. Whether this is due to climate change, social disruption or a crash in the financial system, we could be looking back in 25 years with a lot of regrets, saying 'these guys had so much potential, but it didn't work'."

Wood thinks that the first scenario is more likely, where technology "keeps on improving. In the past 25 years we've seen computers become smaller, less expensive, more capable and much larger in number". If this outcome happens, there will be three clear ways in which society will be affected. "First, as computers get smaller, they can go not just on the body, but inside the body, as nanobots. In a quarter of a century we will look younger, fresher and fitter because we will have renovated ourselves with this technology," he says.

"The second angle is in software intelligence, which will be everywhere and will become smarter and smarter. Instead of visiting a doctor, we will be connected to an AI system that will know all about us, and can read over relevant medical literature faster and more comprehensively than any ordinary human. The system will have all kinds of insight into our medical care.

"The third aspect," Wood continues, "is robots. We will be surrounded by robots. The most obvious example is the self-driving car. Many of the existing white-collar jobs that we do today will be done much better by a combination of computers and software." Free from the tyranny of having to work for a living, we will have time "to concentrate on what it is we want to concentrate on, whether that is higher mathematics, philosophy or watching every episode of 'Britain's Got Talent'".

One of the most high-profile 'public intellectual' thinkers about the future in the technological context is theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, whose famous sound bite informs us that the main problem with the future is that it "never arrives on time". Wood agrees: "We spend a lot of time looking at the past and at the present. But we only sometimes allow ourselves to be entertained by whimsical Hollywood sci-fi interpretations of what the future might be. We need to get much better at thinking about the future. We need to figure out what's credible, what's not credible. And once we've done that, we need to analyse whether it is desirable."

While Wood spends much of his time inspiring people to take a positive view of the future, he warns that there is "nothing automatic about it". One of the failures of futurist thinking, he says, is to imagine there is an automatic progression. But the future doesn't arrive on time because of "the many fundamental blockages" that line the route. "The interesting question here is: why do parts of the future lag behind? Why do we get glimpses of a future that doesn't seem to be fulfilled? I have addressed this and come up with five factors, which prevent the future from being realised as quickly as people expect."

Transhuman being

As well as chairing the London Futurists, Wood is also on the board of a transhumanist think-tank called Humanity Plus (formerly the World Transhumanist Association), whose mission includes advocacy for the ethical use of technology. Wood - who has been a transhumanist for a decade - is part of the organisation's team of writers and thinkers currently drafting a manifesto that calls for the introduction of 'Apollo projects' for the benefit of society. These projects are named after the American lunar missions of the 1960s when President John F Kennedy announced that he chose to go to the Moon and prepare other projects, "not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills".

Inspired by Kennedy, Wood says that the core idea of the manifesto is that "disruptive technology will bring about more changes over the next decade than most people are expecting. We tend to imagine that there might be a few changes, but things will more or less remain the same. But, the next 10 years will be a decade of profound change, the like of which we have probably never seen before. The problem is that politicians can't see that: they spend their time thinking about how to tweak the GDP. There are more important things than that. This is why we are calling for a number of Apollo-style projects to be created over the next 10 years".

Wood then launches into a long and detailed list that outlines societal changes that are credible and desirable. First is to convert the extended lives of individuals into a benefit to society - the so-called longevity dividend, "which means that if you keep people free from the diseases of old age until much later, we could add huge amounts of positive energy to society". Second is to adjust society to the idea that while we will enjoy living longer, we will need to work less, "because automation will have taken care of that. But where does that leave people? More and more of us will be unemployed in traditional terms. The fortunate few at the top will see their salaries increase nicely. But the median salary is going down. This is not just because the filthy rich are grabbing everything for themselves: it is because technology gives the advantage to those who can afford it, creating a winner-takes-all scenario".

Other Apollo projects address issues ranging from the future of education to the acceleration of the drug-approval process. But within this panoply of 'Good Things', there is the continual threat of what Wood terms "existential risk". In layman's terms: "The bad things that can come from technology. Futurists talk a lot about the good that there is in the future. But we must be aware of what will happen if nuclear weaponry falls into the hands of fundamentalist terrorists or other angry, alienated people."

Wood stops here to introduce me to the idea of Moore's Law of Mad Science. It's not an exact law, more the educated presumption that with the passing of every few years "the IQ required to destroy the world comes down by 10 points. Maybe today you would need an IQ of 250. But with the passing of time you'll need less capability to grab hold of something destructive and cause chaos. This is an existential risk. We should put climate change in that basket, along with artificial intelligence doing things that we hadn't planned for. There is a big debate going on in this field at the moment and the debate needs to be heard".

Wood says that he will have done his job well if this all sounds like common sense. But he is determined to bring that common sense to the masses: "My first goal will be to get as much coverage for the work of Humanity Plus as possible. Then we want politicians to address these issues. Then we want politicians in power to act upon them. They will need support and, to do that, organisations such as Humanity Plus and the many interrelated think-tanks across the world will feed in positive suggestions as to how these ideas can be implemented."

Why technology is important

The reason why the thread of technology is so critically important to the fabric of the debate, says Wood, is because "technology can provide fundamental solutions to the problems of society. This is where engineers have such an important role to play." To illustrate his point, Wood uses the example of the eradication of malaria. On the one hand, you could develop drugs that bring cures to the market for the victims of disease; on the other you can put a team of engineers on the job. "They will get to the root of the problem and demolish the part of the jungle where the mosquitoes come from."

It is this practical approach that seems to appeal to Wood. "Engineering is a fact-based discipline. It compounds insights from one generation of engineers to the next. Newton referred to himself as standing on the shoulders of giants, which was why he was able to see further than his predecessors. Engineering succeeds because everything is up for grabs and more people are able to get involved. And so, the next time something goes drastically wrong with society we'll have more people to bring in solutions."

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