Technology

Genevieve Bell interview: How we see the next 50 years of technology

Genevieve Bell, director of the Autonomony, Agency and Assurance (3A) Institute and Intel Senior Fellow, speaks at Intel's Devcon event.

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.