Intel futurist discusses data's secret life, 'ghost of computing'

Science fiction serves as a inspiration for the man whose job it is envisage Intel's future and, to a large degree, the future of computing itself.

In 2010 Brian David Johnson became Intel Corp.'s first futurist, a time-honored title bestowed on prognosticating technology mavens dating back to the likes of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Equal parts seer and evangelist, Johnson helps map out the future of technology and then guides his company toward that destination, whether it is five years or even a decade away.

Johnson draws inspiration from science fiction but tries to ground his vision of the future in reality through speaking engagements in front of audiences most likely to be affected by Intel's technology, such as attendees of the pop culture convention Comic-Con. For an in-depth Q&A with Johnson about the future of computing and his role at Intel, read "Professional Seer" in the May issue of Scientific American. Below is a collection of questions and answers from our conversation with Johnson not included in that article.

Intel futurist Brian David Johnson
Intel/Screenshot by CNET

Q: Which science fiction authors have inspired you the most?
Johnson: So there's what inspired me as a kid -- the Asimov, the Bradbury, the Heinlein -- that forms the core of science fiction. As I got a little older and a little more sophisticated, it was people like Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard, and even more recently people like Vernor Vinge and Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross, those types of guys. Now most of the stuff I'm inspired by is the near future that is very much based on science fact.

How does a future futurist spend his time as a kid?
Johnson: Growing up, my dad was a radar-tracking engineer and my mom was a specialist [in information technology]. My pop used to come home with electrical schematics of the radar and tell me the story of how it worked. A few weeks later he would come home with an actual piece of the radar and say, "Take it apart." And then he would actually show me how to take it apart. I think about when this happened and I realize that it was around the time I was learning to read. I was learning to read schematics the same time I was learning to read, so I grew up immersed in technology.

How does one become a futurist? Can you go to school and get a degree in futurism?
Johnson: No, but you can go to the college where they first taught futurism, which Alvin Toffler does at the New School [for Social Research] in New York City.

The New School is known for social research. What does a future futurist study there?
Johnson: That's the lovely thing about the New School when I went, which was the late '80s, early '90s. You could take whatever you wanted. I studied a lot of computer science, but when I went to the New School it was this great mix where I could study sociology, I could study economics, I could study film, and I could go down to [New York University] and take classes. As a futurist I need the technical chops to understand what we're talking about. But I also need the research chops to be able to go out and pull this all together and then have the ability to express it.

What are some of the most important issues that you're talking to people about now when you're out on the road for Intel?
Johnson: There are three main themes -- one is called the secret life of data, the second is the ghost of computing, and the third is the future of fear.

Those sound like book titles. How can data have a secret life?
Johnson: The secret life of data is thinking about what it will be like to live in a world of big data. What will that feel like when we're creating so much data about ourselves through sensors and other technology that data begins to take on a life of its own? It's already starting to happen, and it's only going to get bigger. You have algorithms talking to algorithms, machines talking to machines. What does it feel like to be in that world -- No. 1? And No. 2, how do we make sure that when that data comes back to us that it's meaningful? It's not just synthesizing massive amounts of financial data and spitting me out some credit ratings. We've moved beyond that.

What do you mean when you talk about the "ghost of computing"?
Johnson: Look at the microprocessor, it keeps getting smaller and smaller and smaller -- it's crazy how small it gets. If it keeps getting smaller what happens when that unit of compute gets so small that it disappears? We've been talking about that world for a while but as you get out 10 or 15 years we're getting closer and closer to it. What happens when computing is in the walls or in a table? So that's one side of it. What does the world look like when we're surrounded by intelligence?

And the future of fear?
Johnson: The reason I like talking about fear is that it's a human experience. We know that security is important, and it's only going to get more important. So as we look 10 to 15 years out, what I want to do is to think: What do we really need to be afraid of? I'm on sort of a personal campaign against fear. When we talk about what it means to live in a safe and secure world, there's a lot of misinformation and a lack of information out there. Because of that, people are creating bogeymen. We're creating these irrational things, and that's very dangerous -- especially when we're making decisions, whether it's hardware design or something else. We need to take a fact-based approach to what should we be afraid of and what shouldn't we be afraid of. And the stuff that we shouldn't be afraid of, we need to push that aside. The stuff we should be afraid of, we really need to dig into.

What's frustrating is that talking about this fear is not usually a technology question; it's a cultural conversation. When I'm out teaching or lecturing, 50 percent of the questions I'm asked have to do with fear, something that someone is worried about. Let's find out what people are afraid of and attack it. I'm an incredibly optimistic person. The problem with fear is that fear sells. It even has policy implications. I want to pull people away from the fear because otherwise people will gravitate toward it. Very few innovations have come out of being fearful.

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