Technology ‘too difficult to use’ says BT boffin

30 Sep 2004

Information technology can continue to transform the way people work and live but only if computers and electronic devices become a lot more user friendly, a BT scientist has warned.

“I can’t drive half the software on my PC and if I as an engineer can’t do that what chance is there that the average man in the street will be able to?” asked Ian Pearson, a computer expert based at Adastral Park, BT’s global research hub near Ipswich.

Taking a swipe at hardware as well, he remarked: “We need to redesign hardware because these things need to be made easier to use. We’ve gone too far down the road of making things complicated. I don’t want all the clutter, just the core stuff I need.”

Pearson, whose job carries the novel title of ‘futurologist’, was speaking during recent a briefing to journalists at the impressive 100-acre facility.

He also argued that technology firms were making the mistake of adding features “just in case” they were needed. But the more features there are, the less reliable and secure equipment becomes, Pearson believed. His conclusion: “We need to go from a just-in-case to a just-in-time mentality to minimise the security risk.”

Looking to future trends, he saw the IT economy as moving through several phases of development. We are currently in the middle of the first – the networked digital economy – where the creation of high-speed data communications network is transforming home and work life. In five years’ time, this will be followed by the ‘ambient intelligence world’ where technology will become increasingly invisible and devices become embedded in everyday activities.

After this – in about 2015 according to Pearson – will come ‘the age of simplicity’ which will be about making technology much easier to use. This will be required, he argued, in order to counter the growing sophistication of technology and make it as intuitive as possible.

The age of simplicity will eventually (by 2050 or so) give way to the ‘virtual worlds’ age, when information technology will map onto real world to give a greater depth of understanding to it or “augmented reality” as Pearson termed it.

Warming to his theme, Pearson introduced the novel concept of ‘virtual air’. “Think of it as street cyberspace – the physical environment being overlaid by endless layers of computing data. People will live in a digital bubble – a forcefield that [interacts with their environment] and gives them only the information they want.”

Pearson also predicted that artificial intelligence (AI) would become smarter than humans within the next ten years. He envisaged a world where computers would assume all the intellectual tasks currently done by humans, becoming ‘virtual bosses’ in effect. “Robots won’t be saying to us ‘take me to your leader’ but ‘I am you leader – and here’s what you’ll be doing today,” he quipped.

The arrival of true AI would turn the economy upside down as the value of human intellect plummets and qualities that cannot not be replicated by computers – such as human empathy, soar in worth. “In a scenario where the nurse becomes more important than the consultant, we’ve got some serious thinking to do about how we restructure the economy,” Pearson concluded.

By Brian Skelly