We are computing in the past. Every chipset and microprocessor we use today is the product of five to 10 years of development and design. For a technology company to be successful, it must be able to not only deliver cutting-edge products, but also tailor those products for a marketplace and consumer demand that doesn’t yet necessarily exist. It’s enough to make you want to break out the crystal ball.
That’s where Brian David Johnson comes in.
As Intel’s first and only futurist, Johnson’s job is to look 10 to 15 years into the future and develop an actionable plan to create the technology the people of tomorrow will want. Developing such a vision is a complicated mix of sociology and research into how people interact with computation today to anticipate how that will likely evolve over time.
Johnson took time out from working on the 2019–2020 processor to talk to Intel® Visual Adrenaline about forecasting future technology trends, the human component of technology design, and the Ultrabook™ device—a lightweight, powerful new form factor that is set to revolutionize mobile productivity and innovation.
Visual Adrenaline (VA ): Can you tell us a bit about your history in the industry ?
Brian David Johnson (BDJ): My first job was at the computer lab at the local university in Virginia. That was back when every printer room had one printer, and that printer was in a soundproof box. And there was an entire room of Wang word processing machines and a room full of mainframe terminals. I was there when they carted in the first personal computer. The joke was that it was called a personal computer because you could lift it by yourself.
VA : So we have come a long way , then.
BDJ: Oh, yeah! I always laugh about the computers that I learned to program on; today, we carry around more computational power in our pockets.
VA : How has your work as a futurist informed your view of the industry as a whole?
BDJ: Well, it has made me very boring, to be quite honest. I am a very pragmatic futurist. The work I do is for the specifications of processors, so I have to make sure that whatever visions I come up with are really grounded and that we can build them. If I tell Intel that we’re all going to have rocket cars and jet packs and come 2020 we don’t have rocket cars and jet packs, then this futurist won’t have a job.
I think more on the human side. Our lab at Intel is actually run by a cultural anthropologist, Dr. Genevieve Bell. Everything we do is based in social science first and foremost. We are designing processors, platforms, and multiple products, and even the software and the algorithms that go into those products from a human standpoint. The futures we are looking at . . . need to be very accomplishable.
VA : How do you go about projecting 10 to 15 year s in the future?
BDJ: We start with social science. We have, in our lab, ethnographers and anthropologists who go all over the world to study people and give us insights into human behavior—how humans communicate with each other, how humans live, how people interact with their governments, how they buy things, and what their cars are like. Whatever you can think of, they are looking at it.
That gives us a basis—we have to remember that we are building products for us, for people. From there, I look at the computer science side of things: the people who are doing the innovative hardware and software development that goes on at Intel.
Next we ask, “What is possible with technology?” We look back at those human insights and ask, “Okay, how do we make people’s lives better?”
Then I like to look at trends, what I call the math of the future. Most people start with population growth and the projections of where we are going. Although those are important to me, they aren’t as important as the first two steps—social science and computer science— because, again, we have to understand the people we are building for, and then we have to understand the technology that we are building.
VA : What kind of effect do you see smaller screens and portable form factors having on the industry going forward ?
BDJ: Computation power has spread and found its way into our living rooms and pockets, and is finding its way into our cars, walls, and hospitals. For the longest time people asked, “Will the PC kill the TV?” Now you hear them ask, “Will the smartphone kill the laptop?” or “Will the tablet kill the laptop?”
One device isn’t going to rule them all; it is about whatever device people have handy. People really like choice. People will watch Inception, a big blockbuster movie, on their big-screen TV at home, but if they happen to be stuck in an airport or on a bus, they will watch it on their smartphone. With that type of power on those small screens, computation fits more elegantly into people’s lives.
VA : So more specifically , where do you see the Ultrabook device fitting in?
BDJ: You need to touch an Ultrabook device. It is a rush of innovation when you touch the form factor.
Consumers love them, and they are beginning to see them as another really viable screen that lives in the device ecosystem or in this constellation of devices that consumers have in their lives. You have a smartphone, a tablet, an Ultrabook device, a television—all these things begin to fit quite nicely together, becoming more about the consumer and the consumer’s choice about the kind of screen they would like to interact with.
If you want to look at the math of the future, the Ultrabook device becomes another significant, innovative step in Intel bringing computation in smart ways to people all over the world. From a consumer standpoint, the Ultrabook device allows them to have that screen and keyboard anywhere they want it. Because it is so thin, the battery life is so long, and it works so well with other devices, the Ultrabook device fits into people’s lives in a meaningful way. I think you will see a lot more of them because people can just throw it in a purse or backpack and take it anywhere.
VA : How do you see people outside of the tech and ga ming INDUS TRIES using Ultrab ooks in their daily lives?
BDJ: People say that small business is the engine of our economy. The Ultrabook device as a tool for work and a tool for small- and medium-size businesses begins to make a lot of sense. People need to be mobile—they work at home, at cafés, and in their office. In that way, I think the form factor fits into how people live their lives rather than requiring the people to change their lives to fit the computer.
The other side is the maker in us. I think you can look at a smartphone or tablet as a way of connecting, finding your way, and being entertained. But I also think there is something very specific around the Ultrabook device where people are using it to create. Not only is there an incredible amount of processing power and that really cool technology inside, but people are also gaining freedom to make things wherever they want to.
VA : As these high-powered mobile screens become more and more ubiquitous how do you see them affecting daily life?
BDJ: They allow us to have access. With a lot of the research that I was doing in the more near-term, looking out to 2015, you have all these different screens and the computational power, input and output, battery life, computation, and electricity, which allow those screens to become windows that give you access to the people and the entertainment you love. That is what drives most people.
All of these mobile form factors and screens really give us a myriad of ways to make that connection in different places, in different areas, and in different spaces; and I think that will only continue.
VA : Are the differences between plat forms becoming less important to the public at large?
BDJ: It’s not just about processor speed or the type of processor. We have multi-core, many-core, and single-chip cluster computers (SCC ). There are different ways of bringing computational power and coming up with solutions to different problems— whether you want a tablet or a smartphone that lasts all day or you need a high-performance computer that needs to calculate particle physics for the large hadron collider. These are very different types of computation.
Inside Intel, it isn’t just about making it smaller, faster, and less expensive, although this is important and it’s what we will continue to do—we live in the house of Moore’s Law. That is necessary but not sufficient. We have a significant shift where the way that people understand computational power has less to do with the guts and more to do with the experience.
I think you can see Intel being able to make that shift. The Ultrabook device is a perfect example of that. It is amazing and sexy, and full of really great technology, but our discussions will center around the experience—what you can do with it and what it will mean to your life.
VA : In terms of computing what do you see the future looking like in 20 years?
BDJ: think the future is awesome. And you can quote me.
I am an incredible optimist for a number of reasons. Everything I do is based upon social science research. Usually when you talk to people about computers, devices, and gadgets, they’re generally very optimistic. They think it is cool.
That is one of the things we can’t forget—for most people, the future is going to be pretty awesome. We can’t let ourselves forget that we will be surprised, and we can’t discount that when we pick up an Ultrabook device for the first time, we’ll say, “Wow, that feels really cool.” I think when we talk about the future of economies and the future of Intel, we can’t forget that in the future that wow is still going to happen—and that is pretty cool.
VA : It is. Can I just ask you one la st quick question?
BDJ: [laughs] I don’t know what Intel’s stock price is going to be next year. Thank you and good night.
About the Author
Stu Horvath is a writer, editor, and online media consultant. He introduced serious videogame coverage to the New York Daily News and has since worked with Wired, Paste, Complex, Kill Screen, and Wizard magazines, and Crispy Gamer and Joystiq video-game-focused web sites to bring smart and thoughtful media coverage to tech and gaming audiences. In addition to being the mastermind behind Unwinnable, he is the managing editor of Digital Innovation Gazette and is a founding member of the NYC Videogame Critics Circle.
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