Profile: Ian Pearson, BT Futurologist

ian pearsonFORGET today’s information economy. By 2015, we’ll all be living in the ‘care’ economy, where machines more intelligent than us will do the manual and brainy stuff, while humans will be left with hands-on jobs that require contact – like teaching children, hairdressing or physiotherapy.

BT futurologist Ian Pearson believes those who sit behind desks and use their brains to do work will be redundant because machines will do those jobs for free.

Travel Booking – through a crystal ball

With the help of BT’s futurologist Ian Pearson, Travolution suggests where travel technology may go.

  • Supermarkets of the future will offer ‘head-up’ displays, showing not virtual, but ‘augmented’ reality. Don some easy-to-wear glasses and discover what your intended  destination is really like. Booths will enable you to book in-store.

  • When it comes to the airport, Radio Frequency Identification will give everyone ‘smart ticketing’. RFID could give you special offers at airport stores using that ticket. And if you’re distracted by shopping, you’ll get a special ‘announcement’ via the boarding card to persuade you to get a move on to the gate – with directions. Your mobile phone may even be your boarding pass.

  • The next generation of the Internet will promote the idea of the Semantic Web. Your computer – maybe inside your mobile – will search, make reservations and buy tickets. It will choose your airline, book your favourite seat, and check your diary.
Are you petrified by the loss of your PC? Blame Pearson – it’s his job to guess the future, even if it’s unpopular.

He’s been BT’s futurologist for 14 years, tracking the advancement of technology and informing both BT and the wider public about emerging opportunities and threats. His audiences are often senior company managers, but those who listen most attentively are blue chip companies and governments, who rely on his ‘crystal ball’.

A graduate of Queen’s University in Belfast, Pearson arrived at BT Laboratories in 1985 via Shorts Missile Systems, where he spent four years in areas ranging from mechanical engineering to battlefield strategy simulation.

At BT, he started as a performance analyst, and has since worked in network design and evolution, cybernetics and mobile systems. His current projects include machine consciousness, NBIC – that’s ‘nano, bio, info and cognitive’ – convergence, and advanced computing technology.

As a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Arts and the Institute of Nanotechnology, he’s already received a number of awards for his papers, written several books and is a veteran of more than 250 TV and radio appearances.

Pearson’s futurology work involves tracking developments across technology and society, trying to figure out where it’s all going and how it might affect our everyday lives.

“My main tools are a strong background in science and engineering, trends analysis, common sense, reasonable business acumen, knowing when to listen to other people, and a lot of thinking,” he said. “I usually get it right, but the future is never predictable. I specialise in long-term stuff, so I have a lot of fun – I hope I’m retired before anyone proves me wrong.”

Pearson believes anyone with reasonable intelligence could do his job, comparing it to driving a car through fog.

“You can’t see a clear picture of what’s ahead, and you might misinterpret a shape in the distance, but few of us would drive through fog without bothering to look out the window. It’s the same for business, which is why BT employs me.”

When it comes to looking into the future of travel, there’s a lot Pearson would change, especially check-in. Way back in 2002, after a particularly unpleasant experience, he wished for travel on a “competent airline” to work like this: “You arrive at the airport, already having checked in by phone or PDA on the way, already knowing your seat number. You pass a cabin-baggage machine, which checks your bag for size, weight and security, wraps and stamps it to prevent tampering, and then you go to the departure lounge. Meanwhile, it prints off a smart boarding card. The card has an identifier chip. As you walk around it tracks your location and monitors show an arrow directing you to your departure gate. It arranges for any duty-free to be taken to your flight and to be charged to your account. If you are late to the gate, you can be found, avoiding the cause of most delays.

“On the aircraft, a scanner on the trolleys ensures you are given the right meal according to the preferences you notified at booking. Even after landing, the card lets the airport know where you are so that it can arrange your ongoing taxi or help you meet your contact. Through every stage of the travel process, the efficiency of machines would ensure a much more enjoyable and safer experience for every passenger. All this, and the airlines and ports would make higher profits.”

You can’t fault Pearson’s thinking when it comes to travel. As for your future job prospects – well, maybe now’s the time to start retraining. Feng shui consultant anyone?

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