Virtually here

This is a short, fast journey into a future of life-changing scientific innovation. Such articles used to stretch credulity; they were science fiction and fantasy. Now things move so fast that neither credulity nor stretching is involved.artin begins with a trip along the cutting edge of telecommunications. (He travelled by Ford.) Portrait by Philip Sinden
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Professor Peter Cochrane is head of research at British Telecom. His mission is to live in the future and report back to the present, and I was to spend a day watching him. "I warn you," I said, as I stood on his doorstep at 8am, I'm technically ignorant, I'm a technophobe and I've only got until four o'clock. He grinned and wiped toast crumbs from his mouth.

Peter Cochrane lives at Martlesham Heath, a village outside Ipswich. Martlesham Heath is divided, with sci-fi strangeness, into an "industrial area" alongside which BT's sprawling research and development HQ is located, and a residential area of self-conscious rusticity.

We climbed into his car - rather surprisingly, a humble Ford - and Cochrane immediately pressed a button on his digital mobile phone, which is connected to the AppleMac in his office. "Welcome to BT's corporate Directory Service," said the telephone pleasantly and not at all robotically. "Which number do you require?" Professor Cochrane gave a name. "I'm sorry I didn't understand that," the computer languidly intoned. Cochrane turned to me and grinned a little sheepishly. "We're having a problem with the background noise from the car," he said.

With his first-class ticket to the 21st century, and his remorseless enthusiasm, it would be easy to resent Peter Cochrane. But he's an engagingly boyish 49, with pouchy cheeks and soft brown eyes that give him an endearingly hamster-like aspect. He doesn't have the whinnying voice of the mad professor; rather, a deep Nottinghamshire burr. Fittingly enough, this tireless champion of modernity bypassed our fustier academic centres on his way to a professorship.

He grew up in Sutton in Ashfield, a pit village in Nottinghamshire, the son of a window cleaner who, but for acute claustrophobia, would have been a miner. Having failed his 11-plus, Peter Cochrane, too, seemed destined for the pit. But he joined the ranks of radio hams, those forerunners of internet surfers, and began building his own radios. A technological obsession was born which led to a GPO apprenticeship, night school at Nottinghamshire Technical College, a first in Electronic Engineering at Trent Polytechnic (where he got the best maths result ever seen in Nottinghamshire) and a PhD at Essex University.

As with internetters, radio hams are paradoxical creatures: ostensibly introspective, they are actually reaching out to the world. Cochrane regards the need to communicate as the basic human urge. Certainly he never stops talking. His favourite words are "Dickensian", to denote anything old- fashioned, and "exponential". In his world everything is expanding exponentially, from internet use to the telecommunicative capacity of optical fibres (which make up part of BT's transmission network).

Peter Cochrane now arrives at his office. It is dominated by a large, oval table where he can hold nonconfrontational meetings. "You'll notice that I'm not on a higher chair than you," he says. "I talk to people kneecap to kneecap." On to the large, flat-screen television in the corner, photographs of his wife and children are silently succeeding one another. "In time," he says, gesturing casually at a wall, "that will be Bondi Beach." He means an electronic projection of those rolling breakers - in real time, or sampled from a hand-picked lovely day - which may be accompanied by sea breezes and fresh air smells. "It's a question of immersion," says Cochrane.

He sits down at his AppleMac - the new paradigm (another of Cochrane's favourite words) is that executives will not have a secretary between themselves and their screens - and begins answering his E-mail. Woe betide any of the professor's people who send him a fax. That's the Stone Age, and it will be thrown into the bin unread.

"I reply to 50 per cent of my E-mail in three hours, and 30 per cent in one hour," he says, and there are two further statistics in this descending line which I don't have time to catch. He answers his E-mail in a slightly arch telegraphese: often simply "OK", or "OK go". "We don't bother with all that Dickensian stuff: Dear Sir, re your communication of the 3rd..."

Now, with a few taps of the keyboard, he's doing a spot of filing. "I asked myself: 'Do I need to file things in the conventional way?'" he says. The answer, of course, was no. He has a big list of files called "uniheap", which he can order chronologically or alphabetically as required.

Correspondence and filing having been dealt with in ten minutes, he receives a visit from one of his boffins, a man called Chris who looks the part to an almost preposterous degree: glasses, wild hair, negligent tie knot. Chris, turning over a replica of the human brain in his hands, tells Cochrane that he has concluded that it might be possible to increase the size of the typical brain by "15 to 20 per cent" by genetic engineering. Peter nods calmly as Chris goes on to say that were the brain any bigger, people would tend to fall over. For a minute I think I'm sitting on the scoop of the decade: a horrible, Hitlerite plot being hatched in the heart of BT.

But it transpires that this discussion is merely to confirm the futility of such a project; Chris, a biologist, is concerned with the alternative, but still slightly chilling, strategy of making computers with a capacity akin to the human brain. These computers will be able to respond flexibly to the ever-changing requirements of the communications revolution by thinking laterally, using their imaginations and, yes, making mistakes.

"Fallibility could be an essential part of these machines' ability to learn," says Chris. I ask whether the term for this is artificial intelligence. "It's artificial life," says Cochrane.

And could this artificial life take over?, I ask. "Yes," says Chris in his disconcerting way. "No one knows." "And that's why we've got to control these suckers," puts in Cochrane. "Engineers and scientists are responsible people. We've got families too. Most of the catastrophes that come out of science are caused by politicians. The Challenger disaster in the US, for example: the engineers knew there was a risk, but for political reasons they were told not to cancel the mission."

Peter Cochrane is conventional, at least, in being a technocrat with a distaste for politicians. He does a little routine in which he rubbishes the Euro backsliders. "They talk about preserving the currency... This is going to be the only currency of the future," he exclaims, whipping his BT Girovend card out of his pocket. "Politicians come and go, but the technology rolls on."

He now sets out to visit colleagues elsewhere on the research and development site. He is the boss of 600 researchers. The "Development" department is in different hands. The two combined have an annual budget of pounds 270 million.

As we cross a car park, I notice that Professor Cochrane is rather guiltily consulting a piece of paper. "Paper's a good medium," he says, rallying quickly, "it's user-friendly. Do you know the basic difference between a laptop and a newspaper? No one reads a laptop on the toilet." He thinks that books will be with us for a long time yet.

We enter an office in which two young men are working with talking PCs. As we sit down, a computer informs somebody that "you have a meeting in five minutes". It uses the same prototype voice synthesiser that I'd heard in the professor's car. "It's all about humanising the machines," says Peter, "getting to the stage where you can be comfortable with them."

At the core of Professor Cochrane's researches are "a whole bunch of hardware issues". "The basic problem," he says, "is to have a box you can use anywhere, any time, at low cost, that can communicate with any other box." Naturally, the user would be able to talk to this box, and it would talk back. Versatility and portability are the objectives, along with ease of use: a "granny-friendly interface".

At the moment, even the lightest laptops are too heavy, and their batteries run out quickly. In a sense, our terminals are now too intelligent, hence their bulk. "Maybe you could just get away with a bit of memory in the boxes of the future," says Peter. The boxes would be dependent upon mainframe computers back at base for their brain power - a reversion to the situation in the pioneering days of computers.

Cochrane has experimented with many portable formats. He once went on a train with a screen clipped to his glasses and covering one eye. "People didn't like that," he says. "They got up and walked away." A wristwatch- type unit is the likeliest, and Professor Cochrane believes it could be in everyday use within 20 years.

Back in his office, Cochrane nibbles a sandwich (lunch) while conducting a meeting. It seems to be a free-for-all, with the participants airing BT anxieties of the moment. These include the general chaos - otherwise known as free market competition - in the British telecommunications scene, and BT's frustration at being substantially excluded by anti-monopoly regulations from the cable TV revolution. If Tony Blair came to power, this might change. BT could then have the incentive dramatically to upgrade its network, replacing the remaining outmoded copper transmission cables with fibre optic cables. This would facilitate easy installation of a host of services (two-way television, video on demand, pure data services, and so on) into every home. Only then, according to Cochrane, would the Information Superhighway really have arrived.

The famous quid pro quo for this relaxation of regulation (which BT never refers to as a "deal") is BT's promise to connect every public institution in the country - most importantly, schools - to the internet.

Cochrane claims that children interacting with a computer terminal learn "50 per cent faster and absorb 80 per cent more" than when reading books. In terms of computer literacy, Cochrane thinks that Britain is doing "all right". We have more PCs per head than Japan; but we're behind America in internet use. Naturally, children are leading the way - "the kids are go!" as Peter says.

Peter's own children are so go, they're almost gone. He has two grown- up daughters - a pharmacologist and a student of psychology - and two young sons, who are the real prodigies. His 14-year-old is interested in aviation and has, via computer, "flown in every type of aircraft in every mission in every war since the Second World War". He once asked why all wars can't be conducted in virtual reality, so that nobody need be killed. "It was a lovely moment," says Peter, who has a strain of techno hippy behind his sober-suited front.

After the meeting, Cochrane sets off for Essex University, where he is a visiting professor. En route, I tell him that I find new technology intimidating because I don't understand even the basic principles of electronics. "Doesn't matter," he says, "you'd probably have to be a top physicist to understand that pen of yours." He explained that when he was making his own cat's whiskers as a radio ham, he understood every element of the equipment. Not even the boffins can do that with modern technology. They just have to take for granted the electronic "modules" outside their own areas of knowledge.

Cochrane's lecture at the university is about transmission techniques, and is entitled "From Copper to Glass". He shows pictures of telegraph poles from the Fifties with their clusters of egg cup-like porcelain insulators. After a day with Cochrane, they look almost medieval.

Following the lecture, I approach Cochrane to say goodbye. He's not the sort to descend to banalities on such occasions, and he tells me that his father had a working life of 100,000 hours. "I can do what he did in 10,000 hours, and my son will be able to do it in 1,000." This is his purpose: to change people's lives by giving them more time.

But, I ask him, what will people do with all this time? "They'll do new stuff," he says, "they always have done"