Here are the tools. Now, how do we change society?

Telecoms and the future
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The future - or at least some visions of it - happens at Martlesham.

An old Fighter Command airfield near this Suffolk village now houses BT Labs, the main research centre for the telecoms company. It is a sprawling array of seriously ugly Sixties and Seventies buildings in which BT's boffins dream up ways to change our lives. For the last few weeks the company has been showing some 60 or so of these new technologies. It was mainly directed to their business customers, but they let me have a look too.

Some will be familiar to people who watch Tomorrow's World: technologies that are just around the corner, or on trial now. For example, you can see how BT have managed to cram a TV signal down a telephone line, or how when you ring a call centre (say, to book an airline flight) you can hook up your PC and see the person you are talking to on a screen. There are other ideas, such as the ability to make a computer model of your home, then buy curtains, carpets and furniture to fit.

But, of course, all new technologies, particularly electronic ones, raise the question: what they for? In some cases it is easy to see a practical application. Traumalink enables an ambulance crew to send a high-quality picture of an accident to the hospital over a mobile phone, so doctors can judge how serious the injuries may be. Norwich and Norfolk Hospital is trying this now. BT also has a snazzy dealing desk which it hopes City firms will adopt, and its own Intranet to enable employees and top management to communicate with each other.

But in most cases it is harder to guess whether a technology will be a winner or, like the videophones of five years ago, a commercial flop. You can do more or less anything you wish with technology; whether customers want it, or whether you can do it at a commercial price, is quite another matter.

That leads to the really big question that these new technologies pose. In what ways will changes in telecommunications and the related technologies lead to seismic social and economic change over the next generation?

I could see at least four really big changes that immensely capable and cheap telecoms might bring.

One is a rebalancing of the relationship between small and large: between, for example small companies and large ones, individuals and employers, small countries and large. For the last few centuries God has been on the side of the big battalions. But cheap, capable communications change this.

For example, up to now education has been top down, with knowledge passed from universities to favoured students who physically attend the university, or with the knowledge accumulated in the research departments of large companies (including, I suppose, BT).

Soon that need no longer be. BT was displaying "education on demand" services, to be delivered to people's homes. The Internet enables anyone with a computer and modem to link into an almost unbelievable amount of information. At the moment the quality is mixed. But it will improve and, more important, search programs will improve, too, enabling people to distinguish the gems from the dross.

This is not just a new way of delivering information. It changes the balance of power between centres of information and users, in the same way as the invention of the printed book. Until Gutenberg's invention there were so few books, that few people needed to read. Soon, finding knowledge on screen will be an ordinary, commonplace activity in the same way as reading is now. But with books there are still barriers to entry: you have to get it published and distributed. There are no such barriers for information on the Internet.

The second seismic change is in the ability of society - if it wants to - to promote order. At Martlesham BT was showing iris recognition. You look into a camera that scans your eye. The iris has 250 characteristics unique to each person, 10 times more than on a finger-print. You could use that "print" of the iris to allow entry into secure areas, get money from a cash dispenser, travel around the world without a passport. It has enormous implications for government - for it becomes possible to track anyone - and, of course, also for civil liberty. Britain could screen travellers at a foreign airport as they boarded the plane, rather than having them pass through immigration at Heathrow. We may not want to pay the price for a more ordered society, but if we do, the tools are becoming available.

The third thing that is entirely new is a change in the barriers in society. Up to now they have tended to be physical - people in one country not being able to get jobs in another, or jobs going to core regions within a country, at the expense of the fringe. In future barriers will be cultural and intellectual: between people who can cope with the new technologies, and people who have cultures attractive to would-be buyers.

For example, we still think of countries as being developed or less-developed, though that distinction is already becoming pretty meaningless. It will have even less meaning when you do not need to know where the person to whom you are talking or from whom you are buying a service is physically located. Book a flight on British Airways in the evening, and you will be talking to someone in America. People who work on screen will not even need to live in the same country in which they work. But what they will need are the education and languages to carry out the service.

Finally, I think (and hope) that these new technologies will bring to service industries the same sort of productivity increases that economies of scale in factories have brought to manufacturing. The great rise in our standard of living over the last two centuries has been driven by increased productivity in agriculture and manufacturing. Typically, manufact- uring productivity has risen by 3 per cent a year. But manufacturing (and to even a greater extent agriculture) is too small to have much effect on living standards. If we really want to improve those, we must achieve similar advances in the 80 per cent that is not manufacturing.

The real driver in increasing productivity here has to be these new technologies - we have to find ways of using skilled people more efficiently, and using less skilled people to deliver high-quality services, too. This is not gee-whizz stuff; it is the slow slog of applying best technology to produce better services more cheaply.

That is maybe the most important message of Martlesham - not the futuristic kit, but rather the hope that new technologies will do for services what past ones have done for manufacturing: to enable companies to make services better and cheaper.