Paul Saffo: 'We have willingly made ourselves like tagged bears'

Renowned futurologist Paul Saffo discusses privacy, robots and using 3D printers to create genetically modified meat

Emily Jupp
Friday 27 April 2012 17:03

Paul Saffo is a renowned forecaster who has been consulting with companies and governments about how to respond to large-scale, long-term technological change for more than two decades. He is managing director of Foresight at Discern Analytics and teaches on the future of engineering and the impact of technological change at Stanford University in California.

The personal computer is going the way of the dinosaur. One of the great ironies of the past 30 years is that Steve Jobs, who did more in his life to bring the personal computer to every home, did more in his final days to throw it on the rubbish dump. We are at the point now where the internet is changing the stuff that's connecting to it. We will really count on tablets in the future. What people are doing badly with their smartphones they will do well with their tablets – like Siri [voice-controlled software for iPhone 4S].

Remember the tricorder? The gadget they used to use on Star Trek? Now there is a competition to create one. There is technology that makes it possible. In the future you could get a pocket cat scan which would be interesting for emergency crews. Or a simple device that measures blood sugar levels and your pulse. You could use it to measure health in the developing world.

A couple of times a month I stop and just think "yikes! this is utter magic". You know I did videos about this magical future in the 1980s, like "you just get your phone and check your map" and that's what I'm doing now! But I'm pissed off 'cos its slow... it's taking 30 seconds and I'm annoyed. Connectivity to the web will quickly become like oxygen. If that's cut off for even a minute you're gasping for air. That's why companies such as [content delivery firm] Akamai are crucial right now.

When Scott McNealy [CEO of SunMicrosystems] said about privacy: "get over it," he was probably right. We have ubiquitous sensors and robotics. You've got the mass mounted cameras in London and here in the US, it has been ruled that police can look at location data without a warrant. We have willingly made ourselves like tagged bears. Our behaviour will change – we will always assume that we are being watched.

If I ever claimed credit for a law it would be this: The information you most want to disappear will define you. The stuff you want to preserve will disappear. The pictures of a sweet child will disappear, but those pictures of you drunk in California will be seen by your grandchildren and their children. I've had online chat groups where the moderator just shut it down without asking and we lost 15 years of conversations. So our record on cyberspace is an imperfect record. The other thing is that acts today that persist on the internet will be judged 10 or 20 years from now. For example, Bill Clinton didn't inhale, but I can tell you if you didn't smoke a joint once in a while in the 1960s you didn't have a social life.

We need our youth to make mistakes. I had a phone tap on my own phoneline when I was at Harvard. I was later at Stanford and my teacher thought it was hilarious. I really worry about kids in their teens and twenties, as good judgement comes from experience... we always survived our indiscretions, their bad judgements will be preserved online.

Electronic proximity leads to a desire for physical proximity. We discovered in the Nineties that cyberspace mattered for one reason above all others and that is there's no distance. You are always one click away – which led to people forming companies before they met in person, for example. We have now loosened up that tight coupling between where we work and where we live. A lot of people say that's great, but the more choice you have the more you care about where you live. That doesn't mean we'll all move to the country. I think cities will have an even bigger concentration in the future because you will want the local proximity to your friends. Your job will be in a city and your home will be in a city, but that may not be in same city.

Automobiles aren't cars anymore, they are computers. The only reason they put wheels on is to keep the computers from dragging on the highway. The machines that prove to be the most important in our lives, we'll forget about them until they break. Like the Nest [thermostat], I have one, it is bloody amazing. You know what thermostats are like? They are ugly and they don't work well. These guys designed one that works. It remembers when people are in or out, I can access my Nest on an iPhone or computer and I don't have to do anything really, it just does its thing.

Any particular idea about the future always sounds ridiculous – like having internet in space. We do need a space internet, Nasa is working on it. It's about communications and control. You have multiple entrepreneurial start-ups working the commercial potential of space and China is moving slowly, but oh so steadily, into space exploration.

3D manufacturing is a big goddam deal. It means printing physical objects rather than documents – you can print right now with titanium or metal. If you take a plane today there will be a part somewhere on it made on a 3D printer. When we do get genetically created meat, that is how we will print it. It sounds like stomach-churning stuff, but if you saw animals killed and chopped to pieces and then saw something that looked rather more like a brewery which would you rather have?

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments