F E A T U R E S    Issue 1.02 - June 1995

Experience Required

By Robin Hunt

Caught in his car in a Yorkshire snowdrift, Peter Cochrane showed the stuff that has made him the man who creates British Telecom's future technologies - and thus also a hefty chunk of future communications in Britain. Once the snow settled in, Cochrane spent two hours at his laptop answering the hundreds of e-mails he receives each day (his office communications are, by his edict, all electronic). He also dictated a short article about the likelihood of his one day becoming a cyborg. Then, work finished and batteries depleted, he dug himself out, drove around searching for a motorised snowplough - along the way he estimated that there must be only two in the whole of Yorkshire - found one and followed it to the motorway. He got home at six am, slept for two hours, and was in his office to meet Wired by ten.

From the seemingly inexhaustible energy to the constantly analytical mind - calculating the probable number of snowploughs rather than just cursing them - the whole performance was typically Cochrane. Professor Peter Cochrane BSc, MSc, PhD, CGIA, FEng, FIEE, FIEEE began his career at the Post Office in 1962, at the age of 16, digging holes to run wires through. He earned his advanced degrees part-time, and then, having been such a first-class success, full-time - presumably in roughly the same way he now manages his many visiting professorships. But the day job has become somewhat more demanding over the years. Today Cochrane heads the Advanced Applications and Technologies group at BT's Martlesham research laboratories. With 660 staff (about a tenth of BT's total R&D workforce) and a budget of about £40 million a year, Cochrane's mission is to peer over the horizon to find the technologies that are going to become important tomorrow - when today's technology has already changed the world beyond all recognition.

Cochrane is probably the closest thing that the UK has to a fully-fledged communications visionary. His gospel is part social realist, part Wellsian futurist; his style is a mixture of intellectual gymnastics and Paul Daniels showmanship. What's the key to his creativity? Over lunch Cochrane lets slip the secret: "My equation for life," he says "is L = S+F+T." He grins and then explains: "Life equals sex plus food plus technology."

To say that all this makes Cochrane a controversial figure would be an understatement. First, he is inventing a future for a nation obsessed with its past. Second, and more important, Cochrane's vision of the future already has a profound impact on the present. What BT can now do, what it will be able to do in the future and what it will be allowed to do by regulators are three very distinct things. Yet Cochrane's vision brings all three together in ways that make his more politically-minded colleagues more than a tad nervous. Mention Cochrane to, for example, Dr Alan Rudge, BT's deputy group managing director, and the response is studiously cool: "You have to remember that he is our ... long-term thinker."

Here, then, is a glimpse at the long term according to Cochrane. Taken as a whole, his vision represents a future that might happen if BT is lucky with technology, if the regulators are willing and consumers turn out to have the same sorts of tastes as Cochrane himself. But if the whole is best considered for the long term, the components should be taken very seriously indeed. For Cochrane is creating the technological tool kit from which BT's future will be built. These are the practical possibilities which will be offered to regulators and to consumers as Britain moves into the next millennium. And they are worth getting excited about, for all sorts of reasons.

Are you experienced?

Start with the big vision. Forget the telephone business, urges Cochrane. Forget even fashionable, new information motorways. BT's real future lies in the experience business. As the capabilities of communications networks become greater, the actual business of communication will fade into the background.

The experiences of which BT's future will be constructed might include a football match viewed from the perspective of your team's goalkeeper. Or a doctor's view of an unborn foetus undergoing tests in the local hospital. It could be universal access to the libraries of the world. It could allow us to go on virtual holiday, or to go to work without leaving home. Virtual universities, cinemas, doctor's surgeries, sports stadia, and, let's face it, virtual bedrooms - all, in Cochrane's vision, will be the stuff of which BT's business is made.

Such a vision assumes networks sufficiently powerful to recreate facsimiles of worldly life in our homes or offices (and for that copper wire isn't enough - it has to be optic fibre). It assumes a world where the distinctions between work and play largely disappear; where learning for life - and the many jobs undertaken during life - is natural; where institutions become fluid, disorganised, agile and obsessively in the thrall of increasingly demanding and experience-expectant consumers. And it requires a lot of neat technology.

Some of tomorrow's possible toys were on display at a recent conference, held atop the Post Office tower in London, to celebrate BT's tenth anniversary as a public company. Rudge, for the occasion seemingly happy to wallow in the long term, showed the assembled audience ultrasound scans of a (healthy, fortunately) foetus, transmitted from a Bristol hospital via a BT ISDN line. Other items on display included a surrogate head, that allows an individual to look through eyes that are somewhere else - on top of a yacht's mast, say, in a round-the-world race, or performing surgery in some remote operating theatre. (The first operations assisted by this technology have already been undertaken in Ireland.) There was an automated copy editor (called RoboSub), whizzy new features for the SuperJanet academic network, and interactive services for in-flight entertainment on tomorrow's airlines.

Cochrane's own favourite toys these days are an office that you can wear strapped to your arm, like a grossly oversized wristwatch, and a telephone cell made of cling-film that contains all of an individual's communications' needs - everyone will be able to contact you anywhere in the world, and vice versa, as though making a local call. Although both exist only as non-working prototypes, the gauntlet office, at least, intrigued one of Cochrane's colleagues so much that he tried to send e-mail from it - before realising that it was only made of wood - and thus earned himself a roasting at BT's Christmas lunch.

Ultimately, "the hit rate for these things is not particularly high," admits a pragmatic BT voice. It ultimately depends on what people want. But, one way or another, most of the choices will be influenced by the fertile brain of Peter Cochrane.

The driving force behind Cochrane's vision is the gradual replacement of real experience by virtual experience. Not only are the planet's resources limited, but achieving efficiency in an information economy requires people to fit more and more experience into less and less time. "It costs us over £15 billion a year just to get people to work," notes Cochrane. "This wastes not simply raw materials and energy, but also human time. When I look at the potential savings that the 'Experience Industry' might offer, as a business man I can say I'd like a 10 per cent share of that."

Even for a company of BT's size - sales were over £13 billion in 1994 - a billion or two pounds a year is worth chasing. But it will require all of Cochrane's technological brilliance - and then some.

Communicating experience will require faster, more capacious networks than those now threaded through Britain. "Could you fall in love over a video conference?" Cochrane asks, shaking his head as he thinks of the poor visual quality, the delay in response, the absence of "presence". So all of Cochrane's schemes are predicated on the assumption that BT will find a way to justify the £15 billion investment needed to bring fibre-optic cable to every home in Britain. (BT says that all it needs is government approval to carry video entertainment; the government, fearful of creating a vast information monopoly has so far said no - at least until a review in 1998 - and, more realistically, the OK will probably not come until 2002.

More controversially, Cochrane reckons that BT's network does not only need to be fast to communicate experience, it also needs to be smart. For both business reasons and technological ones.

A smart network can provide inherently more interesting and reliable services than one that is just fast. "What a network does is to tell you where things are, where people are, it locates things. A powerful network means that you don't have to worry about information being lost if one server crashes." And a smart network can simplify the delivery of those services to the consumer, because it requires less effort and equipment on their part. "Do we want to walk around with a 486 and a car battery on our arms, or do we want to be able to access everything at home with a simple machine?" Cochrane asks.

And smart services are valuable services. "The value you have as a company is not in the network any more," says Cochrane, "but in the services, the way they are delivered to the consumer." This value increases, he argues, as the information available to us grows - although to ignore the network, "would be like saying if all the value of a car is in the upholstery and the hi-fi, you might as well take the wheels off. You have to install, maintain and support a network: it will make a minimal contribution to your ultimate revenues, but you are using it as a way to deliver services."

Sounds great in theory. But in practice this is still British Telecom, which has hardly been setting consumers' hearts and minds alight with exciting new products and services over the past few decades. As American techno-pundit Nicholas Negroponte points out, one reason that intelligence is now migrating out of telecom networks is that big telecoms companies have seemed so incapable of doing anything smart with all their resources. The Internet, after all, takes only its raw transmission capacity from the telephone networks - all of the intelligent work, the innovation and the exciting new services are provided by computers owned by universities, companies and private individuals. Closer to home, anyone who remembers BT's own e-mail service, Telecom Gold, will understand just how clueless a big company can be in the face of new technology. This, then, is the hard part of Cochrane's challenge: to invent smart new technologies that will make his dream of the experience industry a reality, and that people will actually want to use. Maybe BT will even make them.

Wacky races

About ten per cent of Cochrane's research budget is "mad money" that is risked on "wacky things" - that will, everyone hopes, become less wacky over time. How wacky? "Well, we started looking at visualisation about four years ago, now it's central to all of our thinking. We looked at body-worn electronics... There's also been a lot of work done with the disabled, people who can only use one toe, or move an eyebrow. In fact, this has had interesting spin-offs. Supposing you could flick an eyebrow to read your e-mail, or answer the telephone. That might benefit all of us, it all depends on whether or not it is socially acceptable. Ten years ago I came up with a telephone you could talk to in your car - we couldn't sell them, people weren't ready; now we can't keep hold of them. Now suppose you could talk to your carphone just by raising your eyelid..."

Cochrane's ultimate goal is interfaces that let people enjoy the benefits of technology regardless of gender, age, disability, or cultural background. "If we don't get an interface that is so kind, so beguiling to humans that they can't resist it, then we've failed. If we put terminals into the home and the office we must have interfaces that anyone from three to 90 can use - everybody. A lay person to a computer expert." One such interface will undoubtedly be human; the network must not only take on a personality of its own, it must also transmit personality and emotion if it is to be the bedrock of the communications industry. Another will be to adopt well-known paradigms of experience, going beyond the desktop metaphor to the shopping-mall metaphor under trial in BT Video on Demand (VOD) experiments in Colchester and Ipswich - virtual bookshops, sports stadia and so on.

To glimpse the future, Cochrane points to the children who took part in the VOD trials. They were ruthless in their pursuit of pleasure, speed and interaction. "Kids like icons with personality, they like it when you approach an icon of a piece of paper and it says: 'hey, I don't want to go into that folder, you've made a mistake.' Most older people have a watching-the-box mentality, these younger kids of five or ten ask 'what will the box do for me; when will it do more?'"

Sheer speed, for Cochrane, is the first essential step in making the network do more. But with speed comes an imperative for tools to help manage all the complexity that networks bring with them. "I am convinced that there is now only one significant priority in telecommunications and computing," he says, "and that is escaping delay. I have a desire for a three click, one second world. If I put delay in, creativity collapses; on the other hand, if I remove all of the gateways and let all of the information in, you are flooded and there is breakdown. Somewhere between the two you get a comfortable situation."

Indeed the complexity which comes over, through and with modern networks threatens to overwhelm us all. "Here's the rub - if the sum total of all our knowledge doubles about every twenty months, if there are 24 million volumes in the US Library of Congress and three-and-a-half kilometres of new books arriving every year... With an ever-expanding field of information, how the heck do I go and access the stuff with a fixed processor that isn't expanding between my ears?" Cochrane asks. "I used to say 'I understand that.' Now I say 'I think I understand that.' As I get older I know more but understand less."

The obvious difficulty in managing complexity, however, is achieving simplicity. And that is something that Cochrane admits scientists are not good at. "We scientists too often bolt spoilers onto ducks when what we are really after is a swan," he says. Which leads to the question at the heart of his research programme: "Why do we scientists still build things of enormous complexity to do simple tasks ... when natural life, such as an ant, can do stunningly complex things with just 200 neurons?"

Cochrane and his co-workers have spent a lot of time thinking about ants recently, because ants offer insights into new paradigms of programming. Instead of the classic goal of artificial intelligence - replicating human decision-making - researchers at BT and elsewhere are trying to recreate the behaviour of more modest intelligences. Feeding, avoiding enemies and building nests may not be intellectually advanced activities - but they are potentially extremely useful. Imagine an info-ant foraging for data on the network the same way that real ants forage for crumbs. And using "genetic algorithms", artificial ants can be artificially bred to create more and more able species. From the simplicity of ants comes complexity and power.

"There are 1.6 million lines of code in the current BT network. Thanks to some artificial-life research we started three-and-a-half years ago at the lab there is a good chance that by introducing the genetic algorithms we have found - evolutionary software is a better phrase - we will reduce the amount of code to 1,000 lines," Cochrane says, with characteristic optimism. "We're already well on the way to a field trial."

At one level this new "living" software will teach the network how to heal itself when damaged, thus removing many of the huge costs of network repair. But these "living" agents will be much more than digital band-aids, Cochrane hopes. At another level, they will be a model for even more sophisticated software which is intelligent enough to guide us through the new networked services of the future with intimate benevolence. And, given a bit of luck, the software may evolve into something better than we can now imagine.

He believes, fundamentally, that evolution - as recreated by computer - will help to speed the design of better software, software that is able to evolve into better software yet. Computer interfaces, the software that translates between people and machines, will have to battle for survival in the same way that everything else will. "There are things we are discovering that we couldn't have without machines. I think one of the most stunning discoveries of the 21st century will be that life itself has got nothing to do with anything other than sufficient complexity and connectivity. Once you've got a machine that is big enough, life will spontaneously burst forth. And that's going to blow people's socks off, because its going to turn over everything they think about life, a deity, or anything else."

The next evolutionary step, Cochrane feels, is the synthesis of human and intelligent computer. He speaks of a third lobe bringing computing analysis to the brain. That way the interface between experience, the network and our visualisation of experience should become seamless. "We will all come to wear the computer, and one day the computer will wear you," he says matter-of-factly.

Excuse me? BT "wearing" me? The people who can't even manage to send a repairman on time? And who charge by the minute? Herein lies the ultimate reason why Cochrane is so controversial. For if in the long term Cochrane is right, and the network becomes the source of much experience, control of the network and control of the individual become intimately intertwined. Cochrane insists that BT doesn't want to run anybody's life. "Remember," he says, "British Telecom doesn't run society. We are creating an industry; we're not in medicine, education, or travel, but we do have a part to play." But he is already thinking about tools to put somebody in control.

Even as he argues that monitoring the Net is "about as futile as trying to regulate the rain," Cochrane also reckons that "global society has some tough technological decisions to make." Then he hints that BT is looking at ways to police the network of the future. "We might have to have a Net police force, a Net driving licence. It's happened a thousand times before: riding a horse, owning a bike, a car. All of them started off with total freedom to do what you like. Once the Net is seen as a threat to society, it will react. The question is the speed of the change."

Indeed, as the network becomes more pervasive and more encompassing, details of the interface will come to determine not just technological convenience, but also social rights. "Do you really think that in the year 2050, we're going to vote on issues of government by putting a cross on a piece of paper? Or be satisfied to sit outside the House of Commons?" he asks. "Or will we expect to be inside, to have a button? And are we all qualified to have a button? I don't know."

For Cochrane, designing the buttons is the challenge; others in and around Whitehall will decide who gets what and how. He knows he's just lucky to have been around and employed in an era when the business of science fiction, and the new possibilities of lived experience, have moved ever closer. He's a visionary at a time when such people are given a chance to be heard. Let him talk for a while and he admits he's not even sure if one day people won't die, moving as we are, he says, from a carbon to a silicon life. As he puts it, "I don't worry about dying per se, but I do worry about dying before my PC is proud of me."

He's ready for the future. But are the men in suits?

Robin Hunt is Associate editor of Wired