17 Nov Jeff Wacker: Forecasting the technology future
Editor’s note: Corporate technology futurist Jeff Wacker is an EDS Fellow and a professional member of the World Future Society. WTN recently caught up with Wacker (and Bill Ritz, manager of public relations for EDS) at the Wisconsin Early-Stage Symposium, where Wacker delivered the luncheon keynote. Here, then, is Part I of our Visions interview with Jeff Wacker.
WTN: Can you recall some of the technology predictions that were made in 2000 that were considered a lead-pipe cinch, yet did not turn out?
Wacker: In about 2000, we were still going though the throes of the dotcom and all that, and there were still a lot of predictions about the ubiquity of computing, the ubiquity of connections, and that we would close the digital divide. Yet we still find there are quite a few people that are still on the outside of computing, and it’s not the poor. It’s the poor in attitude, if you will, because they don’t choose to become connected.
It should have been obvious because every society has a nice bell curve, and some really want to get on the early adopters and some are the almost anarchists that say “I’m not going to get onboard.” So it was that you couldn’t live without a computing device, you couldn’t exist, and there are a lot of people still out there without that.
WTN: Did that breakdown by a certain demographic?
Wacker: No. As a matter of fact, that’s one of the interesting things – that it’s not broken down by a traditional demographic of age or anything else. It’s more of an attitude demographic. It’s your attitude that allows you to lose your cognitive capabilities, not aging per se. So a lot of it is the attitude gaps. It’s almost like everything else. People have an attitude toward life that yes, as we do have certain age groups that have not been exposed, and therefore you’re going to find a large number of people whose attitude is, “I don’t really want to learn something new at this point in time.” But you’re also going to find that the uptake on connectivity is much higher, as a percentage, in the older population. That’s something you don’t necessarily expect to see. So it is an attitude gap.
WTN: But we keep hearing about how, when using technology collaboratively in the work place, younger people are more tech savvy than the more mature folks, and that creates some issues for CIOs.
Wacker: There is definitely going to be a stratification of many people in the workplace with different skills and capabilities. Part of that will be in terms of when we get older, our eyesight is not as good, our dexterity with our fingers is not as good, so the ability for me to pick up and do the texting with my thumbs the same way that my daughters do is not as good. On the other hand, the manual dexterity from my little fingers is much better than my parents because of the key boarding that I’ve done over time, so you are going to have some of those systemic kinds of changes. But again, some of the youngest people that I know, in terms of approach to change and approach to innovation, are older than I am. Some of the more staid ones, the ones who are resistant to the change, are some of the younger people as well.
Again, they may be more the exception than the rule, but CIOs have to face the multiple capabilities in the workplace. You’re absolutely right that our younger people have been born and raised with this type of capability. I like the saying that technology is something that was invented after you were born. So if technology was already there, it’s not technology for you. It’s the norm, and the kids now were raised in computer environments, whereas the older people had to learn that.
WTN: If you were advising a CIO on how to deal with that disparity, would you tell them to accommodate different people in different ways, or would you force them to do what they are resisting?
Wacker: The problem we’ve had is that in a lot of our IT world, one size fits all. So we have not respected the capabilities as well as the desires of individuals. I’m a kinesthetic learner. Now Bill [Ritz] here, he’s a visual learner. I can tell because he absorbs almost all of his information by reading. If I give him something that has a lot of motion in it, he may be put off by that. Other people are auditory learners. But we still go and we sit at the same PC with the same interface for every one of us, even though it’s not optimal for the way I bring in information and process it.
One of the things that we do see is the “Amazoning” of the business place. When I go to Amazon.com, I get a website that is accommodating me. Now, the content is saying, “Here is what you’ve bought in the past; here is what other books would be.” We’re starting to see that people are going to have to start accommodating the different learning styles and the different modalities of operation of people in the workplace because if you want to get the optimal out of the people, that’s what you’re going to have to do.
In fact, we have some systems that we are now working on. You start out with language, so your language is different than mine. That’s a pretty simple one. You can’t interface if you can’t understand the language, but then how the information is presented is also going to be very highly customized. If you go to our info center, my info center looks much different than Bill’s when he signs on because what’s important to me, how I like to receive it, the context as well as the content, is significantly different. We’re going to see more and more of that as we optimize how people interface with the individual systems.
WTN: Is there a legitimate contrarian view to the almost universally shared belief that technology will continue to change exponentially, or does the competition among technology companies give change too much perpetual momentum?
Wacker: Well, it’s not just the competition between companies that’s driving it. I guess it gets down to basic economics, but we’re all junkies on the exponential curves. When Gordon Moore put his Moore’s Law out there, everyone goes, “Wow, that can’t’ be true,” and then years later we’re living on that edge. Gordon Moore, though, a very smart man, recently said, “Well, every exponential curve comes to an end,” and so the answer is a bit of a mixed one.
First of all, we are going to see a pressure for continued exponential capabilities. The ability for us to pursue those with the same technologies that we have in the past is very, very suspect. They are limited. So as we are seeing, companies are spending more on electricity than they are on payroll as they run their data centers. Google and Yahoo! are examples of that. The ability for us to be able to continue to double the density of the chips is causing us problems in terms of electrical consumption. Consumption is going up three times for the doubling that we see in the density of chips. So there is going to be an end to that simply because the economics say we can’t continue to consume that many megawatts of electric power. So there are limitations.
The good news is that people are already saying there is an expectation for the doubling of capability, and because of that I’m going to then look at alternative ways. So we’re now starting to double the number of CPUs [central processing units] on a core, as opposed to the density on that particular core. That brings on whole new problems because that means that instead of having a faster, single processor for sequentially processing, we’re going to have slower but more parallel processing. One of the things that I do talk about is that if we’re going to continue with our exponential effort in terms of using technology, we’re going to use technology differently. We’re going to use more parallel processing than sequential processing. We’re going to consider how we store and we’re going to consider what we store to be significantly different.
One of the biggest explosions – it’s exponential in a much shorter duration – is the amount of information that is being gathered and digitally recorded. Right now, there’s a United Nations study that believes that we, in the world, will in 2007 digitize about 186 exabytes of data. One billion gigabytes is an exabyte. By 2020, that will be almost a zettabyte – 988 exabtyes of information. Now, going from 180 to 980 – that’s in three years – is a tremendous amount of additional knowledge information and content that companies and society has to absorb.
Now, some of it is the YouTube variety, and you don’t have to absorb that, but a lot of it is also business context that companies are starting to utilize as they move from being a reactive organization to a proactive organization. From waiting for Joe to come on board to ask for something rather than understanding that Joe is unlikely to come on board, so let’s provide him with something proactively, and of course everything that happens also has its down sides. So as I personalize, I have privacy issues, etcetera, etcetera, and etcetera. The exponential that you’re talking about is going to continue, but in different directions.