Richard Watson on The Future, Automation and AI

I did a talk at the University of Northampton Business School last week, but before I started I spoke to John Griff at BBC Radio Northampton. The funny thing was that while I’d been told about this well in advance I’d totally forgotten. Hence zero preparation on my part. But guess what, because I didn’t prepare anything I didn’t obsess about what I was going to say and therefore didn’t screw it up (also due to an excellent interviewer that asked some good questions and put me at ease btw).

One of my more intelligent interviews with a great ending…

BBC iPlayer….(spool on to 1 minute 15 seconds)

Time to Reclaim the Future







I’d like to let you in on a little secret about the future, which is that there isn’t one.

Instead there are multiple futures, all of which can be influenced by how you, me and we choose to act right now. Moreover, how we imagine the future to be influences present attitudes and behaviours, much in the same way that our individual and collective histories help to define who we are. Put in a slightly different way, both past and future are always present.

But many people can’t see this. For them the future is something that just happens. It cannot be influenced. Increasingly, the future is also something that people fear, not something they look forward to. This is especially true in parts of the US and Europe.

This wasn’t always the case. The 1950s and 1960s were generally periods of great optimism, especially around technology. Even during the 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s, the future was generally thought to be a good thing. It would bring more of whatever it was that people wanted.

But this view changed very suddenly. We were expecting trouble on 1 January 2000, but it was not forthcoming. Our computers still worked, our trains still ran and no planes fell out of the sky.

But then, on 11 September 2001, some lunatics armed with nothing more than a strong idea and a few feeble box-cutters flew two planes into the Twin Towers. On this date a number of Western certainties collapsed.

Or maybe the date was 9 November 1989. This was the day when the Berlin Wall fell down. This was meant to be a good day, an opening up of freedom and democracy. But it soon became apparent that two empires waged in a war of words on either side of the wall had meant certainty for almost half a century.

Whatever the precise date, it seems that many people no longer believe in the future. Indeed, many people seem to have fallen out of love with the very idea of progress – the idea that tomorrow will generally be better than yesterday.

Back in the early 1970s, Alvin and Heidi Toffler wrote a best-selling book called Future Shock. In it the authors argued that too much technological change, or at least the perception of too much change, over what was felt to be too short a period of time, was resulting in psychological damage to our Stone Age brains. The Tofflers also placed the term ‘information overload’ into the general consciousness.

In many ways, the idea of future shock is similar to that of culture shock. Both refer to the way in which individuals feel disorientated and to some extent powerless as they move from one familiar way of life to another. In the case of culture shock, this usually refers to the physical movement from one country or culture to another. In the case of future shock, we might use the term to describe our shift from analogue to digital culture or from a period containing what were thought to be fixed truths and geopolitical certainties to an era where boundaries are more fluid and nothing seems to be very certain.

The rapid change argument is certainty plausible. Adherents to this argument could cite Moore’s Law in the case of computing or rapid developments in synthetic biology, robotics, artificial intelligence or nanotechnology – or perhaps the breathless expansion of social media – as evidence for their case.

But was it not ever thus? The Internet, a fundamentally disruptive technology, can be compared in terms of impact with the rapid development of the telegraph, railways or even electricity in Victorian times. In fact I met an old gentleman not so long ago who was defending the erection of a mobile phone mast. Apparently, there was a similar fuss when the streetlights were first put in.

As for recent developments in the Middle East, history does seem to repeat itself, often as tragedy and sometimes as farce, as Karl Marx once observed.

Many things are indeed changing, but this has always been the case. Moreover, many of our most basic needs and desires – for example our quest for human connection, our sense of fairness, our need to belong to a community and our love of stories have hardly changed.

We still eat. We still drink. We still fall in and out of love. We still watch movies. We still listen to music. We still wear clothes and wear wristwatches. Actually I’m not totally sure about that last one. A friend of mine told me that he’d recently given his twelve-year-old son a watch for his birthday. The kid looked rather perplexed and asked why his father had given him a “Single function device.”

But I don’t think that the Swiss watch industry has much to worry about. Indeed we have been here before in the late 1970s when watches first went digital. People in the industry initially panicked, but then calmed down once they realised that people don’t buy watches just to tell the time.

Indeed, focusing purely on logic sometimes misses the point in the same way that focusing on technology at the expense of psychology can get you into a whole heap of trouble.

There are also cycles. I’m old enough to remember not only bicycles, but also beer and cider and a host of other things ranging from butter to bespoke suits being written off one moment and being reinvented and reinvigorated the next. As someone once said, there’s no such thing as mature industries, only mature executives that think certain things are impossible.

So why is pessimism about the future all the rage? To a great extent this is a Western phenomenon. If you speak with people in Mumbai, Shanghai or Dubai about the future there is generally more optimism on the streets. But even here there are worries surfacing that relate to everything from rapid urbanisation and income polarisation to water security, food prices and pollution. Fear of change, it seems, is increasingly universal. Why could this be so?

You might cite globalisation. Globalisation has brought many benefits, but as the world flattens and becomes more alike, cultural identity is coming more important. Indeed, the more globalised the world becomes, the more the local seems to matter and the more that historical differences come to the surface.

A loss of cultural identity could be a reason for the unease. But there are many other contenders. The economy is another potential culprit. One could also mention the number of people living on their own, the fear of unemployment, the blurring of work and home life, the breakdown of marriage, the decline of trust or the general acceleration of everyday life.

It could also be due to the (supposed) Wane of the West – the idea that the American and European Empires are falling while those of China, Russia, India, Brazil, Africa and others are all on the rise. These are all credible explanations, but I don’t think that any, or all, are quite right.

I would like to suggest an answer in three parts.

First, I think we are anxious because we are indeed exposed to too much information. The Toffler’s were right, they were just 40 years wrong.

What you don’t know can’t hurt you as they say, but in a digitally connected world everything, it seems, is visible and therefore everything has the potential to hurt or to embarrass you. Reputational risk is everywhere, not only for institutions but for individuals too.

I am not only referring here to privacy and the immortal nature of digital stupidity. I am also pointing towards cyber bullying, data and identity theft and a world in which we are all being watched, not by Big Brother, as Orwell predicted, but by our own social networks. These networks claim to be connecting us, but in so doing they never leave us alone and never allow us to be our real selves.

Second, I think we are anxious and worry about the future when we haven’t got anything more serious to be concerned about. Hence we imagine risks that barely exist or blow the risks that do exist out of all proportion. We indulge in self-loathing for similar reasons. As a species we have achieved a lot over the last few thousand years. If you look at almost any measure that matters – numbers ranging from infant mortality and adult longevity to literacy rates, extreme poverty, access to education, health, the number of women in education, the number of women in the workforce or the number of people killed in major conflicts we have rarely had it as good as we have it today.

But we don’t see this. What we see instead is the idea that progress itself has somehow become impoverished.

The popular view is that although technology and GDP have advanced, morals and ethics are treading water or, depending on your choice of broadcaster, are sinking back into decadence or barbarism. I would suggest that the reason for this has something to do with our own megalomania, our own sense of importance. I think it also has something to do with a lack of purpose and narrative, which brings me onto my third and final point.

I believe that the reason so many people around the world are anxious is because they can no longer see what lies ahead.

Back in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, people believed that the future would be a logical extension of the present. They were wrong, deluded in many instances, but this hardly matters. What does matter is they had something – and it really could have been anything – to aim for and to orientate around.

But now we no longer believe in such things. Outside of a few pockets of massive wealth and/or techno-optimism, we have somehow fallen victim to the idea that the future is something that just happens to us. Something to which we can only react. Something we can do nothing about.

But this attitude is nonsense. The only thing we know for certain about the future is that it’s uncertain. And if it’s uncertain there must be a number of potential outcomes, a number of different ways in which the future might unfold. And all of these futures can, to a greater or lesser extent, be influenced by what we, as individuals and society, decide we want.

This, if you’ve not figured it out already, is intimately connected with leadership and to some extent innovation. In both cases an individual, or sometimes a small group, has a vision of a world that they’d like to see. This individual, or group, then creates a compelling story, a vision if you like, and convinces others around them to join them on a journey.

And that, I suppose, is the challenge.

Yes, we should all be aware of the drivers of change at both a global and local level.

We might, if we are not doing so already, consider the potential impacts of ageing societies, water and other resource shortages, climate change, the changing nature of influence, the impacts of re-localisation, the growth of more sedentary lifestyles, the shift from paper to pixels and its impact on understanding and the digitalisation of both friendship and community.

We should also imagine what various futures might look like and consider how we’d react if certain futures unfolded. We should develop a scenario for a world that turns out much better than we currently expect. We should also create a scenario for a world that gets much worse than we expect. We may even want to build a scenario for a future that turns out far weirder than we expect.

But fundamentally we need to make a choice. We need to decide, as individuals, organisations, nations or indeed the whole planet, where it is that we want to go next and start moving in that direction.


Foresight books


Nice to have Future Vision (published last week in the UK) as book of the month for June at Foresight books. Here’s what they had to say:

“These Worldview Scenarios are written in informal style, especially contrasted to the sober style of The Economist, which pretty much confines its vision to the …. Of scenario of successful technology. ‘Watson and Freeman provide numerous wild cards, possible game-changers, and imaginary events for a lively read.”

Future Vision (Free Download)

It occurs to me that this blog is, officially, The Diary of an Accidental Futurist, so in theory it is not totally out of order to occasionally say what I’ve been doing. But before I do that, here’s a link to a free download (first 40 pages) of my new book, Future Vision, which is published in the UK next week.

So where’s Wally been? I’ve been meeting some interesting people, all of whom have in some way informed my thinking about how the future may unfold and will doubtless appear in a book someday. Last week it was a Brainmail reader, who turned out to be an Israeli diplomat based in Jerusalem, with whom I had a discussion about the US/China/Russia and the meaning of G-Zero, replacements for the Westphalian State, the implications of technology, whether geographical divides are still relevant and water.

This week it was a wonderful London Business School Professor, ate an omelet and had a discussion about art, ethics, smoking and the joy of just thinking. I’ve also been talking with Lend Lease about gardening and thinking (and corporations as biological systems rather than machines). Pretentious, Moi?

I’ve also been visiting Imperial College London learning more about synthetic biology, energy storage and autonomous vehicles. If you are interested, there are some good (short) videos from Imperial on these and other subjects here. Finally, I’ve been in my writing zone and managed spit out an article on Five Jobs for the Future for this weekend’s edition of the Guardian.

Image: (check out the TV with 21 channels!)

1970-2040 Timeline

Yes, that’s right, a timeline for a period of history that hasn’t happened yet. This visualization is now done and I should have a URL for a high-resolution file version in a day or two (I’ll blog with the link as soon as it’s available).

The timeline is based in some of the thinking contained in my new book, FutureVision, and the point, I guess, is that the future forks. We think we are heading in one direction when suddenly reality changes direction. The events of 9 September 2001 might be a good example.

When available the high-resolution timeline will be best printed A3 colour.

Future Vision – Interviews & Reviews

There’s been a flurry of activity on the review front over the past week in Australia. So far we’ve had reviews in The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Canberra Times and the Australian Financial Review. Looks like I’m doing a radio interview with Geraldine Doogue on ABC Radio on the 23rd November too.

Here’s a snippet: “What will the world look like in 2040? Watson and Freeman (in what often reads like a particularly slick business lecture, but which also draws on such diverse sources as E. M. Forster and Blaise Pascal), acknowledge that any single prediction about the future will, more than likely, be wrong. Probability and chance make a volatile mix.”

Not sure about the slick thing. I thought we were just being ourselves! Attached (with a bit of luck) is an audio file with Oliver doing an interview with John Stokes for ABC Coast FM (Queensland). OLIVER FREEMAN to air (14-minutes long).

BTW, tomorrow I’m going to blog some tricks and tricks for building scenarios.

Future Vision: Book launch in Sydney

Just in case you are in Sydney and would like to attend the launch of Future Vision it’s happening at UTS Business School. Details and link are below. I am in London I’m afraid and will not be attending. However, my co-author, Oliver Freeman, will be there and, I’m sure, say a few words.

Date: Wednesday 28th November
Time: 6pm-8pm
Venue: UTS Aerial Function Centre, 7/235 Jones Street,  Sydney, NSW
Cost: Free, but places are limited and RSVP essential
RSVP: Please register below by Friday 23th November

Strategic shocks: 10 game changers for 2040.









More free stuff! One of the ideas that my co-author Oliver had for the book (Future Vision) was to end with a series of strategic shocks. This was actually a book idea I had way back – ‘5 Ideas to Turn the World Upside Down’, but it works quite well in condensed (or is that expanded?) form here I think. Here are 3 of the 10…

The Second American Civil War
Don’t say we weren’t warned! Bruce (The Boss) Springsteen’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ anthem ‘we take care of our own’ and the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement hinted at what was coming. The nascent failure of US capitalism to deliver the American Dream has created the great divide. In the blue corner, the tea-party traditionalists and the do-what-is-good-for-me democrats and in the red corner, everyone else who have been persistently marginalized and exploited to pay for the extraordinary US global debt and the failure of ‘small’ government to protect its citizens against ‘natural’ phenomena like hurricanes, flooding, bird ‘flu and the hell-bent erosion of the country’s natural assets leads to what is effectively a ‘Balkanization’ of the US.

Bird ‘flu pandemic kills 500m worldwide
It started innocuously enough. Well, not really as nobody had been inoculated against this strain of bird ‘flu. We learned later that the fatal construct was an illegal cock-fight in the Canary Islands when of all places where local canaries were being pitched against saffron finches from the Amazon. One of the bird owners became contaminated after receiving scratches from both species. And the incubation period; well it was a lightning 48 hours. Of course, all of this needed something else. Unfortunately the owner was a big rock and roll fan and hopped on a plane immediately after the fight to join 100,000 young kids at Shay Stadium where an ageing Lady Gaga was performing on her ‘Really Ga-ga’ tour. The rest, as they say, is history.

The moon becomes a colony of China
This is a reprise of the moon landings of almost 80 years ago. Space Race 2 has been between Russia and China and burst into life when the Russian Space agency, Roskosmos, announced a manned mission to the Moon in 2035. The US had long given away any interest in Moon landings but it was the Chinese through their Agency – the CNSA – who were the challengers. Their Long March programme was more than a wish to lead the world in the science of manned space travel; it was also a push to lead the world in extra-terrestrial colonization.

Peak oil and peak everything makes the search for new sources of raw materials – and indeed new materials – a critical requirement. Get in first and the cosmos is your oyster.
On 1 April 2040 Zai Zigzag in Shenzhou 21 blasted off from Jiuquan Space Launch Center in Inner Mongolia with his crew of 11 and just 7 hours and 24 minutes later, the five yellow stars on the Chinese national flag were fluttering in the moon breeze at the top of Mons Huygens. The earth’s satellite was now a colony of the Chinese.



Judging by the recent jump in subscribers to the blog some of you seem to like free bits of my new book so here’s a tiny bit more – an overview of the 4 scenarios upon which the book is based. The visual, by the way, is a new map to go with the book (A timeline history of the world 1970-2040). More on the map very soon.

Scenario 1 – Imagine
This is a world where people are fully aware of the threats to the future such as climate concerns, but have an unshakeable belief in the power of science, technology and free markets to make life better from one generation to the next. It is a mind-blowing new world of technical challenges and radical inventiveness and re-engineering where everything is connected to everything else.

A fast sci-fi world of genetic manipulation, avatar assistants, virtual buildings, robotic soldiers, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, moon hotels, nanotechnology and geo-engineering, all ultimately driven by and reliant on free market capitalism. Clean technology is booming, especially nano-solar, fusion power is coming online and food and water shortages have both been addressed by the smart use of technology. Automation means that everyday life is accelerating while digitalisation, virtualisation, miniaturisation and ubiquitous connectivity mean that whole industries are being turned upside down and people are starting to question what reality really is. Fundamentally it is a world driven by human imagination and inventiveness.

Overall, the speed and depth of change is quite breathtaking. The Internet, for example, looks nothing like it did in 2012. This exponential change makes some individuals, especially older people – of which there are now so many – rather anxious, particularly when systemic risks and cascading failures emerge. But overall life is good, although in most instances it’s no longer life as we would know it today.

Scenario 2 – Please, Please Me
This in many ways is the familiar world that we had become so used to during the Long Boom (1991 – 2007) prior to the global events of 2008. It is a world of economic growth, free markets, individualism, consumerism, selfishness and self-indulgence where people work harder and longer and where greed and status remain key – and unapologetic – drivers of much human activity. It is a world of money where successful people, especially celebrities, are envied and copied by followers worldwide. It is a world of luxury, displacement and detachment too – for those that can afford it. The past is increasingly irrelevant in this world. Which celebrates newness and novelty and delights in planned obsolescence, over supply and over consumption.

One significant development is the dominance of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India & China) and N11 (Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Turkey, South Korea, and Vietnam) economies, especially the emergence of an endless stream of cutting edge technology companies from these markets.

In short this is a world that’s all about me, myself and I. A narrowly focused narcissistic world where it’s everyone for themselves and to hell with the consequences for everyone else. It is a world fundamentally driven by greed that, some might argue, has lost its way by confusing rapid movement with meaningful progress.

Scenario 3 – Helter Skelter
This is a world where a series of unexpected events create a general feeling of fear and fragility. The impact of climate change, the implosion of global financial systems and institutions, cyber crime, soaring food costs, high taxation and the ever-growing disparity between rich and poor mean that most people turn their backs on the notion of a single global economy. A few people with money remain relatively engaged in the global information economy, yet live in gated communities or areas with private security. Those with much less, especially those with no job, no money and no prospects are angry. They feel betrayed by the promise of globalisation and withdraw both physically and emotionally. The promise of free markets and democracy fade and people all over the world rediscover an angry appetite for parochialism, protectionism and regulation; concepts they themselves describe as a healthy self sufficiency.

It is a world running on empty where global politics drifts rightwards, nationalism and tribalism re-emerge and globalisation and localism are uneasy bedfellows. Ultimately it is a world driven by fear.

Scenario 4 – Dear Prudence
In this future people are alarmed about the health of the planet and especially the pervasive influence of materialism and individualism upon their lives and have therefore decided to take personal responsibility and do something about it. This is a world of sustainability and switching things off, of buying less stuff and seeking to reconnect locally with the simpler pleasures of life. It is a world where many things go backwards in a sense and one where ethics, values and reputation really count. Overall, most people are surprisingly happy – a “dark euphoria” Bruce Sterling once called it. This is partly because peoples’ lives have become more balanced and partly because there is a strong sense of common purpose. “Altogether now”, “less is more” and “You can help everyone, everyone can help you” are popular slogans. It is a pessimistic world, yet one that retains a degree of hope.

BTW, the book is out in Australia as an e-book and paper version but the p-version is almost impossible to get in other countries at the moment. It is coming out in China and the UK soon. If you really want to buy a paper version get in touch with myself, Oliver Freeman in Sydney (via Futures  or Scribe Publications in Melbourne.

Link to the e-book on Amazon.

Link to Penguin Australia (hard copies).

Future Vision – first review

The first print review of Future Vision is out and it’s good. Only thing I’d argue with is that I would say it’s written by 1.5 Australians and not just one.

“In the year 2040, shops will talk to you before you even enter them. Your reputation will precede you like a criminal record and the world you move through will be covered in smart dust.

If you want to know more about what life will be like in 2040, this analysis of four major scenarios (ranging from the cautious to the downright alarming) by two futurists (one of them Australian) identifies all-too-plausible possibilities.

Highly readable, entertaining, thought-provoking and full of informed forecasts it would be foolish to ignore.”