Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Talking Science Fiction and Fact With Intel Futurist Brian David Johnson (Video)

We are living in the future
I’ll tell you how I know
I read it in the paper
Fifteen years ago*

It’s been more than 30 years since my favorite American bard, John Prine, sang that lyric, and it came to mind as I sat down today to meet with Brian David Johnson, who is, to my recollection, the first person I’ve ever known to carry the job title “futurist.” And yes, it sounds a little specious, until you find out he works as a futurist for the chipmaker Intel, which certainly has a long-term strategic interest in anticipating the demands of the future well before they happen.

Johnson was a guest today on The Wall Street Journal’s “Digits” program, which I co-hosted with the Journal’s affable Simon Constable. Johnson is in New York to speak at Comic Con about Intel’s Tomorrow Project, which aims to ask honestly what computing may be like 15 or 20 years from now — and the implications for our daily lives.

Think back to 1996 and you probably had some idea of what 2011 would be like. But did you really? You may have had a cellphone, but would you have imagined how much of your daily life would be punctuated by its use, beyond making phone calls? If you were to zap back in time and have a conversation with the 1996 you about life in 2011, you’d probably have to rely on science fiction to get the point across. “You know the communicator and tricorder from ‘Star Trek’? Yeah, we basically have those. We call them smartphones, and they’re kind of a big deal,” the 2011 you might say. “And they’re also the talking computers from ‘Star Trek.’ And you won’t believe who makes them.”

Science fiction makes it possible, Johnson says, to have a conversation about the future, by giving us the metaphors we need to figure out what we want and don’t want to happen. Hence “The Tomorrow Project Anthology,” a collection of short stories set in the future, imagining plausible situations emerging from science fact of today. One volume of the anthology was published earlier this year, and a new one is out now.

What happens, on some hypothetical day in the future, when passwords are easily and readily hackable and all our personal information is more or less available for all the world to see and take and use? That’s what the writer Cory Doctorow asks in his story, “The Knights of the Rainbow Table,” which appears in the new volume.

So these are some of the things that Simon and I talked about with Johnson in today’s closing segment on “Digits,” which you can see below. Enjoy.

*Lyrics from “Living in the Future,” by John Prine, from the 1980 album “Storm Windows.”

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik