Gordon Bell is one of the great men of technology. Not only has he invented or participated in much of the Net’s evolution, but now, as a top Microsoft researcher, he has passionately embraced the effort to track himself with tech, augment his memory with images, and integrate himself into the network. Joining Bell in this discussion is Geoff Hollingworth of Ericsson, a radical thinker and exponent of the significance of the coming world of interconnection. Read the full transcript below.
Kirkpatrick: So, we have a legend, an existing legend and possibly a future legend, Gordon—
Kirkpatrick: Well, I’ll tell you in a minute—it’s not total nothingness that I said that—but Gordon, obviously many of you know, one of the great creators of modern technology world we live in, spent many years at Digital Equipment, he’s been at Microsoft for a long time. He’s also been doing some amazing things he’s going to tell us about, in terms of quantifying himself and taking this Internet of Everything back to the person from space. Now, we’ll hear in a minute about some of the things Gordon is doing with his physical body, but Geoff Hollingworth from Ericsson, whose title is network society evangelist #5—
Hollingworth: Yeah, but I want to be chief futurist now.
Kirkpatrick: Well, you’ve got to go back to your office and deal with that. I mean, that’s not our job.
Bell: I know a guy who prints cards.
Kirkpatrick: We could in another context ask who #1 through #4 are, but in any case, we really love that title, just like we love to start a conference with diapers, but anyway—Geoff is a big picture thinker on this, as you will find, and that’s one reason we decided to pair these two guys, because obviously so is Gordon. But I wanted to start, Gordon—I want to get to the health thing, but I hope you’ve been listening to a lot of the discussion so far today. Give your basic impression of what you’ve heard, and I know you said something on the phone about encoding the world, right? Talk about what that would mean, and is that sort of what we are getting at here?
Bell: I think that’s what everybody was talking about—had various aspects, whether it was a network aspect of it, or a machine, or a jet engine, or the media, or whatever aspect. We were talking about lots of pieces of the elephant here, and I think in a way we could have had this talk five years ago, we can have it now, and we can have it in five years, and I’m not sure that things will be that much different. I didn’t hear a single—actually, the first talk I loved because it’s somebody out there trying to change the world.
Kirkpatrick: You mean SmartThings?
Bell: SmartThings. Yes. I love startups. I’ve been involved in about 100 or so of them in the Valley and elsewhere, and so I really appreciate people attacking the problem kind of in the bottom-up way, because that’s what it takes. Once you get enough examples of things working and doing, well then you can actually apply it at large. But frankly, I didn’t hear a single example of, gee we saved this zillion dollars—
Kirkpatrick: So you still think it’s largely hypothetical, what we’re hearing?
Bell: Well, people are trying. I’m sure they’re trying. They’re doing things, and if there are some examples there, it would have been nice to hear them. I get very concrete, you know, I’m an engineer, and so I appreciated the demo. You almost required everybody on the panel to have a demo.
Kirkpatrick: We should, yes.
Kirkpatrick: Next time we’ll do that.
Kirkpatrick: Thank you for the advice.
Kirkpatrick: No, it’s good.
Bell: You know what I mean.
Kirkpatrick: But nonetheless, you have been engaged in sort of experimentation on yourself that is facilitated by rapidly evolving technology, so that couldn’t have been done 10 years ago in the way you’re doing it now, right? I mean, talk a little bit about that also.
Bell: Well this is actually—the first one of these was about 10 years ago. This was a—
Kirkpatrick: You’re going to prove everything I said wrong? Okay, good.
Bell: No, this was—actually Microsoft Research built it, this thing called a SenseCam about a decade ago. I started using it at that time, just to see what the value was, and then this is sort of one of the second derivations of it, and then there’s another device coming out, Memoto, that will be out in the summertime, and then Google Glass. So those things are all part of the project I had been working on for more than a decade, which is how do you capture your life? And so I think that those are one aspect.
Kirkpatrick: And you wrote a book about it called Total Recall?
Bell: Yeah, which is what can you do if you have an on-body mainframe and an on-body network, and all of those kind of things, so I’m very much focused on that sort of on-body, and the on-body platform, which is turning out to be the smartphone. Smartphone is a mainframe for everything now, and as people are putting devices around that, they’re building—I saw somebody had built sort of a small pocket MRI that attaches—there are all kinds of health monitoring devices, and so I think we’re going to see, we’re just seeing a wonderful plethora of this. One of the most fantastic ones was a quad-roader, taking a cell phone and basically mounting it on a quad-roader and that being the pilot. An autopilot.
Kirkpatrick: For a drone kind of thing?
Bell: For a drone. And so basically now, think of what that’s going to do. So we thought we had this technology that nobody else had. So now, basically that’s an open source thing, so everybody’s got it. All you have to do is get four spinning rotors and some propellers and a battery and a cell phone and you’ve got yourself a guided vehicle.
Kirkpatrick: You mean a weapon? Is that what you’re implying?
Bell: Well, yeah, you could use it that way, or monitoring crops, or anything like that. So the company, you know, Dave Anderson has that 3D Robotics, which is sort of a fantastic thing that I’m very fascinated by now.
Kirkpatrick: But you have been measuring yourself—you sort of make it sound to this audience like you’re kind of pessimistic about what’s possible, but I know you’re not.
Bell: Oh, I’m an optimist, and in fact, what I would love to have done—the only time I’m not so optimistic is, I would have loved to have constructed about four $1,000 bets here, from these people who had—the futurists who had, presumably they had their hands on the rudder or on the rotor or something that’s propelling all this, and say, okay, when are you going to do it? Exactly what day is that going to happen? When can I get that date—for example, take a company that has images of bodies and stuff—when will those images all be in some cloud-based form where you can in fact have a market in reading those?
Kirkpatrick: You mean like GE? This is a big business with GE—
Bell: Oh, I wasn’t thinking of GE, but—
Kirkpatrick: Oh, really? Okay.
Bell: The x-rays. One of the duopolies that manages various images, but that would totally transform that whole industry: Instead of selling a $400 piece of LCD for $10,000, then you’d get a whole different structure going there.
Kirkpatrick: Do you think that will happen?
Bell: Why I’m not optimistic is the inertia of people, the businesses¾all of this is tremendously disruptive. You talk about we want to get rid of friction. Where is friction? People. People do not want to be disrupted, and so that, you know, as a technologist, I see that’s really the thing that’s going to limit us, totally going to be how long is it going to take to do those things? Just to implement anything—energy, for example, in your home, that’s a bitch to fix that stuff. I mean, unless you’re rewiring the whole house, then it’s really a large project. And so these things where you’ve got these potential savings, they’re just very hard to accomplish. That’s what bothers me.
Kirkpatrick: Okay. That’s good. Geoff, talk a little bit about your perspective.
Hollingworth: So, we have one of those parrot helicopters, by the way—
Hollingworth: But we only use it for good.
Bell: Oh, okay. Exactly.
Kirkpatrick: I just bought one of those parrot drones for $300 on Amazon.
Hollingworth: So, building on what Gordon said, and let’s spin it into a slightly different context, maybe. Rather than say how fantastic the world is, let’s talk about how compromised today is. And actually Gordon’s point is completely right: it’s people, right? Now your best investment in the business tool, actually, is to get a couple of children. I invested in two of them. They’re wearing out now, because they’re becoming cynical and grown up, and you know, they’re really becoming a cost rather than a benefit.
Bell: They’ve always been a cost center.
Hollingworth: Always a cost center. Yeah, that’s another discussion, offline. But they don’t have these habits that get in the way. So my son was amazing. I mean, we never had TV here, because TV was crap, right? So we always had videos. So then he goes back to his grandparents in Sheffield; he comes out of the TV and he says the TV is crap, right? And that’s because he’s watching broadcast TV, right? To him, that’s broken, because why should it be like that? So it’s almost—
Kirkpatrick: How old is he when he said that?
Hollingworth: He was about four or five, or something like that. So almost, if you spin it a different way, if you go into the mindset of the creation of the obvious and the destruction of habit, right, then you actually remove the people barriers—and children actually are the best people to do that, because it’s obvious what you should be able to do. We drove to Florida; he’s trying to use his tablet. He says, “I don’t”—
Kirkpatrick: Okay, but Gordon is throwing a little cold water on the previous discussion, and I think it’s justified—big companies, easy to spin big visions without a lot of specificity, perhaps. But you’re another big company, Ericsson.
Kirkpatrick: But you do also have the belief that something big is going on here. Could you just say that and let Gordon attack you personally?
Bell: I don’t mind attacking people personally.
Hollingworth: So here’s what I do believe, and I kind of, not as transparently agree with him about the first panel, but I kind of agree with him. It’s a massive change—
Bell: I’m from Microsoft. We’re the underdog.
Kirkpatrick: Yeah, you’re a little company, right.
Hollingworth: It’s a massive change, but it’s a massive change of little differences, right? But those little differences are massive, right? Now, if you want to know a system—I was thinking, is there a precursor to the ultimate system of the Internet of Things that exists today? And I was trying to think to myself, what could that possibly be? Because really the Internet of Things, what it’s doing is removing time and distance, right, and it’s compressing it into almost the self-fulfilling loop. Where if you want to see the vision, then it’s really the financial services market, where there are algorithms—so what are things, right? Things in that case are algorithms, and they’re all betting against each other.
Kirkpatrick: The things are stocks and bonds and futures and—they’re tokens.
Hollingworth: The things are autobots and they’re—
Kirkpatrick: They’re bids. They’re only bids—
Bell: Yeah, they’re financial bids.
Hollingworth: Now, if you take a foot out of that fiber cable, you have competitive advantage against the other person who has another algorithm, right? If you take this vision to the ultimate outcome, it really becomes every system in the world is as efficient as the financial services market. And then you have to ask some of the pretty big questions, right? I mean, you saw when the bots become—
Kirkpatrick: We hopes the consequences on society aren’t quite identical, by the way.
Kirkpatrick: Certainly not in 2008, for example.
Hollingworth: But it’s interesting how that has been engineered underneath the scenes a little bit, without the visibility of this big vision of, you know, the Internet of Things. But it’s a system—
Kirkpatrick: Well, that’s because there’s so much money to be made there, right?
Kirkpatrick: I mean, it’s quicker response time, when you have that kind of return potential.
Hollingworth: Well, it’s the value. The value of the decision versus the cost of the decision is so high, right? And multiplied by the speed. The time it takes to do it. What everyone was speaking about on this panel actually was different takes on systems like that. But to be honest, my son just doesn’t want to wait for broadcast TV, and he doesn’t understand why he should.
Bell: David, I think it’s all coming down to the transaction cost, to get an economist who got a Nobel Prize to do that, but what’s happening is the faster networks, in this case, and in all of these¾it’s can you reduce the cost for transaction? And so—
Kirkpatrick: But you’re not saying you can’t.
Bell: No, I say, no, you will. We kind of know it’s up out there, and so we had a vision that it’s here, but we know it’s going further than that. I’m sort of frustrated by how long it takes to actually get these things to happen. And also, as a kind of computer historian, I’m interested in how they happen. People talked about a one-centimeter sugar cube is probably not bigger than that, but there’s actually a one-millimeter cube computer that you put in your eye to sense intraocular pressure. So, you know, as I was speculating about that, that people are working on those kind of things, and you throw these things around—in fact, one of the companies that I was an investor in was Dust Networks, which was in fact the infrastructure that will ultimately be part of making all of this stuff work—it’s part of the ZigBee thing, where you basically can attach, can build a mesh network for connecting, whether it’s your house or to do a wide area network, where you’re sensing physical environments or the forest or big areas like that. So I’ve been intrigued with that for about a decade. We just recently sold the company, because the VCs got tired of funding it, to Linear Tech, and now I believe it will flourish because they can charge lower prices while the thing develops, as opposed to having to have a very expensive, to have to charge a lot for it in a developing market. So that’s one of the things that’s happening in this whole wireless center networks. A lot of that—and I’ve been working on this for a decade now—is that the time to get the thing to happen and the cost of actually making the network—the only people who can afford that are large companies, and there’s sort of a vision gap there in terms of doing it.
Kirkpatrick: Okay now, but talking to you on the phone, there’s certainly no lack of vision. I mean, could I just get you to say that digitization thing you said? Because I want to get a little bit of positive stuff in before I go to more very negative stuff.
Bell: We’re positive. It’s all going to happen, if you can live long enough.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, I know that. Well, you’re doing a good job of that. You’re doing a good job of it. Geoff, please.
Hollingworth: What we think we’re seeing here—and in the last ten years we’ve built a connected world with 5 billion people—we think this is a much bigger change, because we believe this is the digitization of really civilization, right? So we are recreating systems that are way beyond what happened in the industrial revolution. I mean, the most powerful or the simplest system to understand is one of money and currency. So Turkey is the first country now that’s come out that says they will stop manufacturing physical cash in 2025. Already if you live in Sweden, trying to get a bank to take physical cash, or get cash out is almost impossible. Eighty percent of banks won’t take it, and it’s for the simple reason: it’s heavy, unwieldy, insecure, and inefficient. That’s been around—
Kirkpatrick: And has been replaced with a digital equivalent, or something—
Hollingworth: Yes, and it becomes very interesting at that point. But then you start getting into what is currency, what is cash, what is price? It’s really the agreement, you know, we’ll exchange something for it. That’s always been—I’ve forgotten the posh word for this, but sovereign-based, right? Now you have bitcoin. As long as people accept the value of bitcoin, it works.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, one other thing you said that was really interesting that I want you to get out was this whole thing about the as-you-go model. Just quickly talk about that, and then I want to talk about security, because I promised Jessi, who is now gone, that we would do that.
Hollingworth: So one of the things that we’re starting to see happen is that you can actually start to reinvent what has been standard business practices for a long time, very quickly. The simplest case, the most obvious one, and we brought it up a little bit: insurance and risk management.
Kirkpatrick: Yeah, that was mentioned earlier.
Hollingworth: So, yeah, invented in London, 1690s, right? If you get the actual statistical analysis wrong you’re screwed in insurance, because you’re dead. People did that in 30-year wars and things—
Kirkpatrick: Measuring the risk. Yeah.
Hollingworth: It’s measuring the risk, right? No longer need to do that, right, because now you can actually have units in the car, and actually—
Kirkpatrick: Or on the body, right?
Hollingworth: Or on the body, and you can reward people—
Kirkpatrick: Like he has.
Hollingworth: Yeah. But I feel quite nervous sitting next to him, so my risk has gone up.
Kirkpatrick: He’s got a lot of devices in there that he didn’t tell us about, but anyway.
Hollingworth: Completely changes the risk profile. So now all of a sudden I can completely have a lower premium for people, because I know that they are safer. Safer drivers come to me. It changes the table for everybody else, because riskier drivers go—
Kirkpatrick: Good, thank you for doing that. And you’re saying that an as-you-go model could apply in a lot of other industries. We’re not loaded with time. But one of the things you both talked about to me when we were prepping on the phone was a pretty significant concern you have about security and privacy. So does either one of you want to tackle that? Another thing that you were being quite eloquent about were jobs, particularly you Gordon, talking about when you reduce friction—you hinted on this before: people are the friction, right? So if all these tools do succeed in reducing friction, you have some concerns about that, right?
Bell: Yeah, I think that’s my biggest concern about all of that, because there’s kind of a—there’s been an economist view, and I’ll say thank God there’s finally somebody who’s taken the other side. The economist view is, oh, there’s an infinite amount of technology, undiscovered technology out there just waiting to be discovered, so when we displace these people, we shove in some new ones. These are like light bulbs, you know, you unscrew these light bulbs and put them in over there, because they can still do those same jobs. But I think that’s what my big concern is, that there’s not an infinite amount of physical work to do, and particularly when you get into things like insurance and banking, when I look at that and think, wait, that’s all friction. Why isn’t a computer doing everything there? And in fact computers are beginning to do more and more, that even getting rid of—I don’t have to go to the cash machine now to deposit the checks, and so all of that area got displaced by the fact I just take a picture of a check and ultimately the check—but it shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
Hollingworth: It’s a massive problem, right?
Bell: Yeah, it really is.
Hollingworth: Enterprises in the US are something about $1.3 trillion dollars. They are cash-rich, right? They are not investing it back in, because they don’t know where the next competitive edge is. It’s not in employing more people to do what they did yesterday. So we haven’t—we’ve got a massive enterprise financial growth success, but not the subsequent society growth and employment.
Kirkpatrick: I just wanted you, Geoff, to touch on one more thing, with a sort of a macro-social question that is raised by this whole Internet of Everything, just before we end, because you articulated it well. You had told the story about how you ask an audience a question—I’d love it if you’d ask the thing about the priest, or whatever it was—you know the thing I mean?
Hollingworth: Yeah, no that’s fine. So here is, it’s a little bit of a dilemma, and all my corporate people in the back of the room, I’m only doing this because David told me to do it. So I’m going to paint two scenarios out for you, and I’d like to get some audience reaction. The first scenario is that a service provider noticed that one of its cloud service customers, who happened to be a member of the church, was storing child pornography in its cloud storage. And that service provider told the police, the police arrested that person, and that person was sent to jail for breaking the law. Who thinks the service provider did the right thing there?
Kirkpatrick: Okay, how many people think it was right for the service provider to tell the police about the child porn? How many, come on? Is that everybody who thinks that?
Hollingworth: That was interesting, when you put the lights up, more hands went up.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, so roughly half the people put their hands up. Okay, now go on.
Hollingworth: Okay, so scenario two. I am driving a car and that car is connected by the same service provider, and I’m speeding in a zone, and the car knows that, so it tells the police to issue me a ticket. Who thinks the service provider was right doing that?
Kirkpatrick: Yeah, only one consistent person in the room. Two or three. About five people are consistent. But the point is—
Hollingworth: So society isn’t keeping up with technology. It never does. The legal systems never do. But what’s interesting in this conversation is that we start to come into a subjective space on what’s really a law now, even.
Kirkpatrick: Right. That’s what I like about that example, yeah. I mean, it goes to show, this Internet of Everything, which is going to happen—and even Gordon doesn’t disagree with that—it’s going to raise behavioral questions that are just massive and really start to undermine some of the legal architecture in which we function day in and day out, because that is a very real example. At what point do we want the information that’s going to be widely available to be reported to government, and at what points don’t we? And should it always be or should it never be? And you’ve just exposed how subjective our opinions of that are now.
Hollingworth: What’s interesting, again, it’s habit and it’s comfort. We’re very comfortable living in the world that we live in today. But that’s just because we’re used to it. In actual fact, there’s a lot of inconsistencies and strangeness in the world, but we don’t see it anymore. It’s invisible. What this starts to do is highlight that invisibility, and it will cause social problems. I was amazed that service provider actually reported that, because the one place you want to be is you provide a system, you don’t care what are the people using it for. You can’t be responsible for that, right?
Hollingworth: So, but it was amazing to me that nobody in the media really—I thought this was going to be a storm.
Kirkpatrick: So quickly, we’ve got to wrap, but that resonates with you Gordon, right?
Bell: Yeah. Yeah, that’s the assumption when you bought that service, that in fact that’s private.
Hollingworth: It’s private. Yeah, yeah.
Bell: And by the way, there’s an area that we haven’t touched on yet, which I think is going to be big, and that is—because we were talking about the Internet of Things, but there’s been an assumption that they’re all going to be connected and things like that. One of the things—and I think this is ten years or so out¾is when you have an identity of everything that starts with the manufacturer, as every piece of sheetrock that’s born will have an identity. Everything, and it gets around to what’s the cost of the transaction. So that once you can have an identity, and that can be communicated with, then that’s going to tell you what you can do with it, and it’s going to provide, frankly, all the insurance information, because we can have instantaneous insurance. In fact, there’s a startup company that I’m involved with, it’s exactly—their job is, for people who want everything identified in their home for risk—for the insurance guy, they need to know everything that’s there, because they’re going to come in and claim, “Well I lost the ring, or I lost this wine,” and stuff like that. So all those things have to have an identity. And so I think the identity—I’m talking about the identity of everything—I think that’s really big, and my wine bottle is probably not going to be connected to my art or a fancy camera, or the whatever else I’m insuring, but all of those things, I think there’s going to be an identity, a digital identity of things. Just as I’m doing a digital identity of me and my life, you know, papers and things like that. That’s going to be big.
Bell: We’re going to have that. I’ll be here, I hope, on the panel in five years when we talk about this.
Kirkpatrick: Well, actually we’re going to close today with Facebook, and one of the questions I want to ask is, you know, will our door lock have a Facebook page? I don’t know.
Kirkpatrick: So anyway, unfortunately we got to wrap, but thank you so much, Gordon and Geoff.
Bell: Okay, good. Thanks.