IT: you ain’t seen nothing yet

Information technology, electronics and communications is going to be the biggest single sector of the economy for at least the next 10 years. We are within 14 months of the rather artificial cliche of the end of the millennium. Perhaps it is only coincidental that we have just celebrated a century of electronics and 50 […]

Information technology, electronics and communications is going to be the biggest single sector of the economy for at least the next 10 years.

We are within 14 months of the rather artificial cliche of the end of the millennium. Perhaps it is only coincidental that we have just celebrated a century of electronics and 50 years of the transistor. So we could argue that electronics, computing and communications are becoming mature technologies.

But the real information technologies being built upon them are in their infancy; their impact on society is only just beginning.

The next 50 years will be just the start of the Information Age, in which the convergence of many different technologies and the interplay of business and social forces will produce something qualitatively different from what we have seen so far.

Computers and networks are now vital to almost every kind of business and administrative activity: transport infrastructure; telecommunications; national distribution and retail networks; and national and international financial services.

The rapid developments in the information infrastructure are already starting to disrupt the many industries conduct their business.

In the past three years, most enterprises have decided to switch their intranets over to the TCP/IP protocol the underlying Internet language. This adoption of a de facto standard has made it suddenly much easier for one company to interwork electronically with another. It has also increased the scope for small businesses to start and thrive as a result of the common information infrastructure, while for large firms, it is easier to provide high value-added services to global niche markets.

But this sudden simplification of doing e-business is one of the main sources of disruption for many industry sectors. For example, electronic publishing allows printed items to be distributed electronically and then viewed or printed selectively at the point of use. Electronic retailing is about selling physical things electronically. KPMG estimates that within the next two years more than 20% of UK new and used car sales could be conducted on the Internet.

Electronic communications is probably the biggest single factor in our economy and the global economy for the next decade at least. The sector is critically dependent on highly skilled people. The Computing Services and Software Association expects IT service employees to account for one in 20 of all UK jobs by 2003.

In the electronics sub-sector, there are serious concerns about shortages of professional engineers and trained technicians. There are definite signs that UK electronics investments are being deterred or deferred because of problems with hiring staff.

Looking further ahead, over the next 20 years almost everything ever written, filmed composed, performed, painted or recorded will be put into digital form. It will become accessible, potentially, to anyone on the Internet, along with all the rapidly expanding corporate and personal databases. This will be a once-and-for-all transformation with far-reaching consequences for the development of understanding between people around the globe. It will be the true beginning of the Information Age.

But the rate at which we create new digital information will grow rapidly over the next few years. This means that we urgently need to develop new information management and search technologies more effective by orders of magnitude than the systems we have now. With today’s filing systems and search engines, we would drown in an ever-rising flood of digital matter. It will all be in there somewhere, but the chance of finding it when we want to will diminish rapidly.

Also very important are areas such as security, privacy and the electronic underclass, as well as topics such as human and civil rights requirements arising from technology, together with the corresponding duties and responsibilities. As an individual drives, flies, stays in hotels, rents cars, goes shopping and so on, it will be possible to correlate data giving a very detailed account of their activities. We might need a ‘right to fuzziness’ to outlaw such accurate and fine-grained surveillance of unwitting citizens.

Viruses are growing at a rate commensurate with that of the Internet. They pose a serious threat to all those systems on which our society is already hugely dependent.

These technological developments are going to happen whether we like it or not. And like all technologies, they can, and will, be used for good and ill. We must promote informed public debate about these technologies’ implications so society can make informed choices and preparations.

Dr John Taylor is president of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. This is an edited version of his inaugural address, Engineering the Information Age.