Brussels, 06 Oct 2003
The main theme of the IST 2003 event held in Milan from 2 to 4 October was 'the opportunities ahead', but few looked as far into the future as the group of experts and decision makers who hosted a workshop presenting a Commission led IST project known as the Vision Book.
The Vision Book project is managed by Directorate C of the Commission's Information Society DG, which focuses on the next generation of information and communication technologies (ICT), and examines how ICTs can enhance priority areas such as health, transport, environment and government.
The role of the Vision Book is to examine the possible futures of these policy areas in order to gain an alternative perspective, and possibly stimulate a quantum leap in conventional wisdom. As the Commission's project coordinator Jakub Wejchert explained: 'The Vision Book is a form of experiment within the Commission, in the same way a concept car design is for a motor manufacturer.' The objective of a concept car, explained Mr Wejchert, is not to be built, but to explore possible future developments and act as a catalyst for change.
The visions themselves will be based on 25 to 30 expert contributions focussing on themes already agreed on following a series of workshops, such as war and peace, big brother, and mobility. The aim is to publish the book itself in June 2004, then invite feedback from key audience groups, including politicians, researchers, industry experts and society at large.
A number of the expert contributors were present at the workshop to give delegates a flavour of the final book. Roberto Saracco is from Telecom Italia's research laboratory, and he presented a series of visions on the future of manufacturing and production.
The last 50 years, explained Mr Saracco, has seen a focus on transforming atoms into objects, but he believes that production processes of the future will rely on atoms themselves. Mr Saracco asked the audience to imagine a future where the majority of products would be constructed atom layer by atom layer according to individual specifications, from clothes and furniture to biological resources such as replacement organs.
Although such visions sound like the thing of science fiction, Mr Saracco stressed that researchers could already grow genetically identical human skin in the laboratory, based on an initial sample, and that books are being downloaded and printed by individual order in parts of the world, as opposed to being produced in bulk in advance.
In a society where such processes were a reality, the production and distribution chains would be changed beyond recognition, and value would swing from products themselves towards the intellectual property behind them, believes Mr Saracco.
Ayman El Fatatry, from BAE Systems, was asked to contribute his personal opinion on how our experience of concepts such as time and war would change in the future. Despite the difficulty of predicting changes in concepts, Mr Fatatry set the context by describing a world of limited resources, increased populations, and more advanced technology in all areas of life.
The advancement of virtual reality will have potentially the greatest impact on our perception of time, argued Mr Fatatry. With technology opening up the possibility of virtual memory implants or time travel, people would begin to perceive the infinite nature of time. Another possibility, said Mr Fatatry, is that technology would be used not to change our quantitative understanding of time, but to maximise the enjoyment and pleasure we get from what free time we have, thus altering our qualitative perception of time.
Mr Fatatry went on to imagine that the wars of the future, constrained by limited financial and natural resources, would be remote and autonomous, a battle for technological supremacy, with knowledge and intelligence the key weapons.
In trying to explain the difference between such future visions and the more accepted process of technology foresight, Mr Wejchert stressed that fundamentally, visions acknowledged the fact that the future is not predictable.
'The Vision Book is not intended to be a formal part of the decision making process, foresight programmes and other activities are already fulfilling that role, this is intended as a complementary exercise,' he said. 'This is rather about opening up decision makers' ways of thinking and giving people inspiration, and in order to do that, freedom of thought is essential.'
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