Gods in the machines to usher in new age of leisure

James Martin believes his 21st Century School can tackle future issues today, writes Melanie Newman

May 13, 2010

Looking into the future is easy, it seems, as long as you understand computers.

As James Martin, founder of the James Martin 21st Century School at the University of Oxford, explained: "There are many things that are logical about technology."

Dr Martin has form as a soothsayer: his 1977 Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, The Wired Society, predicted the ubiquity of personal computers and foretold the rise of the internet.

But despite the book's remarkable accuracy, he insisted there was "no crystal ball".

"I look at the facts and at the logical steps those facts will lead to," he explained.

The 21st Century School, which Dr Martin founded in 2005 with an endowment of $100 million (£66 million), was set up to analyse systems ranging from economic models to human migratory patterns, and to assess the risks and opportunities they present.

He is an Oxford alumnus, and said he believed the university was second to none when it came to complex, multidisciplinary scholarship, which is why last year he chose to pledge an additional $50 million, provided other donors were found to match the sum.

As Times Higher Education reported, the university announced last month that it had met the challenge, having persuaded charities, corporations and individuals such as financier George Soros to donate sums of at least $1 million each.

The resulting $100 million endowment fund will pay for 19 new research projects at the school on subjects including climate change modelling, "extreme computing" and the ethical implications of brain manipulation.

"There's a lot of confusion about climate change and an awful lot of pseudoscience. People are making statements without a sound scientific basis," Dr Martin said.

Oxford will do "a better job than other universities" in establishing the facts, he contended.

Asked to make some new forecasts, Dr Martin suggested that 30 years from now, 80 per cent of the jobs that people do today will be done better and more cost-effectively by machines. That could lead to mass unemployment, but also to opportunity, he said, as people would have much more leisure time.

However, the futurologist, who lives on a private island off Bermuda, is not the first to link technological development with an increase in spare time.

In the 1960s, social scientists predicted that the end of the 20th century would usher in an "age of leisure", thanks to labour-saving technology. People who find they are still tied to the office during their free time by wireless internet access and mobile devices such as the BlackBerry would argue that this Utopia failed to materialise.

Widening wealth gap

Dr Martin also predicted that many jobs would become extremely complex in the future. Individuals would go through intense, lengthy training to do work that no one else could, he said.

"They will command very high salaries and the gap between the rich and poor will become much larger," he added.

He said the problem posed by the discontent that enormous individual pay packets already provoke among low and middle earners may be addressed by the 21st Century School.

"Happiness increased steadily from the end of the Second World War until about 1962 and has decreased substantially since then," Dr Martin said. "How do we change that? It's a multidisciplinary question and you have to understand all the factors involved."

The computer scientist, who has more than 100 textbooks to his name, also said that he subscribed to the theory of technological "singularity".

This holds that as computer processing power increases, a machine will eventually be built that is more intelligent than humans. It will then be able to build a computer more intelligent than itself, and so on.

The subject is already being analysed by staff at the school's Future of Humanity Institute, which is trying to ensure that if and when a "super-intelligent" machine becomes possible, it has a "friendly goal system". Whether or not that point is reached, within the next few decades computers of "unbelievable power" and "infinite bandwidth", made possible through nanotechnology, will radically change the way corporations operate, Dr Martin predicted.

"Corporations will become independent of countries and richer and more powerful than them," he said.

He added that a new economy would emerge, although it sounds rather like the current one: "America, China and India will thrive but the poorer countries will be left behind."

The Oxford Institute for Global Economic Development will examine this phenomenon and inform future debate on how developing countries can boost their economies.

Dr Martin's endowment will also fund the school's collaboration with the Institute for New Economic Thinking, which will focus on economic analysis and policy, including modelling the effects of "large unanticipated shocks" such as the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the US.

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