“Companies,” says web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, “are increasingly going to be run by computers. And computers are getting smarter and we are not.” The only solution, he argues, is for people to embrace new technology, and accept that some jobs will simply disappear.
Sir Tim is, as he puts it, “in London to think about the future”. Today he will speak at IP Expo, last month he addressed senior technology executives at a dinner organised by digital agency SapientNitro, but the over-riding theme across these and other engagements is data. “Opening up government data I’m very keen on,” says Sir Tim with his usual understatement, “and the release of enterprise data is going to be more important.”
In practice, that means that consumers – within a framweork Sir Tim would like to see better defined – will be able to see more and more of what companies and the state know about them, and both parties to that arrangement will be able to try to extract maximum value. Individuals might more easily be able to see if they should switch current accounts, for instance, while businesses will be able to make more informed suggestions.
But even as data about us becomes more valuable than ever, users still shouldn’t start to think they can get rich by selling the right to access ever more personal details. Facebook makes just $0.60 per user per quarter, after all. “People have got a bit fixated on monetising my personal data and being able to produce some sort of path to get cash back,” says Sir Tim. “But [companies are] really using it in bulk to carry out a brand strategy. In reality the value of my personal data is greater to me than it is to you.”
Still, users can gather up their data to derive new insights about themselves and then put them to good use in a way that is currently neglected: “People feel passionately but I think we’re missing a lot of the value of personal data because it’s stored in these different silos,” says Sir Tim. He points out that businesses have long been quick to realise this value for their own interests. “Enterprises do data integration or they die – if you can’t do a query across the company you die. Companies like Mint that integrate across the financial side of your life but that’s the start.”
“There’s a lot of art about keeping the consistency across silos to allow them to integrate, but in the future you’ll be able to hone going through the system – say you’re filing your taxes it won’t ask ‘what’s this expenditure’ it’ll say this is where you were, this is your diary, annotated with photographs.”
So what does that mean for book-keepers and accountants and a host of jobs, increasingly the white collar ones too, that are threatened by the growth of new technology? What was once a Luddite argument about loss of jobs is being made by an increasing number of sophisticated economists.
“It’s been running forever and yes there’s a problem that say, people who run printers that print brochures, for instance, you don’t need that any more,” says Sir Tim, talking about the inexorable move of avertising to online. “Some things are going to completely disappear and obviously more boring jobs go first. As computers get smarter it’s possible that they start to take some of the things we used to find more interesting – creating drugs, for instance, and certainly for now the boring bits of doing your taxes. The important thing is we find ways for people to do the exciting creative fun jobs that never existed before.”
He emphasises that the need for software developers and the like, rather than being small as it is today, will be almost infinite in an increasingly technologically dependent future. “I think in a way with software if people are interested in writing it, it’s not that there’s a certain amount of software that needs to be written. What you do with it is limited only by your imagination. If your imagination limited, OK. But some of it can be very artistic some of it can be very practical.”
Even in that future, however, humans need to make choices: “You can decide to give a programme access to your contacts and your address book and it can suggest birthday presents, and know what you’ve already bought,” says Sir Tim. “But everything becomes my initiative.”
Unfortunately, it often sounds as though the best ideas are those with the least human involvement: “Don’t think about me using my data, think about a really smart really powerful computer using my data with some interesting apps,” says Sir Tim. “My machine talking to a hospital, saying ‘I don’t know if you know but he’s not doing so much exercise – is that ok?’” He emphasises the new trend for apps and wearable technologies that encourage exercise, even seek to influence mood and put the two together to suggest users might feel happier if they went for a run. “Keeping lifestyle, consumption of bad things in check, those things will be important,” he says. “Maybe it’s just London and Massachusetts and California, but people seem to be eating much smarter. I noticed when we were out walking as a family the kid carrying the GPS was the first to the top – none of this’ are we there yet’ because you can see you’re 58.3% there yet.”
It’s an idyllic picture, even if critics will say walks should be about looking at the scenery not the GPS: a world where people are fitter and less troubled by menial jobs, thanks to the web’s total integration with daily life. “But there’s another movement that’s interesting,” adds Sir Tim. “If you look around the UK it’s largely farmland – some countries have been levelled for large fields, but in other parts of the world people are hanging on to small farms, because they like to have a world in which crops are grown locally by hand, again around Massachusetts for instance. You might start to think of farming more like performance art, where you know the person who has done it.”