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When you’re imagining the real future, only science fiction will do

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Josh Bancroft

Intel's own 'moonshot thinker' Steve Brown says dreaming up stories can be the best way to predict what might actually happen.

Steve Brown is one of an elite band of men and women seeking to change the world for good.

He is a moonshot thinker.

If that sounds like something from science fiction, Brown probably wouldn’t object. After all, he’s not above using sci-fi ideas in the course of doing his job.

Brown is chief evangelist and futurist at Intel. He joined the firm in 1989 as an engineer, and has held a variety of positions at the chip maker.

However, his current moonshot thinker role is to project forward ten, even 20 years, ahead to imagine how technology might transform our lives by changing retail, healthcare, manufacturing, entertainment, and transportation.

And yes, to do so, he sometimes writes science fiction.

Sci-fi prototyping

“We have what we call future casting sessions, where we bring in experts from a particular domain for three days,” he says.

“These could include economists, demographers and ethnographers as well as specialists in manufacturing, consumer behaviour and so on.

“We’ll run through exercises, which include science fiction prototyping. We’ll have them write stories to test out their ideas. It’s fun, but you learn a lot too when you are forced to create characters and put them in the world you’re imagining.

“You quickly realise what doesn’t work.”

Brown reckons this ‘science fiction prototyping’ works well because of the need to make huge imaginative leaps when considering the future. Merely extending the ‘now’ doesn’t work.

He says: “Today’s computing is still relatively expensive. It still costs a lot to put computing in an object and make it smart.

“You have to consider the power supply and thermals and physical size of the computing element.

“But if in 10 years ago that goes away, you can make anything smart. You can put computing into any object. And once that’s the case, you have to think about what you could then do.

“The example I like to give is the smart headlight. A few years ago no one would have thought to put intelligence in a light. It would have been expensive with no obvious benefit.

“But if you make it smart you can change it from a filament and a mirror into a high powered projector. Then you can think about a light that’s always on but which you can aim around other vehicles or even between raindrops.

“It leads to a point where you have to consider that potentially any object in your life could be smart. Except food, maybe. But even then food might come in smart packaging and be presented on a smart plate that presents nutritional advice.”

Ten years ahead

Of course, should such scenarios come to pass, Intel will be the ultimate beneficiary. Chips in everything.

However, Brown’s role as an Intel moonshot thinker is a long way from business development.

Far from it.

“I don’t take purchase orders. I try to be a helpful resource by thinking about long term strategy and by making sure Intel is seen as a thought leader.

Indeed, Brown recently completed a set of projections – for 2025.

“It’s not about predicting the future, but more about defining a road to follow. The future doesn’t happen to us. We build it together. So I promote conversations about what’s possible.”

As stated, Brown is one of a band of prominent ‘moonshot thinker’ individuals whose job it is to imagine the future. The best known may be Google X’s Astro Teller. But there are probably a few dozen working at some of the world’s biggest firms.

So what makes a good ‘moonshot’ thinker.

Brown narrows it down to four qualities:

  • Understand the tech

“You have to know not just how it works but also the maturation cycles – when a technology goes mass market and starts to impact peoples lives.”

  • Understand the commercials

“I speak to a lot of technologists who just haven’t thought through the business implications of their ideas.

“Take self-driving cars. The tech may well be mature in three years, but the business side will have to be worked out. How will the tech be paid for? And if there’s an accident is it your fault? The car maker? The software maker?

  • Understand people

“Moonshot thinkers need to know what people love, what scares them, what inspires them. It’s why we have 100 enthographers, anthropologists, user experience designers and so on working at Intel.

“For an example, I go back again to the connected car: how do people feel about surrendering their safety to an algorithm? I’ve been in a self-driving vehicle and at some deep human level, you feel like the car is possessed, like it’s alive.”

  • Know how to communicate

“In my job you need to be able to tell a good story and not be afraid to stand on stage doing it.”

In many ways, a moonshot thinker has an enviable day job: dreaming up future scenarios in the company of creative people.

But it’s also a slightly odd one. There’s no real career path for a moonshot thinker. No product roadmap. No bonuses for landing a big sale.

“It’s different from a traditional role,” says Brown. “I’m judged on my communcations plus the feedback I receive from planning teams. I get my fulfilment from the intellectual exercise – and from seeing the penny drop when I share an idea or insight.”

Brown says his job is highly collaborative, yet he doesn’t have a team working directly for him; management responsibilities would detract from his ability to focus on ideas.

So does he ever sit alone and just let his mind wander? Well, yes he does.

“I spend a lot of time on planes.”