Born in a small village in Leicestershire, James Martin studied physics at Oxford, served in the British Army and joined IBM as a systems engineer. Today he is considered one of the world’s most respected authorities on the impact of technology on society. Martin is a physicist turned futurologist, with honorary doctorates from all six continents and a Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science. His ideas have influenced businesspeople, policy-makers and academics around the globe.
Author of Pulitzer-nominated The Wired Society, published in 1977, Martin foresaw the rise of the internet more than two decades ahead of its time. His second best-seller, The Meaning of the 21st Century (2006) deals with a future scenario of extremes, and is intended to raise awareness about the biggest challenge humanity is yet to face: the survival of civilisation.
Martin argues that, as we embark on the 21st century, we bear an enormous responsibility and that we can ‘make it or break it’ depending on how prepared we are to ride the forthcoming tsunami of massive population growth, scarcity of resources and immense technological advances – and dangers – that will transform our lives beyond recognition. He firmly believes that educating a generation of young people today and preparing the ‘transition generation’ to cope with the biggest changes in the history of humankind is imperative for our survival. With this aim in mind, in 2005 Martin donated $100m to Oxford University to set up the James Martin 21st Century School, and matched a pledge for a further donation of $50m last April. We talk to him about the role that science, superhumans and academia will play in our common future.
Sublime: What sparked your enthusiasm when you were young?
James Martin: I came from a very poor family in a village in England. My parents declared me useless, and my father suggested I become a postman. After all those years I got a part in James Ivory’s The City of Your Final Destination, the first person to appear right after the credits … and I played a postman!
From the village school I gained a scholarship to Oxford. Afterwards I had to go into the army – those were the days of military service – and I was based in Cyprus. Then I joined IBM in London, and they sent me to America, where the big discussions about advanced technology were taking place. It was so different from England … In Britain, at that time, you still had to be careful how you talked to people. Levels of power, or aristocracy, were still in place, whereas in America you could call anybody by their first name, no matter what position they held, and if you had something important to say you’d immediately have a conversation with them. Management were responsible for that. I got invited to spend a day completely confidentially with the president of IBM international, who was the kind of figure people were terrified of.
S: When was this? How old were you then?
JM: It was 1962, I was 29. He picked Boxing Day, so on 26 December I spent the whole day in his office and he grilled me on things I’d been talking about and which he didn’t quite understand. Such as the idea that we could have computer networks connected to the telephone and computers communicating online with other computers. I’d been saying that was going to change the world, and he asked me, ‘Will it really change the world, or are you talking nonsense? And if it does change the world, what role will IBM play in it?’
S: Was that the beginning of discussions about the Internet?
JM: The Internet didn’t exist at that time, so it was essentially about networked computers. The first applications of computer networks were for the military defence system. The Cold War was at its height, and there were fears that missiles might be heading for the States. IBM developed a system called SAGE (Semi Automatic Ground Environment) which used a series of large computers to coordinate the message flow from radar sites to interceptors, dramatically reducing the time needed to direct an attack on an incoming bomber. They had big spheres with radar systems inside on mountain-tops, and all of these were supposed to be connected by telecommunications to computers which could give warnings of Soviet attacks. That was the start of computers connected through telecommunications. The first commercial system we developed was for American Airlines, and I was a programmer on a passenger reservation system called Sabre, which is now a global industry standard. Then I got sent back to Europe and was based in Paris developing IBM proposals for different organisations.
S: In those days, did you ever imagine that technology would develop at such a pace?
JM: Things which change humanity can often start in a simple way. The first computer was extremely primitive indeed. Breaking down all the time, totally unreliable, nobody could have guessed that was the beginning of computerisation as we know it. The first network too had a simple beginning, and today there are things at that stage, but which undoubtedly are going change humanity.
S: What developments are at that stage now?
JM: Stem-cell technology is one, and it will change medicine in a big way as it is used to repair faults in humans. For example, if you had a heart attack which might have killed you, you’d be able to rebuild the heart, creating new heart tissue.
One of the most interesting subjects of study for young people in the next few years will be neuroscience. As we acquire the capability to photograph and map the human brain there will be all sorts of ways to improve it – to stop people having depression, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Very often these things start by being developed for medical purposes.
Combining stem-cell research and genetic modification is another. Today people say you can’t genetically modify humans because they’ll pass their genes on to your children, for ever, and things are going to go wrong. You don’t want to have things that go wrong being passed on to your descendants. But we’ve now discovered that we can insert a 24th chromosome into the body. Every human being has 23 pairs of chromosomes, and it’s very easy to insert a 24th. You can put any genes you want into that chromosome, but it won’t ever be passed on to your children. Stem-cell research makes the genetic modification of humans an acceptable thing to do.
It’s not going to be long before you’ll have people saying, ‘I couldn’t give my daughter blue eyes …’ ‘Can I make my son more intelligent? Is there anything I can do with his genes that will make him a better, more capable person?’ We’re around the time where we will be ‘enhancing’ human beings.
Computers will get immensely powerful – you might say we’ve seen nothing yet. In my opinion, we’re at the early stages of Transhumanism – transforming the human being through the capacity to connect electronics directly into the brain. We will soon have non-human-like intelligence (NHL) capable of ‘breeding’ its own programming software; nanotransponders which are implanted into our brain cells through our bloodstream and which allow wireless communication with all sorts of electronics inside and outside of our bodies, and brain-to-brain communication with other human beings and with the Internet …
S: What do you think of The Singularity – when computers become more intelligent that humans – and how do we prepare for it?
JM: It’s exciting, I don’t feel scared. When computers first become more capable than humans, there may be an explosion of intelligence far beyond anything that humans can understand or control. Most writers about The Singularity paint a dramatic image of runaway intelligence happening very suddenly, with humans having no idea how to control it. I don’t really believe in this doomsday view. It won’t be one transition but numerous transitions, which will occur in different areas at different times.
The Singularity is an inevitable consequence of computer intelligence feeding on itself. Computers will become increasingly successful at imitating aspects of human intelligence, and this will help produce systems that enable humans to use deep NHL intelligence when it reaches the Singularity level. Computers will become really interesting when they become intelligent, but since computer intelligence is so different, we’ll need a close synergy between the two.
There’s a lot of nonsense talked. In order to understand the future you’ve got to understand what is possible in engineering. Science has always been surrounded by a lot of stories: flying saucers, UFOs and so on, at certain points in time. Now, with The Singularity, people are talking about being able to download the brain into a computer so that your being, your consciousness, your soul, will exist in electronic form.
S: A version of yourself outside yourself?
JM: Yes, that’s right. People like Roger Penrose say this is absolutely ridiculous. We cannot upload our consciousness into a machine. It is much more subtle and complex than that. Some people talk about living for ever by putting their personality into a computer, or taking someone who has died and measuring their brain and bringing them to life again in a computer. The Singularity is going to be very important, it’s going to have a huge effect on society, but you’ve got to separate what is real from what is fantasy.
S: You talk about preparing the next generation for future challenges and developments. What is the vision behind the James Martin 21st Century School?
JM: It’s about research and training on the subjects of the future. I used to go around the world lecturing and giving seminars, and had the opportunity to meet many top people all over the world.
I began to realise that the planet had huge problems and that they were going to get worse. We’re going to have a population that is too large, we’re going to run out of water, we’re going to destroy or badly damage the climate, and the difference between the very poor nations and the very rich is totally extraordinary. People don’t seem to realise that there are 3bn people who earn less than $2 a day, and that at the same time we’ve got the capability to have very advanced technology.
I felt compelled to write The Meaning of the 21st Century. The view in this book is that there’s something very special about the 21st century, and that we’re moving into an era of quite extraordinary technology, very advanced computers, genetic engineering, neuroscience and so on, but then these advances can cause as much damage as they bring good. That the purpose of the 21st century is to stop doing anything that’s random, to begin to understand what is happening and take the right action. If we don’t do things the right way, we’re going to have chaos on the planet, and if we do it well we could have a great time ahead – almost a new renaissance. The idea began to emerge of pulling together a school that could do research on all of those ideas.
S: Why did you choose Oxford?
JM: I have lived much of my life in America, so I looked at Harvard and Yale and other American universities and I got the feeling that if it happened there it would be mainly engineering and a lot of downplay on philosophy and the more subtler impact on society, the impact on humanity itself. As Oxford has got a quite amazing track record over nine centuries of influencing society and teaching, it’s probably got the best facility in the world for philosophy. It’s got more philosophers than any other university, and they’re highly intelligent.
I decided that I would like to set up the school in Oxford, and about that time, Oxford got a new vice-chancellor, John Hewitt. Surprisingly his background had not been in academia but in business. He came to stay for a week at my home in Bermuda and we discussed my idea, and worked out all the details of what it might look like.
S: What impact has the school had so far?
JM: Well, in just five years the school has taken off quite incredibly. Soon we will be able to offer a degree, and by October this year they’re going to be announcing a new version of it, which reflects the involvement of some very powerful people as funding comes from all over the place. For example, George Soros has made a large contribution to studying the economy and trying to stop economic crashes, and Bill Gates has made a couple of large contributions.
Most academics work on only one discipline. They do a PhD on a single subject and they write papers for the journal of that discipline. But all of these big subjects involve a multiplicity of disciplines. You need to have interdisciplinary research that connects together other disciplines, and that research needs to be done at a high level of quality, an Oxford level of quality.
There was great scepticism at universities about whether that was possible. We don’t have anybody working for doctorates at the school, but we have a very nice number of post-doctorate students. Often, five years after they’ve got their doctorate degree they’re here again, working on major problems and connecting with other very intelligent people, working out links between disciplines and testing whether they can really make the changes that are necessary. Now the new vice-chancellor is saying that he is going to apply the multidisciplinary capability method that we’ve started to other areas outside the school. This is probably going to bring a change to Oxford, and to other universities. It might take ten years to get there, but universities around the world are going to have to confront the necessity to do multidisciplinary research and teaching.
S: in your view, What is the future role of universities and higher educational establishments?
JM: The teaching of a lot of the knowledge we’re talking about is very complex and difficult. Things will come together just so long as schools find their way into government, policy and industry. A huge question for the school is, how do you get people out of the Oxford environment and into the real world of government, corporations and control of the economy, and so on? When these current subjects of study are finished, there will be other challenges to tackle. We need a facility that determines what are the biggest issues on the planet, what are the huge problems and the great opportunities. Let’s study them in as much detail as possible, and get a high quality of scholarship. Then, as we come to our conclusions, let’s find a way to get those conclusions out of the university and into corporations and government.
S: Is there a limitation in governments managing education?
JM: There are different levels of education. Training in a corporation is a kind of very detailed low-level education. But you also want a high level of education, and you want people learning how to learn, knowing in order to become good executives. One of the tricky things with education is that it has so many different levels, and if you do it badly, the country is going to be harmed.
S: How do you see the role of teachers in this?
JM:Education is the basis for everything. It’s extremely important to put the best education you possibly can into place, and that means you’ve got to have very good teachers. One of the things that’s wrong with much of the world today is that teachers are poorly paid. We had a presentation from the minister of education in China and he said that in a town or village in China, the best-paid person in that town is not going to be the mayor, or the person who runs the local industry, it’s the teacher, the best teacher. To change China you have to have a very good education in place; you’ve got to get good teachers, and to do that you have to pay them a good salary.
S: You talked about the widening gap between the rich and poor nations. At the pace that technology develops, do people in countries outside the First World (developed nations) have the same opportunities?
JM: Looking at the last ten years, in some countries outside the First World it’s been a tragic, catastrophic failure, but other countries have done extremely well. What has happened in China is absolutely amazing: 1.3bn people, most of them living in total poverty about 20 years ago, in villages. Many of them have moved from villages to cities and there’s been a huge education programme throughout China. Several hundred million – a little less than a billion – have been taken out of poverty, having skills which they can use to earn money to change their future. So the transition in China in the last 20 years has been incredible, and nothing like it has ever happened on the planet before on that scale.
I used to wander around India in the 1980s feeling very depressed, that there was no hope and that it wasn’t going to change. I was completely wrong, because everywhere you go in India these days you see hoardings saying: ‘Get your kid the best education you possibly can’. India put together something called IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) modelled on MIT, an Indian IIT which is pretty much as good as MIT and that worked so well there are now 16 replicas of them. Sixteen IITs all around India, which is on the brink of immense change. It will become a very powerful country. It may possibly become a larger economy than China in 30 to 40 years’ time. It will certainly have a bigger population than China, so that’s good news. Everywhere you go in India you see excitement among young people: they know that it’s possible to become entrepreneurs, that they can find ways to do things that interest them.
But if you go from China or India to Africa, the story couldn’t be more different. In most of Africa there’s very poor education. In some countries in Africa there’s almost negligible education and you get dictators taking over, brutal dictators. There are constant civil wars, and fighting between different countries. When people do get a good education the first thing that’s in their head is, ‘How can I get out of Africa?’
S: The brain drain is a problem.
JM: It’s one statistic in South Africa which really tells a story. Apartheid ended with Nelson Mandela and South Africa became a different country, and a lot of very good education was put in place. You’ve got universities now that are producing great engineers, great scientists and great doctors, but 50% of all doctors who graduate in South Africa leave the country. That is so damaging to South Africa.
S: You talk about the 21st-century revolution, and you say that we can learn from our mistakes or prevent them by preparing ourselves. Can we make the second option happen independently of short-sighted political will?
JM: The short-sightedness around today often relates to a bad understanding of society and its relation to science. Look at the Copenhagen Conference last December. It turned into something that did not produce results, something that was not intended at all. If that continues, we will be in trouble. You’ve got to find ways to get the correct science understood by young people, by politicians and by businesspeople. That’s very important. Today is a world of bloggers, and soon its going to be a world of video bloggers. Many of the bloggers go on about science when they don’t actually know anything about it. They sound impressive but they don’t know what they’re talking about. Today the public listens much more to false science than it does to real science. This raises a big question: how do you run a democracy when the public and politicians are not informed? What do we have to do to make democracy work? There will probably have to be changes in the fundamental nature of the government of the world. Governments of countries are reasonably good today, so if you’re going to have any sort of world government, you’ll want it not to interfere with sovereignty, not interfere with national government, but to put another layer in place. Almost none of the big problems can be solved by one country, even the most powerful. America by itself can’t solve the global-warming problem. It can’t solve by itself the huge differences between extreme wealth and extreme poverty on the planet. Many of these problems are also opportunities, which need something different from national government.
S: Do businesses have more power to turn things around, if they see an opportunity, than politicians?
JM: Yes, they do. The problem with politicians is that they have a very short range of vision – they are just thinking about the next election. There are certain things which are very important in the long term, things that get us upset, such as the building of nuclear power stations. We need to make sure that there’s a broad knowledge of what needs to be done on the planet and that that broad knowledge affects businesspeople. We’d like businesspeople where possible to do the right thing. Clearly in banking they haven’t been doing the right thing over the last three years, otherwise we would have avoided the economic crisis.
S: What is your message for young people about the future?
JM: A lot of young people today worry about the world. They hear all the doom and gloom stories about global warming and so on. My own daughter asked me, ‘If you could pick any time to be alive, Dad, when would you pick, out of the whole of history? Out of Athens and Perathes, or around Michael Angelo …?’ I thought about it and had a lot of arguments about it and my answer was, ‘I would want to be your age, now. I’d want to be a young person today because the things that are going to happen in the next 20 to 30 years, in your lifetime, will be absolutely incredible. It’s going to be the most exciting journey. There’ll be good things and bad things, and you have to overcome the bad things and take advantage of the good, but if you’re on top of it, if you learn what’s going on and get the right education, now is an immensely exciting time to live.’