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The Old Man and the Future
Bill Hinchberger
September 16, 2001
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The Old Man and the Future

by Bill Hinchberger

San Jose, California, USA - After nearly four decades at IBM, Jean Paul Jacob has managed to convince the IT giant to pay him – as he tells it – to read, watch television, harangue colleagues, and give an occasional talk at a professional conference. In short, the perfect job. So how’d he get it? “By getting old,” he responded.

“More and more only young people can do research,” explained the electrical engineer who doubles as an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “They’re all techies. What do I have that they don’t have? They’re not much good at looking off into the future.”

Jacob is hardly a novice to pure scientific inquiry. He earned his stripes by publishing sundry technical papers in mathematical journals and by co-authoring a book on systems and control theory published by Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). He helped establish IBM’s first scientific research center in the southern hemisphere, in Brazil, as well as similar centers in Paris and Mexico City.

Today his official title at the IBM Research - Almaden in San Jose, California, is manager of external technical relations. But the staff he “manages” runs to two – his personal secretary and a graphics guy who helps design his presentations.

What Jacob really does is gaze into the future. IBM seems to grasp the notion that if you have a burning question about what’s coming, it makes sense to look to the past. No wonder that, on the cusp of the Internet-driven changes we face in the 21st century, noted historian Stephen Ambrose just released a book about the U.S. transcontinental railway, considered by many to have been the key technological advance to set the stage for “the American century.” If you want a futurologist, it probably makes sense to dig up someone with the cantankerous bent of a mythological sage out of Joseph Campbell.

The place where Jacob contemplates our future seems more reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock than Joseph Campbell. Leaving San Francisco (Vertigo), you head south past Silicon Valley and downtown San Jose until you find your three lane highway narrowing into a rural road that leads with surprising suddenness into isolated rural California (The Birds). You approach a checkpoint with guardhouses but no guards; the barrier mysteriously lifts to let you past. You drive up a road lined on both sides by wire fences, skirted by pasture and a crumbling barn. By the time you reach the elevated altitude of the research center, you feel as if you’re about to check into the hilltop Bates Motel where Janet Leigh got done in Psycho’s famous shower scene.

Come to think of it, Jacob has more in common with the legendary director than might at first seem apparent. A prominent paunch means that Jacob could fit pretty neatly into Hitchock’s noted silhouette. Like the late filmmaker, who abandoned England for Hollywood, Jacob left his native Brazil to make his home in the California epicenter of one of the most dynamic industries of his time, one that deeply influences not only U.S. but also global culture and society. There’s a sly, ironic sense of humor, those superficially gruff mannerisms, and enough self-confidence to bleed sometimes into cockiness. Finally, like Hitchcock, Jacob has become a profound student and interpreter of human nature.

That last trait might not seem an obvious outgrowth of Jacob’s early education: he earned his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at Brazil’s Aeronautics Technical Institute (ITA) in São José dos Campos, São Paulo. Yet early on he decided that advanced technology alone, as taught very competently at places like ITA, could only go so far to solving Brazil’s myriad problems. “I was amazed how scientists would see technology for technology’s sake, instead of seeing how to apply technology in Brazil,” he noted in his modest Almaden office.

“For 40 years, I have been a believer in something that is only now starting to catch on – the idea that technology and science are only tools to solve human problems that are of four natures – social, cultural, economic and political,” he said.

Judging European culture closer to Brazilian than that of the United States, the young Jacob set off for the old continent in search of some appropriate context for his technological background. He continued his studies while working as a trainee at IBM in the use of computing for aerospace and industrial control in France and Holland. After a stint as a researcher at IBM’s Nordic Lab in Stockholm, he was transferred to San Jose. While in the Bay Area, he took a leave of absence to earn a PhD at UC Berkeley.

By 1982 Jacob’s talent for futurology already seemed evident. A former student colleague in Paris had been João Portinari, son of the renowned painter Candido. “Let’s digitalize his stuff,” Jacob suggested to his friend. No such thing as a contemporary scanner existed, but Jacob managed to run through a couple of paintings on some advanced IBM equipment. “Maybe someday we can do it all,” he predicted. Less than 15 years later, João and his Portinari Project were hard at work on one of the world’s first digital and online catálogos raisonnés.

Jacob loves to provoke with his prognostications – both before and after they come true. His favorite, perhaps, was the demise of the vinyl record. During the question periods after his talks, people would rise to make emotional defenses of their beloved platters. But even those folks listen to CDs today. “There exists a resistance to change,” noted Jacob.

The same hostility to innovation now emerges in the debate over the future of the printed book, Jacob believes. “The book is stupid,” observed Jacob. “It doesn’t have its own light. Now e-ink is being developed. The book is going to disappear, and young people aren’t worried in the least.”

One thing that Jacob believes will never catch on is the video telephone. The technology has been there for long enough, and for 35 years researchers have been trying to convince everyone of the device’s imminent popularity. Some 60 models have been taken to market. In Brazil, banks once handed out free videophones to some of their most cherished customers – so much better to solidify the traditional client-bank manager relationship. Even freebies didn’t work. “I keep saying that nobody wants them,” said Jacob. Why not? “Because people are always doing something else while they’re on the phone, and they don’t want the person on the other end of the line to see that.”

Which all goes to reinforce the fundamental precept to which Jacob keeps returning. The success or failure of innovative gadgets depends more on social, cultural, economic and political factors than on mere technological feasibility.

Scientists, Jacob believes, have got it backward. His job is to try to spin them around in the right direction. “There is a food chain in which science generates technology which is part of products which are part of solutions to problems,” he said. “I look at it the other way. I try to figure out what problems we may want to solve in 10 years, then I try to work back to determine what technology and what science will be needed.”

The Future According to Jacob

Fuzziness happens to be in vogue in certain scientific circles these days, so it might seem appropriate that the effect of Jacob’s futurology on IBM’s practical work seems a bit nonlinear. But Jacob does have a clear vision of what he thinks the future holds, and evidence of it can indeed be found in several IBM research projects.

“Environments will become attentive to humans,” Jacob predicts. For instance, people may eventually carry gadgets that can be programmed with things like their clothing sizes and preferences. When strolling through the mall, people can then be alerted as they approach a shop with the right threads to meet their needs.

Almaden researchers are working on sundry projects in this vein, a realm known as pervasive computing. One Almaden researcher is developing a microdevice that would put computer power into jewelry. And if your fashion statement doesn’t extend to such adornments, you may eventually be able to find a wearable computer more to your tastes, embedded – say - in watches or eyeglasses. “The world will be dominated by small devices, things you can put in your pocket,” Jacob said.

Another initiative hopes to equip computers with a database of common knowledge that would allow them to successfully interpret context dependent human speech.

Frequent users of search engines will be pleased to learn of an Almaden project that could transform the frustrating experience of finding (or not) what you want on the Internet. Your PC would be equipped with small cameras to track your pupils. And you’d have something called an emotion mouse, a regular mouse equipped with a device similar to a lie detector that would measure your state of agitation through your hand. As you peer at the initial search results, the computer would be able to sense what items interest you and automatically call up additional related references.

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[an error occurred while processing this directive] Última atualização: 07/21/2011
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