Imagination Technologies is a company with a vision to help our customers create innovative products that will change the world. We are always thinking ahead to see how we can best deliver that future – a future that’s bright, bold and empowering. At the core of this vision are our employees who are key in bringing this future to fruition and have an interesting take on the world. We, therefore, present a series of interviews with some of our key thinkers, where we’ll learn what makes them tick and then find out what they see coming down the road.

Here we speak to Jim Nicholas, the executive vice president of the MIPS business unit, talking to Benny Har-Even, technical communications specialist at Imagination. With a strong presence in the networking and automotive space, MIPS is the leading alternative architecture for embedded processors and delivers the best performance and lowest power consumption in a given silicon area. In a two-part discussion, Jim gives us his outlook on what the future may hold and how Imagination Technologies will help us get there.

Jim NicholasJim, we seem to be at a transition point, with long-trailed developments such as machine learning and wide sensor proliferation (the IoT) starting to happen. To what extent do you think these will have an impact on the world?

Let me put it this way: everything that we know and understand will be subject to change.

I would break it down into five areas: travel, domicile (where and how we live), work, sustenance (food and drink), health (longevity/well-being). I’m thinking about the drivers for mankind, what pushes people to do things. From a Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs point of view survival is usually the most significant agent of change. But as the world becomes more affluent that potentially is less significant, although you have to make a distinction between developed and developing nations.

Another factor is the urgency of some people who to want to explore and be pioneers – that is also a strong driver for bringing about societal transformations. The final thing is letting your heart sing – there are some people who just need to be creative. And the act of being creative, whether it’s in science or the arts, is another driver for change.

AI is having a huge impact right now. How do you think AI will develop in the future?

A key trend that will shape the human experience is the development or growth of the combination of human and artificial intelligence. The fact that you’re going to have much more powerful artificial intelligence and much greater interaction between human intelligence and AI is one of the reasons why I’m personally excited about what the world will look like in the future.

I’m talking about a world where the human component becomes indistinguishable from the machine intelligence – where harnessing that actually results in other classes of intelligence.

You could imagine a world where you could give a problem to a ‘brain’, in the loosest sense of the word, and that problem could be, ‘create the next brain’. This is exponential growth, where the collective intelligence is used to create the next step – the next platform – and it’s almost got beyond the point today where you could predict the kind of things that you could develop.

This will play out across a range of developments, not only in what the next phone looks like but also whether we can find a cure for cancer —the impact will be far reaching.

Very often the reason that we can’t solve problems is that we’re not able to process a large amount of data in a finite period of time but we’re getting to the point where that is really possible.

If you combine that with the fact that you can connect any discrete computer that has a substantial capability, be they desktops, sensors or nodes, you could envisage a situation where all the processing devices in your home, your washing machine, your dryer, microwave, TV etc., could be repurposed to be part of a greater collective intelligence to solve problems.

Man meets AI

This sounds similar to the SETI@Home for PlayStation programme, but broadened out to all devices that will form part of the IoT?

Yes, there’s no reason we couldn’t do this. In the future, there’s the possibility of humans contributing intellectually to this AI pool and there will come a time when it’s potentially almost indistinguishable; the human and the artificial intelligences. The leap that people need to make is realising that we will have instant access to information that will enable us to make decisions. This is where augmented reality comes in. Google Glass had this built-in concept of effectively augmented reality: you look at something and there’s the potential for receiving data about it. There is even talk that smart glasses are poised to make a comeback.

If you want to buy a car you’ll be able to simply look at it and your AR device will recognise the exact model and provide you with all the relevant information you need; its age, its engine size, and more. It could all be conveyed to you immediately.

Or, for example, you could be in a room with colleagues and looking at data that’s augmented, giving you the capability to process it much faster, so you can interpret that data more effectively and make better decisions based on it.

That kind of interplay between the human and the artificial intelligence is just going to accelerate and it’s very difficult to work out where it will stop. For example, take travel: there’s a lot of discussion about autonomous driving but a lot of people are talking about that as if it’s the future. What a lot of people don’t realise is it’s already here, in some way or the other. Google has been driving around with autonomous vehicles for the past two or three years in California. The actual business of getting it to the point where it’s safe, reliable, and secure, that’s just the normal stuff that technologists and engineers do to actually make it usable to the general public. It may be the future for the general public who don’t yet have a car that can automatically park itself but as far as the basics of technology it’s over, it’s done – that’s here today!

It means it’s easy to fast forward to a time when nobody is driving a car anymore but we can say to ourselves, “so what’s next?”

OK, so what is next?

You can imagine a world where there are different transport layers; 3D transport – where people are driving, or being driven along the road and the air. But actually, that’s not even going far enough. When we watched programmes like Star Trek we saw transporters, ‘beaming’ us from one place to the other, near instantaneously.

The intermediate, real-world, method of addressing that is to have some sort of next-gen virtual reality, which will actually be so super-realistic that an impression of you is physically manifest to whoever it is you’re trying to interact with in real time, as though you were physically there.

And this virtual reality is clearly just a step towards something else, from a transport point of view, which is where people can physically manifest themselves in different places, maybe at the same time.

AI brain

The question is what would you do to enable that? Here’s where it becomes challenging. I’m sure that someone who is better prepared in physics could actually explain how it would happen but from a visionary point of view what I would say is the amazing thing about technologies is that we don’t know today what we will learn that will actually enable us to do things like reforming matter. At a fundamental level, everything breaks down into two or three basic components, which are formed in ways to make the materials we see around us.

Why conceptually will it be difficult for technologies to develop that could actually take the human form, and make that form available halfway around the world? Why would that be a problem? It’s only a problem today because we can’t imagine how it would be done. We can say to ourselves, “If everything is based on the same fundamental elements why can’t it happen?” This is the kind of question that you could pose to a collective intelligence of whatever size and sooner or later get a solution to it.

I think the most important things you need to have in order to transform the world as we understand it today are two things: a vivid imagination and access to compute technology. I believe that the combination of the two will mean that whatever you could fantasise taking place, will.

Everything comes back to harnessing the combination of human and artificial intelligence. I think that’s key. Very simply, everything that you could conceivably want to do will happen but it will happen because there is more than enough intelligence over time to solve every problem that you could imagine having.

Look out for part two of our interview with Jim, where he tackles machine learning and how Imagination Technologies fits into this picture of the future.

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  • Teresa Schofield

    I hope that Jim will tell us how he keeps up to date with developments elsewhere? Though I expect he learns most from his customers. I read a surprising number of Brits like him on AI and tech development – from Jack Clark at OpenAI to DeepMind’s Demis Hassabis and Geoff Hinton. Good stuff too at Stanford and A16Z but would love more suggestions from someone at the front line and with perspective of the sectors of industry media don’t cover well.

    Also since he is so far reaching in the discussion what does he think of devices like the Rigetti Quantum Computer?