The World in 2050

BrainThe flight to Los Angeles last week was long but on schedule and it provided some time to make a dent in reading World Without End (sequel to The Pillars of the Earth) by Ken Follett on the Kindle. Holding the 10-once e-reader is a joy and the battery lasted throughout the six hour flight. The physical book — 1,024 pages — would not be a joy to hold for hours.
The purpose of the trip was to attend IBM’s Business Partner Leadership Conference. The event was attended by roughly 1,000 business partners, IBM executives, members of the press, and information technology analysts. See "IBM Happenings – April 2008" for a list of some of the announcements made by IBM during the meeting. At the end of the first day was a special event at the University of California School of Cinematic Arts. The invitation only event included 100 or so analysts, members of the press, faculty members and students. IBM and USC had been holding discussions to map out a collaboration between some of the most creative minds in Hollywood with some of IBM’s top scientists. Having known some of them for years I was really pleased with they selected. The moderator was Dr. Bill Pulleyblank, mathematician, computer scientist and predictive analysis expert. Bill is known for having managed a project in which a supercomputer named Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov in a six game rematch. The panelists were
all quite distinguished. Don Eigler, IBM Fellow, was the first ever to precisely manipulate individual atoms and spelling the word "I B M". Jeff Jonas, IBM Distinguished Engineer, expert in security and privacy, created much of the technology used in capturing criminals in Vegas casinos. Sharon Nunes, Head of the Energy and Environment business at IBM is a research expert in materials science and is working on numerous projects to save the environment. Last but not least was Ajay Royyuru, who leads IBM Research’s computational biology team and IBM’s liaison to the National Geographic Genographic project. Ajay participated on a past panel which I had the honor to moderate at Demo.
The breadth and depth of the panel could have kept the audience spellbound for quite a few hours. Will the future be like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Back to the Future, Incredible Journey or Star Wars? How can scientists help filmmakers create prescient depictions of the future?
Much of the discussion revolved around the merger of biology and systems. Some of the breakthroughs discussed included using nanotechnology to assure the availability of clean drinking water everywhere on the planet, self-healing spinal cords, and life span stretching well past the century mark? The human genome has been mapped but that is just the beginning. In effect the mapping provides the parts list of the human bodies. The next phase of research is to figure out what all those parts do and how they fit together. Not only will regenerating entire body parts be possible but embedded processors under our skin will make it possible to gain significant human augmentation of our capabilities. A project in Europe called Blue Brain is using IBM supercomputing technology to built a simulation model of the human brain. This is a very big undertaking but someday it could lead to curing some of the most dreaded diseases that afflict our societies.
Computer processing is already awesome but we haven’t seen anything yet. A Mini Cooper has more computing power than Apollo 13 had. At the exponential pace of growth of computing capacity we may actually reach the Singularity in the next couple of decades.
Security and privacy are obviously crucial elements to the research agenda. We will be able to have an embedded super-PDA that can record every conversation you hear or say during a lifetime. Existing databases make it possible to specifically identify a person by only knowing their zip date of birth and gender. So much for witness protection programs. The good news is that ubiquitous sensors can make the world is less dangerous place. Yes, the government can watch the people, but the people can watch the government too.
I think we are very fortunate that IBM focuses vast sums of money and thousands of top notch people on solving some of the tougher global problems. There is money in some of it and long term business value is created but along the way societies around the world benefit greatly from IBM’s work toward the greater good. Take a look at the most recent report on this to get an idea.
As for film making, I learned a lot in talking with some graduate students at the reception. They are all hoping to be as successful as Steven Spielberg, and no doubt some will. The surprising thing I learned is that the best quality movies are still captured on cellulose acetate based film. It is rare these days to see a professional photographer use anything other than a digital camera and apparently with wide angle, high contrast movie making, the industry is not quite there. Consensus was that it would be all digital within five years. Computers already play a huge role (no pun intended) in film making either for augmentation of scenes or for creating the very characters of the movie.