A sneak peek at 2050

Paraphrasing Mark Twain and Niels Bohr, USC research associate professor Richard Weinberg told a gathering at a campus sound stage Wednesday night that "prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future." He then introduced a panel of research scientists from IBM who spent the evening trying to do just that.

The event marked the beginning of a collaboration between Big Blue's big thinkers and the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Facing a standing-room-only crowd of film students and faculty, four IBM researchers laid out some of the radical changes that technology could bring to the world four decades from now. The ideas veered between breathtaking and chilling, with some mind-bending notions about what it will mean to be human. Yet the common theme was that the world would be a better place, albeit a more artificial one.

Sharon Nunes, head of IBM's energy and environment business, foresaw a biological revolution that would satisfy the energy and water needs of all 9 billion people on Earth by 2050. Solar cells will convert sunlight to energy the way plants do, algae will be converted to fuel, and organisms will turn water from polluted to potable.

Similar advances in human cell mechanics will enable us to regenerate lost or diseased body parts, predicted Ajay Royyuru, head of IBM Research's computational biology team. Nanotechnologist Don Eigler described how technology would be embedded into our bodies and powered by the physical energy we generate. For example, "parallel processing" implants could enable our minds to focus on two things at once.

A note of caution came from IBM distinguished engineer Jeff Jonas, an expert in security, who said the spread of electronic sensors will generate enormous amounts of data about us and store it online. "Collective intelligence will locate what you need, and it will tell you" without being asked, he said. "When it serves you and your doctor, you are going to love this. When it serves the police, you're going to hate this."

Weinberg said that he hoped the collaboration would be a source of inspiration for the film school. In return, IBM hopes Hollywood imagination will help solve one of the company's biggest problems. Many of the technologies it develops "never come out of the labs," moderator Bill Pulleyblank said, "not because they're not cool, not because they're not new, but because we never figure out what to do with them."


Jon Healey

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