March 3, 1997 5:00 PM PST

Visionaries celebrate computing

Tomorrow's computers are going to be in us and like us.

From on-body assistants that can remind us of appointments and feed us driving directions to computers made of DNA, some of the luminaries of computing are predicting what computers will be like in 50 years.

Speaking at the Association of Computing Machinery's 50th anniversary of the computer celebration held in San Jose, California, this week, Microsoft senior researcher Gordon Bell said that computers are already making their way into humans in the form of cochlear implants that can bring hearing to some deaf individuals. So it's not such a leap that computers will soon surround us and be in us, said Bell, who is sometimes known as "the father of the minicomputer."

With our onboard computers fired up, agents will remember our appointments, send us down the right row of bookshelves in the library, and maybe even match-make, according to Pattie Maes, associate professor at the MIT Media Lab and a pioneer in the field of software agents.

But if computers are going to really be of any help, they'll have to be more like us, said Carver Mead, the California Institute of Technology professor who engineered very large computer systems. For all their sophistication, today's computers can't, for example, distinguish emotion on human faces or process the barrage of sensory inputs that humans do every second of every day.

That's why Mead is working on computers that work like human nerves. While a single neuron typically has 10,000 inputs at once, a computer faces an average of 2.5 choices at a single time. If scientists could create computers that work like human neurons, he said, it would be possible to increase computing power exponentially by increasing the size of the computing machine.

One way to do that may be to create "quantum computers," which can instantly explore millions of possible outcomes simultaneously. "Digital computing took all the uncertainty out of analog computing," explained Mark Weiser, director of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center Labs. "With quantum computing, you put that uncertainty back in."

Joel Birnbaum, director of HP Labs, said that DNA-based computers may be one way to accomplish quantum computing. By using DNA sequences, researchers can execute millions of simultaneous equations. DNA computers would also make very reliable and small storage devices, added Birnbaum. One pound of DNA could replace all the memory in all the computers in the world today, he said.

But there is a hitch. DNA replication is notoriously error-prone, with errors happening once every 10,000 to 100,000 times. Still, that doesn't mean DNA computing isn't possible: "Like the ENIAC, we shouldn't discount the appearance of a truly disruptive technology in the next 50 years," said Birnbaum.

The first programmable electronic digital computer, the ENIAC was created in 1947, and the ACM was formed shortly thereafter. The room-sized computer powered by hundreds of thousands of vacuum tubes could perform complex calculations at the speed of hundreds of human "computers," as they were then known. ENIAC needed over 100 kilowatts of power to operate.

However, if computing has come a long way, the industry that spawned it seems to be lingering in the Dark Ages. Despite the growing number of women in computing and a growing recognition of women pioneers like programmer Grace Hopper, today's overwhelmingly white and male audience mirrored a special tribute to computing's "Wizards and Their Wonders," which included no women and few minorities.

Between speakers, TV personality James Burke, who created popular series on science including "Connections," "Connections 2," and "The Day the World Changed," quizzed the audience and the speakers. "If we are the sum of our memories," he asked, "and if I no longer have to remember anything, then who am I?" It was one question nobody here seemed to have an answer for.

 

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