Imagining the tech world in 2050

At an IBM-USC event to explore the intersection of creative arts, science, and technology, five top IBM scientists offer predictions for supercomputers, green tech, medicine, and more.

Dan Farber
4 min read

At a kickoff event for collaboration between IBM and the University of Southern California to explore the intersection of creative arts and science and technology, five IBM scientists offered their best guesses on how life would be different in 2050.

In keeping with the Hollywood theme, the moderator of the panel, Bill Pulleyblank, noted that the Mini Cooper automobile has more computing power than Apollo 13--the space capsule that "almost got Tom Hanks killed," he said, referring to the 1995 movie of that name.

Bill Pulleyblank

Pulleybank led the development of IBM's Blue Gene systems, which account for 4 of the world's top 10 most powerful supercomputers. By 2050, he predicted, the capabilities housed in those giant supercomputers will be available in the palm of your hand.

Harnessing photosynthesis
Sharon Nunes, who leads IBM's green-research initiatives, launched IBM's Computational Biology Center. She predicted that by 2050, clean water and energy would be available to the entire planet.

Nunes is looking to synthetic biology and systems biology to help solve the critical problems the planet faces. "We have to try to learn from nature and the 4-plus billion years of knowledge," she said.

She gave an example of applying an understanding of the chemical and biological processes of photosynthesis to building solar cells and converting algae into environmentally friendly fuels. "We have to learn how to scale (these developments) and make them affordable," she said.

Sharon Nunes

Life extension and parallel human processing
Don Eigler was the IBM scientist who, in 1989, took a small number of xenon atoms and spelled out "IBM" using a liquid helium temperature-scanning tunneling microscope that he had constructed. In his 2050 predictions, Eigler focused on embedded and nanoscale technologies that could lead to life extension.

"In the labs today, people are discovering how to fabricate new nanometer-scale structures for regenerative medicine," he said. Eigler believes that this technology could blossom over the next 10 to 15 years and that it eventually will result in pharmacies built into the human body that automatically administer medicines based on readings from internal sensors.

He also discussed parallel human processing. The idea is that a person could think about two problems at once consciously. This capability could be realized through training or symbiant embedded devices.

Don Eigler

"This kind of human augmentation raises some immediate concerns, but it is a trend we are living with," Eigler said, pointing to pacemakers, cochlear implants, and even Bluetooth ear pieces. "It's a personal responsibility to use technology wisely. The challenge comes when we, as a society, struggle with what technology to outlaw or keep."

Eigler also said that by 2050, we would have a laptop with 100,000 times more horsepower than the state-of-the-art machine today.

"What would you do with it?" he asked the audience, and he answered his own question. "We'll find new ways to use the computer. I just can't think of that today."

Personal genomes and regenerative medicine
Ajay Royyuru leads the Computational Biology Center at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center, researching topics such as bioinformatics, functional genomics, and systems biology. He predicted that before 2050, everyone will have personal genome.

"We will figure out everything that can be told from the genome, but still struggle with the basis of disease," he said.

People will have access to a steady stream of genetic data, and they will use that information to make choices of what to eat, for example.

Ajay Royyuru

"We will teach ourselves when not to touch the 'trigger,'" he said. "Today, we don't know how the machinery works. The genome is a parts list. We will get to a point where we can re-create things so we understand how it works or fails." The result will be a personalized, predictive model of behaviors based on an individual's genome.

Stem cells and synthetic biology (design and fabrication of biological components) will cure diseases in specific places rather than tolerate the absence of an organ or other tissue, Royyuru predicted.

Collective intelligence
Jeff Jonas, an IBM Distinguished Engineer, is chief scientist of the Entity Analytic Solutions Software Group. He works on projects such as data correlation, using irreversible cryptographic hashes.

Jonas predicted that by 2050, a 14-year-old will make $10 billion working in his bedroom in a day. It took Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg three years to be worth $1 billion. More pertinent to his research, Jonas said "collective intelligence will be in the cloud and available to all."

He described collective intelligence as lots of piles of data, much gleaned from a ubiquity of sensors that have to be stitched together and put in context. In 2050, collective intelligence is your personal digital agent, locating and telling you what you need, he said.

Jeff Jonas

Jonas gave the following example of this advanced collective intelligence. There is a pile of data about the current status of an individual. There are also piles about the current migratory status of birds and the weather. The three piles are correlated, resulting in the individual being told to "jump to the right" to avoid being hit by a descending pile of bird excrement.

"Collective intelligence is great when it serves you and your doctor, but you hate it when the police are looking at you," Jonas said.

Jonas also expects that people will be spending more time in virtual worlds in 2050. "It's a way to escape the trails you create by popping into an avatar."

The informed crystal-ball gazing took place at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, with film students and alumni including producer-director Jay Roach (his works include the Austin Powers movies and Meet the Fockers), in attendance.

Faculty member Richard Weinberg hoped that his collaboration with IBM researchers would result in portraying the future in films more accurately. The reality is that science fiction writers and filmmakers are far better at predicting the future than scientists. Their thinking is not bound by what they know, but rather by what they can more purely imagine.