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May 5, 2008

The World In 2050

IBM Research and Cinematic Arts Envision the Future

By Cristy Lytal

On the evening of April 30, five of IBM’s top research scientists joined with School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) students, alumni, faculty and members of the entertainment industry to brainstorm about the art of the possible—circa 2050. The reception and discussion kicked off a collaboration between SCA and IBM to inspire a new generation of film, television and interactive artists, as well as suggest creative directions for researchers.

(Left to right) IBM Research scientists Jeff Jonas, Ajay Royyuru, Don Eigler, Sharon Nunes and Bill Pulleyblank, discuss technological breakthroughs that could change the world and how Hollywood portrays the future.
“We honor the tradition of our 80-year history by always looking forward,” Dean Elizabeth M. Daley told the audience. “We like nothing better than to peer into the crystal ball and to think about those advanced technologies, just as some of our most distinguished alums, certainly George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis, have done with films like Star Wars and Back to the Future, and the magical world of motion capture and 3-D and HD.”

As these cinematic technologies demonstrate, many seemingly “futuristic” innovations are already a reality. “Today, we have supercomputers that predict the weather, that play world championship chess, that analyze the human genome, and systems that can pick up and move individual atoms into place—and these are all developed by the panelists we have here tonight,” said Professor Richard Weinberg by way of introducing the IBM Research team composed of moderator Bill Pulleyblank and panelists Don Eigler, Jeff Jonas, Sharon Nunes and Ajay Royyuru.

Jonas, who specializes in security and privacy issues, painted a picture of a future in which people live well past the century mark, but spend a large part of their lives as avatars in virtual worlds; where GPS technology eliminates misplaced keys, but Big Brother is always watching. “The more you put data together about people, even if you don’t know who they are, you tend to learn who they are,” he said. “It turns out that 87.5 percent of the time with a population, if you only know the ZIP code, the date of birth, and the gender, you know who they are.”

But in large part, the scientists left the paranoid visions of the future to George Orwell and Philip K. Dick. According to Nunes, who leads IBM’s green initiative, technological advances—such as applying the mechanisms of photosynthesis to solar cells—could ensure that 2050’s population of nine billion people all have sufficient energy resources and potable water.

Eigler, a nanotechnologist, expressed high hopes for regenerative medicine—including the reversal of paralysis and organs created without stem cells—and embedded technologies like self-regulating drug dispensers and memory-aiding recording devices. And as IBM’s liaison to the National Geographic Genographic project, computational biologist Royyuru announced that “we will all have our personal genome, whether we want it or not.”

Given the evening’s impressive display of brainpower, it’s not surprising that IBM Research has garnered five Nobel Prizes, obtained more U.S.
SCA alumnus and director Jay Roach (center) and his son Jackson (left) chat with IBM Research scientist Bill Pulleyblank.
patents than any other company for 15 years straight, and provided the film industry with advanced tools for animation, visual effects and digital cinema. Likewise, SCA has created opportunities to innovate with these technologies in all its divisions, as well as through initiatives like the Entertainment Technology Center, the Institute for Multimedia Literacy and the Sloan Foundation awards for students who portray science realistically in their work.

Director Jay Roach, M.FA. Production ’86 (Meet the Parents, Austin Powers) attended the event with his son Jackson, and said he sees the similarities between the creative thinking going on at IBM and at the school.

“So much of science fiction is going further and imagining things that are a few steps beyond,” he said. “You can tell these guys do, even though they’re applied scientists and not science fiction writers. I want to hear what they think about when they don’t have any rules, when they really say, ‘If I was writing my science fiction novel, what would it be?’ They probably have it copyrighted and registered with the Writer’s Guild already!”

Following up on the success of the 2050 event, IBM and USC are exploring opportunities for continued collaboration, including additional events and other creative exchanges between both organizations.