COVER STORY : Walk this Way -- we take you to the year 2048

One global currency. Your very own virtual double. Organs cloned at birth. Just dream-like science fiction? Or a likely scenario of what the world will be like within the next 50 yearsBrace yourself. You've just been beamed into the next millennium. Our laser actuated time tunnel has taken you to the year 2048 and planet earth is not how you remember it.

There's no cash, no keys, and recognition systems depend on eye scans and palm prints. The single global currency has truly made the world a smaller place.

You're likely to bump into your virtual double, programmed with your very own intelligence, knowledge and personality. At your command, it will humbly perform much of your routine work, including attending virtual meetings on your behalf.

Or if you prefer, you can talk to your pocket-sized cyber friend. It comes complete with memory and personality and will give you advice, provide entertainment, and tailor information to your personal taste. You'll be impressed with the medical breakthroughs, as organ donors are passe. Instead, human organs are now cloned at birth.

Now switch millenniums and turn back to the year 1998, where a group of researchers are predicting what the world will be like in the next 50 years. Take a deep breath and a good look around. Things, soon, will never be the same again.

That is, if what the experts are forecasting prove true.

First, let's go back

The year is now 1948, the place Manchester, England. Professor Freddie Williams and Professor Tom Kilburn have popped the champagne and kick-started modern technology. They have just developed "Baby" -- the world's first electronic digital computer capable of storing a program in its memory. The rest is history.

Baby weighed about 1 ton, was three metres long, two metres high and half a metre deep and used 4kW of electricity to power around 600 vacuum tubes; it now resides in the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.

Although the capacity of a machine like that could now fit onto a silicon chip smaller than a pinhead, it will be remembered as one of the biggest technology breakthroughs in modern history. Despite the marvellous invention, pioneers in the 40s could not have fathomed what was to come. IBM's president in the ‘40s is remembered as saying that there would only ever be a market need for five computers in the world -- a statement I'm sure Big Blue today would rather forget. In fact, the latest count puts the number of computers at more than 250 million worldwide. Come 50 years hence, it's predicted that there will be as many as 1000 microchips (mini computers) for each person on the planet.

What's to come?

In celebration of the modern computer's 50th birthday, British IT systems and services company ICL systems has compiled one of the most in-depth forecasts entitled The next steps. The study predicts how the next 50 years of technology will radically change our lives.

ICL -- which is jointly responsible for the rebuilding and maintenance of Baby today -- claims that our chief means of communicating with computers will be by voice.

We will also be using fuzzy logic and neural networks, where computers will be able to learn from experience and each other. They will be able to mimic the natural learning process we humans take for granted. Additionally, computers will be able to solve problems without the need for complex programming.

And for those of you sceptics who think the following predictions are dreamlike science fiction, think again, says Andrew Boswell, group technical director at ICL.

"All these technologies, and many of these concepts, are either being worked on or being considered by research organisations and companies around the world."

While ICL predicts there will be about 1000 computers for each person on the planet, it says they won't be in the form of computers as we know them today. They will be powerful microchip technologies found in appliances, clothing and jewellery, and implanted in the human body.

"The body will interact with the computer and vice versa. This notion of ‘bio feedback' will open up a host of opportunities. For instance, imagine clothing that changes colour to match your mood, or buying and selling shares in a trading room where the wall colour reflects the state of the market. Furniture will be able to adapt itself to make us more comfortable, while at work our computer will adjust the flow of information to match your stress levels," the report claims.

The rapid pace at which technology will progress will allow us to even access the Web from practically anywhere in the world where chairs, beds, rooms, aeroplanes, cars, trains, even a pair of glasses will be networked.

Work

Road rage could be halved, as the networked world will see more people teleworking. People will work from home or on the move using mobile phone/computers, many of which will double as fashion accessories. Junk mail will also follow us around but we will employ "electronic secretaries to filter unwanted mail", ICL's study claims.

In the home

The "casa del a future" will see voice-activated appliances wired throughout the home. And just in case you're in the mood for a virtual fight, they'll come complete with personality profiles.

The year 2048 will also mean goodbye to "the box" as there will be no limit to the size of television screens; some experts believe they will be painted onto walls or buildings. Ideally, you will have your very own cinema screen in your lounge room!

Cashless

Smart cards are already set to become ubiquitous within the next two years, so this prediction is not surprising. However, cash, credit and loyalty cards will be gone. ICL's research predicts we will each carry a single, wafer-thin chip, which may be slotted into your watch, or "cyber wrist band" as it might be known in the future.

"This will contain all manner of information and enable instantaneous financial value transactions," ICL's researchers said. "The chip will be a repository for any digital information such as a driving licence, health records and passport details. In future, people will have a digital form as well as a physical form where individuals will own the data about themselves," the researchers said.

Health

Remember Lee Majors as the six million dollar bionic man? Well, the future will prove that life can imitate art as bionics become commonplace. The report claims that implants will "monitor blood pressure, digestive processes, cardiovascular systems and call the doctor before the heart attack, stroke, malignancy, or the like". A regular diagnostic check by computer at home could save the trip!

Nano-technology may even result in tiny robots that swim in the human blood to help the immune system. Conversely, there is the prospect of new diseases and medical conditions such as "information overload" and "information shock".

Additionally, dying patients will no longer have to depend on voluntary donors, as individual organ cloning will be performed at birth. A worldwide statutory body would be required to ensure things don't get out of control.

Education

Unfortunately for the kids out there, and fortunately for us, school will still exist. But advanced technology is likely to see every school online, accessing practically every educational establishment in the world including museums and libraries. Students will also be able to store the equivalent contents of one standard library in their pocket or rather, in their "cyber wrist band". Students' textbooks and writing material may no longer be around as each pupil could have the ultimate replacement -- a pocket sized computer that combines both roles.

Sport

Imagine it's possible to have the grandstand seat of your choice when it comes to watching your favourite footy team. Well, imagine no more; just wait. Because in the near future your home entertainment system will let you choose the camera angle and watch instant replays on request!

Additionally, the use of technology will increase so that the diet, training and performance of athletes can be regulated. It's also suggested that computer chips will be implanted in athletes, giving an "instant readout on the person's metabolism and anatomy".

Try before you buy

Kiosks and virtual reality systems could save you that ruined holiday, as you will be allowed to experience the plane, the hotel and even the beach before committing to a specific destination.

Shopping

How could grocery shopping ever become a leisure industry? Well, according to ICL, the daily, weekly or monthly toil of buying groceries or household goods -- which apparently make up to 80 per cent of purchases -- will be done via the TV and computer. But the real surprise will see these appliances outline your requirements and tailor-make shopping lists for your inspection.

Games

Remember the fanfare and excitement when virtual reality hit the games circuit? You ain't seen nothing yet! According to ICL, game systems will enable us to "step into fully rendered, virtual reality worlds where we will not only be able to see and hear things but experience the sensations of touch and smell".

What about Big Brother?

If these entire predictions pan out, there will certainly be the need for a statutory body to ensure security concerns are met. This will ease fears of "Big Brother" controlling people's lives and ruling on questions of unnecessary intrusion, the study A snapshot from The next steps study- Children will be given an electronic identity at birth, a unique global electronic address that will be used throughout their lives;- The concept of the weekend will disappear. Individuals will mix work and pleasure to fit their chosen lifestyle;- All domestic appliances will be voice activated, and will be programmable with different personality profiles;- Screens the size of a credit card will be used as global video phones;- There will be a single global currency. Patients will use the global network to access specialist medical advice, with interviews, tests and diagnosis carried out remotely;- Virtual doubles will exist and carry out many of our mundane tasksFamous quotes"There will only ever be a need for five computers in the world."

President, IBM, 1945.

"There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home."

Kenneth Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corp, 1977.

"640K ought to be enough for anybody."

Bill Gates, Microsoft, 1981.

"In someone's words, a human being is just a computer produced by amateurs."

Dr G L Haller, General Electric.

"Computers are useless. They can only give you answers."

Pablo Picasso

"Hey, what does this button d . . . ?"

Anonymous

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