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Litre of fuel would last UK one year if cars had kept pace with computers

20 Jun 2008

One litre of fuel would serve the UK for a year and oil reserves would last the expected lifetime of the solar system - if efficiency in the car industry had improved at the same rate as in the computer world - a leading computer scientist will tell an audience in Manchester this evening (Friday 20 June 2008).

Professor Steve Furber CBE, ICL Professor of Computer Engineering at The University of Manchester, will deliver the inaugural Kilburn Lecture to mark Digital 60 Day – the 60th anniversary of The Baby computer, designed and built at The University of Manchester in 1948.

In his lecture entitled ‘The Relentless March of the Microchip’, Professor Furber will note that computers are now 50 BILLION times more energy-efficient than the 'Baby', which weighed roughly one tonne and took up a whole room.

Going on to talk about one of the Grand Challenges for the next two decades of computing research, Prof Furber will say that although scientists still don't understand many of the principles of operation of the complex human brain, computers are becoming powerful enough to model significant components of brain function.

He will go on to suggest that perhaps the understanding that has so far eluded scientists is now within their grasp.

Speaking ahead of the lecture, Professor Furber said: “Biological systems demonstrate many of the properties we aspire to incorporate into our engineered technology, so perhaps that suggests a possible source of ideas that we could seek to incorporate into future novel computation systems.

“Current research at Manchester into the development of the ‘Brain Box’ computer is a contribution to the computing Grand Challenge of 'Understanding the Architecture of Brain and Mind', and will provide a platform for the investigation of these important issues that face the microchip industry in the near future.”

Digital 60 Day marks the 60th anniversary the birth of the ‘Baby’ or Small Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM), which is the forerunner of all modern computers.

‘The Baby’ successfully executed its first program in Manchester on 21 June 1948. That program was written by the late Tom Kilburn who designed and built the machine at The University of Manchester with the late Freddie Williams.

From 1980 to 1990, Professor Furber worked in the hardware development group within the R&D department at Acorn Computers Ltd, and was a principal designer of the BBC Microcomputer and the ARM 32-bit RISC microprocessor, both of which earned Acorn Computers a Queen's Award for Technology.

Prof Furber leads the SpiNNaker project at The University of Manchester, which aims to build a massively-parallel chip multiprocessor system for modelling large systems of spiking neurons in real time.

The goal is to build a machine that incorporates a million ARM processors linked together by a communications system that can achieve the very high levels of connectivity observed in biological neural systems. Such a machine would be capable of modelling a billion neurons in real time, which is still only around one per cent of the human brain.

Professor Furber received a CBE in the 2008 New Year Honours list "for services to computer science".

The Kilburn lecture is being sponsored by The Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, The British Computer Society (BCS) and The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).

Notes for editors

For further information on the Kilburn Lecture please contact Alex Waddington, Media Relations Officer, The University of Manchester, on 0161 275 8387 or 07717 881569.

Media opportunity: The Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), Castlefield, Friday 20 June 2008, 11:00am. Photo and interview opportunity with original baby design and development team of Geoff Tootill, Dai Edwards and Alec Robinson, with working replica of the Baby computer.

Further video and images are available to support Digital 60 coverage on request.