ICL's Baby computer turns 50

ICL’s Baby computer turns 50
UK computer company ICL has marked the 50-year anniversary of the Baby, the world’s first digital stored-programme computer by sponsoring the rebuilding of a working model. It has also looked at computing 50 years hence. Steve Bush looks at the claims Computers will be unrecognisable from their present form, they will be operated mostly by voice and will have learning processes that mimic those of humans. These are just some of ICL’s predictions for the next 50 years of computing. BT Labs’ futurologist, Ian Pearson, agrees that computers will be changed out of all recognition; the rest, he says, is short of the mark. Pearson is employed by BT to predict the future using the best methods available. “Around 2015, computers will reach the level of human intelligence. There will then be a step increase in computing power as computers design computers,” said Pearson . “Given the impact that Einstein had, and he was only a few tens of IQ points brighter than most other people, just think of the contribution computers will make with many times a human’s thinking power.” This will leave humans as the poor relation, a situation that robot researcher Professor Kevin Warwick sees as extremely bleak. He is on record as saying that he sees no way of building protection for the human race into machine intelligence – no Asimov’s three laws of robotics to protect people from a ‘Terminator’-like end (see EW, March 12, 1997). BT’s Pearson cannot disagree, but sees light at the end of the tunnel. “Also around 2015, connections to the peripheral nervous system will be possible, by 2030 or 2035, there will be connection to the central nervous system and human consciousness will be able to run as a machine emulation. People will have caught up, thinking within machines and across networks at millions of times the current speed of thought.” Making a BabyManchester University’s Small Scale Experimental Machine, or Baby as it was known, was designed by Professors Sir Freddie Williams and Tom Kilburn (pictured) of Manchester University and it first ran on June 21, 1948. It weighed one ton, was 5 x 2 x 0.6m in size, contained 600 valves and consumed 4kW. The reconstructed Baby resides at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry and will run its original programme 50 years to the minute from when it first ran. Getting parts to make Baby has not proved as difficult as first thought. Calls for components over the Internet resulted in parts, from valves to equipment racks, appearing from attics, cellar and stores. Many were unused and some were even in the original 1940’s wrapping. ICL’s link to Manchester came through ICL’s forerunner Ferranti Computers which worked with the University in 1948 and from this produced the Ferranti Mark 1 in 1951.

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