Toward Teleportation, Time Travel and Immortality

February 21, 2001

Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Computer Science and Robotics, Carnegie Mellon University

Introduction by James Burke

Originally presented at the ACM 50th Anniversary Conference, March 5, 1997. Original presentation can be found here. Published on February 22, 2001.

I was going to say that our next speaker is going to take another way out look at things, but having heard Bruce, let’s say relatively way out. He earned a doctorate in computer science back in 1963, when he came to America from his native India via another degree in Australia. After teaching for a while at Stanford, he moved to Carnegie Mellon, where he was named a professor in 1973. He is now the Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Computer Science and Robotics. And he is recognized worldwide for his work on speech recognition and as the founder of the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute, which he ran until he took up his present position as dean of the School of Computer Science there. He’s a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was president of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence from 1987 to 1989. In 1984, he was awarded the French Legion d’Honor for his work on bringing advanced technology to developing countries, and he was awarded the ACM Turing Award in 1995. His ongoing interest is in human computer interaction. He has projects running at the moment on speech recognition, multimedia collaboration techniques, just-in-time lectures and automated machine shop. With a background like that, it’s all the more interesting that he should choose to talk about something like teleportation, time travel and immortality. I think it promises to tickle the fancy. Ladies and gentlemen, Raj Reddy.

Raj Reddy

As we look forward to the next fifty years, it is interesting to note that when the Association for Computing Machinery was being formed fifty years ago, the sense of excitement was no less palpable than it is today. Vannevar Bush had proposed MEMEX with hyperlinks between documents. Turing, having successfully broken the German code using a special-purpose digital computer, proposed the construction of a universal computing engine called Ace. John Von Neumann had recently formalized the idea of a stored-program computer. Eckert and Mauchly had created ENIAC, the first electronic digital computer in the U.S. There’s no question that the last fifty years have been exciting, dramatic and, in many ways, full of unanticipated events which have changed our lives.

What will the next fifty years bring? Given the continuing exponential rate of change, it is reasonable to assume that the next fifty years will be even more dramatic than the last hundred years. When you recall a hundred years ago, there were no cars and no highways, no electric utilities, no phone system, no radio or TV, and no airplanes, so you can well imagine the magnitude of the change that awaits us!

In this talk, I’d like to share my thoughts on how our dreams about teleportation, time travel and immortality are likely to be realized. One of our most compelling, enduring fantasies of the future has been Star Trek, where the themes of teleportation, time travel and immortality have captured the imagination of generations. Will technology make this possible in the next fifty years? We’ve heard several possible futures in the last two days. I’d like to provide you with one more.

Technology Over the Next 50 Years

By the year 2000, we can expect to see a giga-PC, a billion operations per second, a billion bits of memory and a billion-bit network bandwidth available for less than two thousand dollars. Barring the creation of a cartel or some unforeseen technological barrier, we should see a tera-PC by the year 2015 and a peta-PC by the year 2030-well before 2047.

The question is, what will we do with all this power? How will it affect the way we live and work? Many things will hardly change; our social systems, the food we eat, the clothes we wear and mating rituals will hardly be affected. Others, such as the way we learn, the way we work, the way we interact with each other and the quality and delivery of health care will undergo profound changes. First and foremost, we can hope that Microsoft will use some of this computing power to create computers that never fail and software that never needs rebooting. And yes, I can do without the leisure that I get during the boot time and at the closing time of the Windows 95, thank you.

The improvement in secondary memory will be even more dramatic. Many of you know that while the processor and memory technologies have been doubling every twenty-four months or less, disk densities have been doubling every eighteen months or so, leading to a thousandfold improvement every fifteen years. Today, you can buy a four-gigabyte disk memory for less than four hundred dollars. Four gigabytes can be used to store about ten thousand books of five hundred pages each-larger than most of our personal libraries at home. By the year 2010, we should be able to buy four terabytes for about the same price. At that cost, each of us can have a personal library of several million books, a lifetime collection of music and a lifetime collection of all our favorite movies thrown in-on our home PC. What we don’t have on our PC will be available at the click of the mouse from the universal digital library containing all the authored works of the human race.

If you choose to, you will be able to capture everything you ever said from the time you are born to your last breath in less than a few terabytes. Everything you ever did and experienced can be stored in less than a petabyte. All of this storage will only cost you a hundred dollars or less by the year 2025

So how will all this affect our lives? We’ve heard a number of scenarios for the future in the past few days. I’d like to share some of my dreams on how this technology will be used to save lives, provide education and entertainment on a personalized basis, provide universal access to information and improve the quality of life for the entire human race.

The first invention that will have a major impact on society will be the accident avoiding car. Let us look at the current state of this technology.

Dr. Charles Thorpe:. The Carnegie Mellon Navlab Project brings together computer vision, advanced sensors, high-speed processors, planning and control to build robot vehicles that drive themselves on roads and cross-country. The project began in 1984 as part of ARPA’s Autonomous Land Vehicle program-the ALV. In the early ’80s, most robots were small, slow, indoor vehicles tethered to big computers . The Stanford cart took fifteen minutes to map obstacles, plan a path and move each meter. The CMU Imp and Neptune improved on the cart’s top speed, but still moved in short bursts separated by long periods of looking and thinking. In contrast, ARPA’s ten-year goals for the ALV were to achieve eighty kilometers per hour on roads, and to travel long distances across open terrain.

With the Terragator, our first outdoor robot at CMU, we began to make fundamental changes in our approach. The Navlab, built in 1986, was our first self-contained test bed. It had room for onboard generators, onboard sensors, onboard computers and, most importantly, onboard graduate students. The next test bed was the Navlab II, an army ambulance HMMWV. It has many of the sensors used on earlier vehicles, plus cameras on pan-tilt mounts and three aligned cameras for trinocular stereo vision. The HMMWV has high ground clearance for driving on rough terrain and a one hundred and ten kilometer per hour top speed for highway driving. Computer-controlled motors turn the steering wheel and control the brake and throttle.

Perception and planning capabilities have evolved with the vehicles. Alvin is the current main-road-following vision system. Alvin is a neural network, which learns to drive by watching a human driver. Alvin has driven as far as a hundred kilometers and at speeds over a hundred and ten kilometers per hour. Ranger finds paths through rugged terrain. It takes range images, projects them onto the terrain and builds Cartesian elevation maps. Smartee and D-star find and follow cross-country routes. D-star plans a route using A* search. As the vehicle drives, Smartee finds obstacles using Geneesha’s map, steers the vehicle around them and passes the obstacles to D-star. D-star adds the new obstacles to it’s global map and replans the optimal path.

Currently, Navlab technology is being applied to highway safety. In a recent trip from Washington, D.C. to San Diego, the Navlab 5 Vision System steered autonomously more than ninety-eight percent of the way. In a driver-warning application, the vision system watches as a person drives and sounds an alarm if the driver falls asleep and the vehicle drifts off the road. The same autonomous navigation capability is a central part of the automated highway system, a project that is building completely automated cars, trucks and buses. Automated vehicles will improve safety, decrease congestion and improve mobility for the elderly and disabled.

Every year, about forty thousand people die in automobile accidents, and the annual repair bill is about fifty-five billion dollars! Even if this technology helps to eliminate half of these accidents, the savings would pay for all basic research in information technology that has been done since the founding of ACM fifty years ago.

Toward Teleportation

The second area of major potential impact on society is telemedicine. Remote medical consultation is already beginning to improve the quality of care for people located in remote areas. With increased bandwidth and computational capabilities, it will become possible to perform 3-D visualization, remote control of microrobotic surgery and other sophisticated procedures. It’s not quite teleportation in the classical sense of Star Trek, but consider the following: If you can watch the Super Bowl from the vantage point of a quarterback in the midfield, or repair a robot that has fallen down on the surface of Mars or perform telesurgery three thousand miles away, then you have the functional equivalent of teleportation-bringing the world to us, and bringing us to the world, atoms to bits. Let us look at some recent advances in 3-D modeling and multibaseline-in-stereo theory that are essential for being able to do these functions.

By Dr. Takeo Kanade: A real-time, 3-D modeling system using multibaseline-stereo theory has been developed by Professor Takeo Kanade and other researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. The virtualized reality studio dome is fully covered by many cameras from all directions. The range or depth of every point in an image was computed using the same multibaseline-stereo algorithm used in the video-rate stereo machine. The scene can be reconstructed with the depth and intensity information by placing a virtua, or soft camera from the front, from the left, from the right or from the top, or moving the soft camera as the user moves freely. For this baseball scene, we can create a ball’- eye view. A one-on-one basketball scene has also been virtualized from a number of viewpoints.

Currently this system requires about a teraflop per second for the 3-D reconstruction of the basketball scene at the video rate. Instrumenting a football field with a dome consisting of ten thousand high-definition cameras will require twenty petaflops of computation and a hundred gigabytes of bandwidth to transmit the 3D Model.

Universal Access to Information and Knowledge

Another area that will have a major impact on society will be the creation of a digital library. We already have access to a broad base of information through the Web, but it is less than one percent of all the information that is available in the archives. We can envision the day when all the authored works of the human race will be available to anyone in the world instantaneously. Not just the books, not just the journals or newspapers on demand, but also music, paintings, and movies. Once you have music on demand, you can throw away all of your CDs and just use the Web to access anything you want. You may just have to pay five cents each time you listen to it-that could be the way it works. This will, in turn, lead to a flood of information competing for the scarce resource of human attention. With the predictable advances in summarization and abstraction techniques, we should be able to see Gone With The Wind in one hour or less, and the Super Bowl in less than a half hour and not miss any of the fun, including the conclusion in real time.

By Dr. Jack Mostow: Illiteracy costs the United States over 225 BILLION dollars annually in corporate retraining, industrial accidents and lost competitiveness. If we can reduce illiteracy by just twenty percent, Project LISTEN could save the nation over 45 BILLION dollars a year.

At Carnegie Mellon University, Project LISTEN is taking a novel approach to the problem of illiteracy. We have developed a prototype automated reading coach that listens to a child read aloud and helps when needed. The system is based on the CMU Sphinx II speech-recognition technology. The coach provides a combination of reading and listening, in which the child reads wherever possible, and the coach helps wherever necessary–a bit like training wheels on a bicycle.

The coach is designed to emphasize comprehension and ignore minor mistakes, such as false starts or repeated words. When the reader gets stuck, the coach jumps in, enabling the reader to complete the sentence. When the reader misses an important word, the coach rereads the words that led up to it, just like the expert reading teachers whom the coach is modeled after. This context often helps the reader correct the word on the second try. When the reader runs into more difficulty, the coach rereads the sentence to help the reader comprehend it. The coach’s ability to listen enables it to detect when and where the reader needs help.

What has been a real plus for the teachers in schools is the fact that children can use it independently. They enjoy reading the stories, and they can prompt the story along. And they’re getting some help with individual words that they’re struggling with, and they’re picking up the meaning of the stories. Experiments to date suggest that it has the potential to reduce children’s reading mistakes by a factor of five and enable them to comprehend material at least six months more advanced than they can read on their own.

Toward Time Travel

So this brings us to the prospect of using time travel as an educational tool. In the future, it will no longer be necessary or essential for the teacher and the student to be at the same time and place. Let us see an experiment in which Einstein is talking to today’s students.

By Dr. Scott Stevens and Dr. Don Marinelli:




ACTION: The large classroom/auditorium is filled with students. They are quiet, intensely watching Dr. Einstein explain the equation E=MC (squared). Einstein is being projected onto a big screen directly from the computer. He is in the middle of his lesson.


The equation E for energy is equal to MC squared. Hmmm. This equation for the equation of mass and energy through the coupling power of light is…


ACTION: The two students are seated on the left side of the auditorium. One student turns to the other.


Can you believe that we are actually sitting here taking a class from the great Albert Einstein?


It really is incredible, but I do have one question. Who grades us for this course? I mean, sure, that is Einstein up on the screen, but who is actually going to grade our work?


Have you checked out the teaching assistants?


Teaching assistants? No. Why?


Look! (He motions to the other side of the classroom.)


ACTION: Three or four students are leaning up against the wall on the far side of the classroom. Each is dressed exactly like Albert Einstein: wild gray hair, moustaches, lined faces, and each is holding a pipe. They are nodding in agreement with Einstein. The effect should be both funny and amazing.

STUDENT # 1 (V.O.)




ACTION: This is a room where individuals can access the computer for the purpose of conducting synthetic interviews. We see a computer terminal on a desk. The computer has a microphone attached to it. There are a few chairs in front of the terminal occupied by elementary school students. They are wearing parochial-school uniforms.


Excuse me Dr. Einstein, we’re writing a paper about your life and would like to ask you some questions about your childhood. Could you tell us where you were born?



I was born on March 14, 1879 in a small town in southern Germany called Ulm. I don’t remember it. I remember Munich, whereto my Papa moved the family when I was just one year old. In Munich, my Papa Hermann and his brother, my uncle Jakob, went into business together manufacturing and selling small electrical appliances.




Professor Einstein, why don’t you accept and believe in quantum mechanics?



Quantum mechanics is very worthy of regard. But an inner voice tells me that this is not the true Jacob. The theory yields much, but it hardly brings us close to the secrets of the Ancient One. In any case, I am convinced that He does not play dice.

I admire to the highest degree the achievement of the younger generation of physicists which goes by the name of quantum mechanics and believe in the deep level of truth of that theory; but I believe that the restriction to statistical laws will be a passing one.


Well, don’t you think the quantum theory is correct?


The more success the quantum theory has, the sillier it looks.



ACTION: Younger physicist makes face–is exasperated.




Professor Einstein, having escaped from Hitler’s Germany, how can you explain the persecution against the Jews?


The Nazis saw the Jews as a nonassimilable element that could not be driven into uncritical acceptance, and that threatened their authority because of its insistence on popular enlightenment of the masses.



ACTION: Two Indian students–a man and a woman–have replaced the professor from the previous scene.


Dr. Einstein, I recall reading that you met and became very good friends with Mahatma Gandhi.


Can you tell me what impressed you most about Mahatma Gandhi?



I believe that Gandhi held the most enlightened views of all the political men in our time…a man who has confronted the brutality of Europe with the dignity of the simple human being, and thus at all times risen superior.

Generations to come, it may be, will scarcely believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.



ACTION: A housewife is now seated at the computer screen.


Is it true that you never wore socks?



When I was young, I found out that the big toe always ends up making a hole in a sock. So, I stopped wearing socks.

So, if we had captured Einstein in living color and 3-D when he was alive, it would be technically possible today to have an imaginary conversation with him. The people responsible for this synthetic interview at the Grand Illusion Studios, which is a spin off from Carnegie Mellon, are hoping to create a service which will permit you to converse with your great, great, great grandchildren in the same way. This is not quite the time travel that you’ve grown to expect from Star Trek, but it’s another example of substituting bits for atoms to achieve an equivalent experience. With some pre-planning and appropriate data capture, future generations will be able to experience historical events first-hand and interact with the past generations.

Toward Immortality

There is work underway in areas such as geriatric robotics that will help senior citizens with simple disabilities lead normal lives well past their prime. And you may ask, can this go on forever? Transplant surgeries are one way of extending life expectancy beyond a hundred years or so, and given advances in cloning, we may be getting closer to achieving the dream of immortality. But as Nathan Myhrvold pointed out, you need to download extragenetic experiences-the software in your brain, not just the DNA-based system. One possibility would be to bring you back to life in the fourth millennium using a frozen embryo of your clone and then infusing you with all the experiences you’ve undergone in this lifetime. Immortality should not be thought of as some mystical transfer of atoms from one brain to the other as in the Star Trek movies. It should be viewed from an information-technology perspective whereby you provide the clone with all the important extragenetic experiences of everything you ever said and did. Then you create a rapid, simulated learning environment in which the new clone, with a new brain, which can live on for another generation, gets all of your experiences–bits for atoms. It’s not quite immortal in the classical sense of the word, but close enough, especially given that the cloning process can go on every millennium. That way you will live forever, except you will be learning the cumulative experiences of all the generations.