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Microsoft's Myrhvold Gazes Into Computing's Future

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...
The flyer announcing his visit to NIH was, in itself, a stunning document, written, presumably, to induce pangs of inferiority in the largest egos on campus. The next speaker in NHGRI's Human Genome Lecture Series was not simply Bill Gates' right-hand man at Microsoft, the country's leading computer giant and certified shaper of worlds. He was also a colleague of famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking at Cambridge, holder of a herd's worth of sheepskin from such places as Princeton and Berkeley, and dabbler in such pastimes as mountain climbing, formula car racing, photography and French cooking.

"When he takes time off," the notice continued, "[Dr. Nathan] Myrhvold works as an assistant chef at one of Seattle's leading French restaurants. He has competed twice in the world championship of barbecue in Memphis, winning first and second place titles." So he is a down-home boy after all!

It was a relief to see this titan in person, for he entered Lipsett Amphitheater with all of the panache of one of those guys who work the lights in the hall: portly, rumpled and utterly preoccupied with the back end of a Compaq laptop computer, into whose nethers he was reaching as a full hall awaited his pronouncements.

Computers have already brought back T. Rex (in the film Jurassic Park), said Myrhvold (l), chief technology officer at Microsoft, shown here meeting with NIH'ers. "It's only a matter of time before we bring back Elvis."

Turns out his resume was incomplete, too. In addition to serving as chief technology officer at Microsoft, he is also the father of twin 8-year-old boys, a story about whom launched the lecture. Invited to discuss the long-term future of software in genome research, he had told his sons that he was flying out to NIH to discuss the Human Genome Project. "Well, they read the papers, and they asked me, 'Daddy, what is [the genome project]? Why would anyone want to do that?'"

What ensued in the next 90 minutes didn't particularly have to do with the genome project, but was certainly entertaining as Myrhvold, who has a talent for juggling numbers and dimensions, demonstrated the force of computers in both the past and future. He confessed at the outset that he didn't know much about what NIH does, and apologized for setting back the tide of biomedical discovery by an hour and a half. But notions of time tended to dissolve as he chopped large blocks of it like so many racks of spice-rubbed baby-back ribs.

To wit: Though it sometimes seems that computers and the Internet are ubiquitous, only 40 percent of American homes have personal computers. There is a "constant doubling time" of advances in computing speed and power, which have multiplied by a factor of 1 million in the last 20 years. What used to take a computer a year to do 20 years ago can now be accomplished in 30 seconds. Myrhvold predicts another million-fold increase in computing power in the next 20 years, so that calculations that would occupy today's best computers for a full year would then take only a few seconds. "This trend is likely to continue for at least the next 40 years," he said. In the nearer term, video transmission via computer "will become a common data type on PCs soon" as bandwidth, now considered "narrow," becomes much broader in about 2 years.

He then raced through a series of "Nathan's Laws," illustrating his points neatly with the click of a mouse, which activated a color slide show. Put simply, hardware -- the chips with all of their memory and connections -- and software -- the programs that make those chips do useful things -- are locked in a fevered race. No sooner do chips become more capacious than programmers think of some cool new tricks that, incidentally, fill their circuits.

"Software growth is limited only by human ambition," he said. "If you can think of a new feature, someone will sit down and try to write it."

Of course, any new invention will eventually fall prey to another of Nathan's Laws -- "It's fundamentally impossible to have enough. New software will continue to be written until computers are perfect."

Interestingly, the new generation of computer games for kids are often more flagrant consumers of computing power than are scientific applications, Myrhvold disclosed. A new video game called "Lost World," based on the film Jurassic Park, uses more computer power than the original movie, which was regarded as a special-effects tour de force, he said.

Because people can always imagine more than what a computer can deliver, there will always be a "software crisis," Myrhvold said. "It's a perpetual crisis. And it really is a crisis of expectations, not technology. The benefits of any new software advance tend to be absorbed by rising expectations.

"Kids will be able to make their own feature films [on computer] in the future," he predicted.

Myrhvold said the Internet today is at a similar stage as the telephone in the days of Alexander Graham Bell, or television in the days of the Milton Berle Show.

Turning more explicitly to biology, he played with big numbers the way a sous chef might concoct sauces. For example, comparing genetic complexity with its counterpart in software, he said the movie Evita, starring Madonna, takes up 4 gigabytes of memory, whereas Madonna's yet-human genome only consists of 1 gigabyte of information.

Observing that humans differ, genomically, from one another by only about 0.25 percent, "all of the things that make you unique could fit on a [1.2 megabyte] floppy disk.

"The total genetic diversity of the human race is large by many measures," he continued, "but pales in comparison with [the complexity of] a large website, such as In fact, the genetic diversity of all the world's animals is about as complex as the World Wide Web will be in a few years."

In the computing world, "it's not long before any fixed horizon is overwhelmed," he said. He predicted that in 20-30 years, "computers will have the same power as the human brain. Eighteen months later, they'll have twice as much." He joked, "If we stay fixed [with regard to brain power] and computers keep growing, they're going to catch us. Then the problem becomes, how do we program them if they're as smart as us?"

As if to illustrate where all of this is heading, Myrhvold ended his talk with a short and hilarious film depicting a brave new world in which an uploaded, digitized version of Myrhvold, instead of his corporeal self, becomes "right-hand nerd" to Bill Gates. It looked like a hell of a way to lose weight.

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