The year 2050

Within 50 years we may see the ultimate combination of biology and modelling, with finite-element models being implemented on carbon-based computing platforms. Carbon shares silicon's electron valency, making it a viable semiconductor. But carbon's real potential lies in its unrivalled ability to form compounds of very high molecular weight, which has made it suitable for the encoding and processing of the huge amount of information required to construct a human being. It is a logical step to consider utilizing DNA code and associated enzymes, which have been developed and refined over billions of years of evolution, to construct a carbon-based computer. Such a device could exist in a test-tube, into which DNA-like molecules would be placed containing the input data, and recombinant DNA techniques used to perform the processing function. The output would be the resulting new 'genetic' combinations. A carbon-based computer would have several attractive characteristics:

• Fast: trillions of strands of DNA would be processed in a single biochemical operation, so that a computation that would currently take one year to perform could be completed in one second.

• Compact: if a grain of sand represented each unit of information on DNA, the information contained in the sand on all the beaches on Earth would fit under a fingernail.

• Efficient: a computation that would currently consume all the output from a large nuclear power station could be performed using the output of a single 1 cm2 solar cell.

Taken together, these performance levels represent a million-fold improvement over present-day computers. This means that the current rate of exponential growth in computing power will be sustained for another half century if carbon-based computers were to become commodity items by 2050. It may then be feasible to implement a finite-element model of a complete human at a cellular level.

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