The human race is likely to be wiped out by a doomsday virus before this millennium is over unless we set up colonies in space, Stephen Hawking warns. He says that biology, rather than physics, presents the biggest challenge to human survival.

?Although September 11 was horrible, it didn?t threaten the survival of the human race, like nuclear weapons do,? says Hawking, the Cambridge University scientist who may be the world?s most famous physicist. ?In the long term, I am more worried about biology. Nuclear weapons need large facilities, but genetic engineering can be done in a small lab. You can?t regulate every lab in the world. The danger is that either by accident or design, we create a virus that destroys us.

?I don?t think the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I?m an optimist. We will reach out to the stars.?

Using the technology we have now, space travel will be long and tedious, since spaceships must travel slower than the speed of light. But Hawking says that we may be able to use a warp drive, like the kind seen on Star Trek.

He believes genetic engineering could be used to ?improve? human beings so they will be able to withstand the challenges of space travel. Cyborgs, which are humans with computers linked to their brains, will be needed to prevent intelligent computers from taking over. ?I think humans will have to learn to live in space,? he says. The Universe in a Nutshell, Hawking?s long-awaited sequel to his 1988 bestseller A Brief History of Time, will be published in the U.S. in the spring.

Meanwhile, IBM plans to develop computer systems with the biological abilities of living organisms. They feel the growing complexity of computers and networks means that technology needs to do a better job of maintaining and healing itself. Otherwise, there is a danger that computer networks will soon become unmanageable.

IBM is developing its own research program by giving grants to universities and are trying to convince other computer companies do the same. They have sent out 75,000 copies of a manifesto written by Paul Horn, senior vice president of IBM Research, that explains their Autonomic Computing initiative.

Horn warns that humans are losing the battle to manage the increasing complexity of computer systems and networks, and says this complexity is only going to increase as computer technology shrinks and finds its way into ever more devices.

?The growing complexity of the [technology] infrastructure threatens to undermine the very benefits information technology aims to provide,? Horn says. If the current rates of the expansion of digital technology stay the same, there soon won?t be enough people to keep the world?s computer systems running. Finding ways to handle this complexity is the next ?grand challenge? facing the technology industry.

Future networks should resemble the autonomic nervous system which maintains and monitors many basic bodily functions without conscious help. The autonomic nervous system maintains blood sugar and oxygen levels and monitors temperature. It adjusts the body?s heating and cooling systems to keep body temperature hovering around 98.6F. What is needed, says Horn, are computer systems that do a much better job of configuring themselves, can work around disruptions, heal any damage they suffer or fight off potential problems. Those of us who constantly deal with software problems and computer crashes would agree.

IBM is planning to create technologies that can turn relatively dumb networks into smarter alternatives. The outcome will be a series of software standards that define how to build software or hardware with biological properties. They want to create software that hides the quirks of individual machines and instruments behind common interfaces.

For the Telegraph’s story on Hawking, click here.

For the BBC’s story on IBM’s new biological technologies, click here.

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