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Saturday, March 7, 1998 Published at 06:41 GMT


A brief history of the future
image: [ Mr Hawking's speech was broadcast all over the world via the Internet ]
Mr Hawking's speech was broadcast all over the world via the Internet

The British physicist, Stephen Hawking, sketched a remarkable vision of the future at the White House on Friday, saying scientists might soon solve key mysteries of the universe and genetic engineers would rapidly change the human race.

In a playful and entertaining lecture given a dramatic futuristic tone by the computerised voice synthesizer he needs to communicate with, Mr Hawking said most science fiction of this century was flawed in predicting that humans themselves would remain unchanged while science reached new levels.

[ image: The White House will host more
The White House will host more "Millenium Evenings"
"I don't believe science fiction like 'Star Trek,' where people are essentially the same 400 years in the future," Mr Hawking told President Bill Clinton, the first lady, Hillary Clinton and an audience including several notable American physicists.

"I think the human race and its DNA will increase in complexity quite rapidly," he said.

His appearance on Friday was the second in a series of White House "Millennium Evenings," designed to commemorate the turning of the century with learned discussions about the past and future.

"I will have a chance of being right about the next 100 years, but the rest of the millennium will be wild speculation," he quipped.

Hawking said genetic engineers would be the ones to hasten the pace of evolution and this change might be needed so humans could keep up with their own scientific and technological advances.

"In a way, the human race needs to improve its mental and physical qualities if it is to deal with the increasingly complex world around it and meet new challenges like space travel.

And it also needs to increase its complexity if biological systems are to keep ahead of electronic ones," he said.

Technological advances

Computer advances are likely to continue until the machines can match the human brain in complexity and perhaps even design new, "smarter" computers by themselves, he said.

He said science might soon solve a basic riddle of the universe by unifying theories of quantum physics and relativity but added that his previous predictions of a solution by the end of this decade seemed unlikely now.

The event on Friday was transmitted over the World Wide Web, and more than 300 people, including Vice President Al Gore, submitted questions to Mr Hawking over the Internet.

Hawking spiced his lecture with a clip of himself from a "Star Trek" episode in which he plays cards with Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, and he was greeted via satellite by US astronaut Andrew Thomas, orbiting aboard the Russian space station Mir.

Mr Hawking is the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, holding an academic chair once occupied by Newton, and he became famous for his theories on black holes in space and on the structure of the universe.

Although Mr Hawking has been the object of comparisons with previous giants in theoretical physics, he brushed them off.

"I think to compare me with Newton and Einstein is media hype," he said.

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