African Computer Genius

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When most people talk about the future of the Internet, they think 10, maybe 20 years down the road. Philip Emeagwali thinks in millennia. Having visions of consumer electronics networked to create a "smart home" that can respond to its owner's commands? Sorry, heard that one. How about a world in which humans with chips in their brains communicate through telepathic e-mail? Forget e-mail, "t-mail" is the future.

When most people talk about the future of the Internet, they think 10, maybe 20 years down the road. Philip Emeagwali thinks in millennia. Having visions of consumer electronics networked to create a "smart home" that can respond to its owner's commands? Sorry, heard that one. How about a world in which humans with chips in their brains communicate through telepathic e-mail? Forget e-mail, "t-mail" is the future.

It's one of the provocative, some would say outlandish, ideas to flow from the formidable mind of Emeagwali, supercomputer virtuoso, Internet prophet, civil-war survivor and African hero. Superlatives abound on Emeagwali's lengthy resume. In 1989, he programmed more than 65,000 computer processors to perform the world's fastest computation: 3.1 billion calculations per second.The feat smashed the previous record and proved a network of small computers could outperform more powerful, expensive supercomputers. (Today's fastest supercomputers can perform well over a trillion calculations per second.) He has been called one of the "fathers of the Internet," alongside pioneers such as Tim Berners-Lee and Vint Cerf.

Last year, he placed 35th among the 100 greatest Africans ever in a poll by New African magazine. The list is topped by Nelson Mandela and includes Martin Luther King, Kofi Annan and Bob Marley. Born in Nigeria, young Philip was recognized early as a math prodigy. His father drilled him to solve 100 problems an hour to help pass school entrance exams.

But at the age of 12, civil war forced him to drop out and he was conscripted into the Biafran army. He earned a high school diploma through self-teaching and won a math scholarship in the U.S. He has since earned several degrees, including a PhD in scientific computing, and delved into fields such as oceanography, meterology and oil exploration.

In recent years, Emeagwali, now 50, has used his knowledge of supercomputers to develop a theory of the Internet's evolution. He dismisses the common notion the Internet evolved out of the security needs of the U.S. defence establishment. For him, it was about finding ways for scientists to access remote supercomputers, the colossal calculators housed in scientific and military labs.
And he believes supercomputers, not software applications such as e-mail and Web browsers, will continue to drive the Net's development. A century from now, the computers at each node of the Internet will be a "zillion times" faster and more intelligent, rendering the computer, and even the Internet, obsolete. Meanwhile, bionic implants will rewire our brains into computers, he predicts. With everyone "logged on" at all times, e-mail will be telepathic.

Emeagwali realizes this sounds like science fiction, he said in an interview. But in this case of his supercomputer discovery, fiction was the spark of genius. His idea to harness the power of thousands of computers came from a book that imagined 64,000 humans around the world performing calculations to improve weather forecasting.

Emeagwali has also distinguished himself for his stand on social issues, such as the effects of colonization on Africa and the ongoing "brain drain" of promising African scholars to the West. "I'm a Black scientist and an African scientist. So when I became prominent, I tried to use that voice," said Emeagwali, a Washington-based consultant. "If the Internet and telecommunications break down the barriers of space and time, it means somebody in Africa or India could be employed in the United States or Canada."

(The Gazette, Montreal, 2005) For more articles and reports please click on "subscribe" on the homepage or please call (212) 481-7745 for the newsstand edition of The Black Star News.

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