Hi-tech Trek


Welcome to the 2008 Christmas Lectures website.

In the mid 1820s Michael Faraday, a former Director of the Royal Institution, initiated the first Christmas Lecture series, finding new and innovative ways of bringing science to young people. The Christmas Lectures have since continued annually, stopping only during World War 2, and have become something of a UK Christmas tradition.

This year, Professor Christopher Bishop will be taking us on fast-paced Hi-tech Trek through the fascinating world of computer science.

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Hi-tech Trek on TV

The lectures were filmed in early December 2008 and broadcast on Five during the Christmas holidays.

Lecture 1 – Breaking the speed limit

Inside every personal computer, mobile phone, and games console is one of the most complex pieces of engineering ever created – the microprocessor.

How is it possible to build a machine as complex as the microprocessor with a billion tiny components packed into a space the size of a postage stamp? What are the challenges that are making it harder to continue the incredible improvement in speed, and what ideas are being explored to overcome them? Can we build new kinds of computers based on individual molecules? Can we store information using single electrons? Could we even build machines that do computation without consuming energy?

To find out join Chris Bishop on a fascinating exploration of the extraordinary world of the silicon chip.

Lecture 2 – Chips with everything

More computers are manufactured every year than the world’s total population. But fewer than 1% of these take the form of desktop or laptop computers. As microchips get ever smaller and faster they are being built into a huge range of objects and devices all around us. Every day we interact with dozens, if not hundreds of computers, often without even realising it. But very few of these have mice and keyboards, and as computers become ever more widespread we will need new ways to communicate with them.

In this lecture Chris Bishop will reveal the state-of-the-art in computer interaction, and will demonstrate new touch-screen technologies, three-dimensional displays, even flexible screens that can be rolled up when they’re not being used. But it's not just displays that are being revolutionised. As the number of computers around us grows, they will increasingly be networked with each other and with the internet, opening up many new opportunities to exploit the power of computers.

Lecture 3 – Ghost in the machine

Computers are the most versatile machines ever invented, and the same piece of hardware can be used for thousands of different purposes. But it is software that brings the machine to life, and turns it into a phone, a music player, a game, or any number of other possibilities, including ones not even imagined by the creator of the hardware.

But what is software, and how is it stored inside the computer? Is data the same thing as information? Why are some problems just too hard for any computer to solve, and how can we turn this to our advantage?

Join Chris Bishop as he looks at how software has touched almost every aspect of our lives. Find out how powerful new computers running sophisticated software are able to do thousands of tasks at once, and why a quantum computer may one day be able to do more calculations at the same time than there are atoms in the universe.

Lecture 4 – Untangling the web

The impact of computers increased dramatically when they were connected together to form the internet. But how does information make its way across the internet, through hundreds of computers to the right destination? How does a search engine find the web page you want amongst billions of possibilities in a fraction of a second? What will the web be like in years to come? And is your credit card number safe when you send it over the internet?

In this lecture Chris Bishop will untangle some of the mysteries of the web. He will reveal one of the most surprising results in computer science, and will show how it is used to make web pages secure. We will discover ways of scrambling information to stop eavesdroppers from reading it, and we will see how quantum physics can provide us with a totally secret way to transmit data over the internet.

Lecture 5 – Digital intelligence

Computers are extraordinary machines, able to perform feats of arithmetic that far exceed the capabilities of any human. They can store a huge quantity of data, and recall it perfectly in the blink of an eye. They can even beat the world champion at chess. So why do computers struggle to solve apparently simple tasks such as understanding speech, or translating text between languages? Why is a three-year-old toddler better at recognising everyday objects than the world’s most powerful supercomputer?

In the last of this year’s Christmas Lectures, Chris Bishop will look at one of the great frontiers of computer science. We’ll see how some of the toughest computational problems are now being tackled by giving computers the ability to learn solutions for themselves, in much the same way as people learn by example. This has led to impressive progress with problems such as recognising handwriting and finding information on the web. But we are only beginning to explore the power of computation, and there are many challenges ahead in our quest for the ultimate computer.

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Hi-tech Trek on the web

Explore our island paradise, packed with games and puzzles. Chris will be your tour guide as you join him on a quest to build the ultimate computer.

You can visit these sections of the website today:


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Order DVD

A DVD of all five of this year’s Christmas Lectures will be available from March 2009. Pre-order your copy now by visiting the 2008 DVD order page

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