Home computing pioneer honoured

One of the designers of the classic BBC Micro computer has been recognised in the New Year Honours list.

Steve Furber of the University of Manchester was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).

He was honoured for services to computer science, which included work as a designer at the UK computer firm Acorn, the makers of the BBC machine.

The scientist also helped design the ARM processor, a type of chip that dominates mobile electronics.

"I've been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to do something interesting and have also been surrounded by very good people," he told BBC News.

"[The CBE] came completely out of the blue, but obviously I'm delighted."

Professor Furber originally trained as a mathematician and went on to complete a PhD in aerodynamics at the University of Cambridge.

Whilst studying in the late 70s he became involved with the Cambridge University Processor Group, a club for computer hobbyists.

"There was a gang of use who used to order integrated circuits and microprocessors from the very small number of shops that sold them," he said.

"We got these bits and started building machines."

During this time he was approached by Herman Hauser, co-founder of Acorn.

One of his first major projects was designing the unexpectedly successful BBC Micro, a machine designed to accompany a computer literacy programme set up by the Corporation.

"When the BBC first came talking about the contract their estimate was that maybe 12,000 would be sold," explained Professor Furber.

Ultimately, 1.5 million of the beige machines were sold.

But the success of the BBC Micro pales alongside the success of another product co-designed by Professor Furber.

"The success story of the ARM is one that has built slowly but steadily," he said.

The first ARM chips came off the production line on the 26 April 1985.

"It was 10 years before it really started to emerge as a global success story and probably 15 years before it was recognised as such," he said.

ARM processors have become popular for portable electronics because of their efficient use of power.

Today, they are found in everything from MP3 players to calculators and mobile phones. About 10 million of the chips are sold every day.

Professor Furber is currently building a new type of computer using the popular processors.

The Spinnaker project aims to mimic the complex interactions in the human brain.

The machine, nicknamed the "brain box", is designed to eventually contain one million ARM processors.

"We are using ARMs like we were using transistors 20 years ago," he said. Although the finished machine will pack a huge amount of processing power, it will still only model around 1% of the human brain, or around one billion neurons.

However, Professor Furber has high hopes for the machine.

"A significant breakthrough in understanding the brain would be a result, but a significant breakthrough in finding a new computational model for more conventional computing would also be a good result," he said.

In addition, he hopes that projects such as Spinnaker will inspire the next generation of computer science graduates.

"People think that the computing story is all played out," he said.

"But the changes that we have seen over the last 30 years are small compared to what we will see in the next 30 - it strikes me that computer science is still a very exciting place to be."

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