The rise of sleeplessness in increasingly sophisticated economies such as Britain could lead to the creation of a "zombie nation".

Scientists fear that this lack of sleep could sap the ability of Western society to develop the next generation of technology.

Because of the rise of cheap labour in countries such as China, there has been an increasing emphasis in the West on the ability to innovate.

The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, said he wanted Britain to lead the world in science.

But yesterday an eminent chronobiologist told the Cheltenham Science Festival, sponsored by The Daily Telegraph, that a "zombie nation" could sleep walk to economic disaster.

If given the chance, we spend more hours sleeping than doing anything else.

Symptoms of deprivation range from weight gain to irritability, hallucinations and depression, Prof Russell Foster, of Oxford University, told the event sponsored by Wellcome Trust.

Along with the rise of the light bulb, 24-hour society and shift work we might soon be able to drug ourselves to stay awake without resorting to caffeine or amphetamines, said Prof Foster.

He was referring to how the military already use a drug called modafinil to keep going for days.

"The problem is that shortened sleep directly impairs those brain mechanisms that allow our brain to innovate," the professor of circadian neuroscience said yesterday.

"There are two opposing interactions in the developed economies," he said. "First, extended work hours and increasing 24/7 behaviour is reducing the overall amount of sleep.

"Second, with the demise of manufacturing an increasing dependence on our ability to innovate and problem solve - the organisation of others. These two trends are, unfortunately, on a collision course".

Scientists estimate that in the early 1900s people slept for more than nine hours. In the 1960s they slept for more than eight. But now we are sleeping for about six hours.

Prof Foster has campaigned for years about how modern society means that we are sleep deprived, harming our mental dexterity, memory and health, as well as putting us at greater risk of accidents.