Brain downloads 'possible by 2050' ?

Andre Kesteloot andre.kesteloot at
Tue Jun 21 13:20:07 CDT 2005,6903,1489635,00.html

2050 - and Immortality is within our grasp

Britain's leading thinker on the future offers an extraordinary vision of
life in the next 45 years

David Smith, technology correspondent
Sunday May 22, 2005


Aeroplanes will be too afraid to crash, yoghurts will wish you good
morning before being eaten and human consciousness will be stored on
supercomputers, promising immortality for all - though it will help to be

These fantastic claims are not made by a science fiction writer or a
crystal ball-gazing lunatic. They are the deadly earnest predictions of
Ian Pearson, head of the futurology unit at BT.

'If you draw the timelines, realistically by 2050 we would expect to be
able to download your mind into a machine, so when you die it's not a
major career problem,' Pearson told The Observer. 'If you're rich enough
then by 2050 it's feasible. If you're poor you'll probably have to wait
until 2075 or 2080 when it's routine. We are very serious about it. That's
how fast this technology is moving: 45 years is a hell of a long time in

Pearson, 44, has formed his mind-boggling vision of the future after
graduating in applied mathematics and theoretical physics, spending four
years working in missile design and the past 20 years working in optical
networks, broadband network evolution and cybernetics in BT's
laboratories. He admits his prophecies are both 'very exciting' and 'very

He believes that today's youngsters may never have to die, and points to
the rapid advances in computing power demonstrated last week, when Sony
released the first details of its PlayStation 3. It is 35 times more
powerful than previous games consoles. 'The new PlayStation is 1 per cent
as powerful as a human brain,' he said. 'It is into supercomputer status
compared to 10 years ago. PlayStation 5 will probably be as powerful as
the human brain.'

The world's fastest computer, IBM's BlueGene, can perform 70.72 trillion
calculations per second (teraflops) and is accelerating all the time. But
anyone who believes in the uniqueness of consciousness or the soul will
find Pearson's next suggestion hard to swallow. 'We're already looking at
how you might structure a computer that could possibly become conscious.
There are quite a lot of us now who believe it's entirely feasible.

'We don't know how to do it yet but we've begun looking in the same
directions, for example at the techniques we think that consciousness is
based on: information comes in from the outside world but also from other
parts of your brain and each part processes it on an internal sensing
basis. Consciousness is just another sense, effectively, and that's what
we're trying to design in a computer. Not everyone agrees, but it's my
conclusion that it is possible to make a conscious computer with
superhuman levels of intelligence before 2020.'

He continued: 'It would definitely have emotions - that's one of the
primary reasons for doing it. If I'm on an aeroplane I want the computer
to be more terrified of crashing than I am so it does everything to stay
in the air until it's supposed to be on the ground.

'You can also start automating an awful lots of jobs. Instead of phoning
up a call centre and getting a machine that says, "Type 1 for this and 2
for that and 3 for the other," if you had machine personalities you could
have any number of call staff, so you can be dealt with without ever
waiting in a queue at a call centre again.'

Pearson, from Whitehaven in Cumbria, collaborates on technology with some
developers and keeps a watching brief on advances around the world. He
concedes the need to debate the implications of progress. 'You need a
completely global debate. Whether we should be building machines as smart
as people is a really big one. Whether we should be allowed to modify
bacteria to assemble electronic circuitry and make themselves smart is
already being researched.

'We can already use DNA, for example, to make electronic circuits so it's
possible to think of a smart yoghurt some time after 2020 or 2025, where
the yoghurt has got a whole stack of electronics in every single
bacterium. You could have a conversation with your strawberry yogurt
before you eat it.'

In the shorter term, Pearson identifies the next phase of progress as
'ambient intelligence': chips with everything. He explained: 'For example,
if you have a pollen count sensor in your car you take some antihistamine
before you get out. Chips will come small enough that you can start
impregnating them into the skin. We're talking about video tattoos as
very, very thin sheets of polymer that you just literally stick on to the
skin and they stay there for several days. You could even build in
cellphones and connect it to the network, use it as a video phone and
download videos or receive emails.'

Philips, the electronics giant, is developing the world's first rollable
display which is just a millimetre thick and has a 12.5cm screen which can
be wrapped around the arm. It expects to start production within two

The next age, he predicts, will be that of 'simplicity' in around
2013-2015. 'This is where the IT has actually become mature enough that
people will be able to drive it without having to go on a training course.

'Forget this notion that you have to have one single chip in the computer
which does everything. Why not just get a stack of little self-organising
chips in a box and they'll hook up and do it themselves. It won't be able
to get any viruses because most of the operating system will be stored in
hardware which the hackers can't write to. If your machine starts going
wrong, you just push a button and it's reset to the factory setting.'

Pearson's third age is 'virtual worlds' in around 2020. 'We will spend a
lot of time in virtual space, using high quality, 3D, immersive, computer
generated environments to socialise and do business in. When technology
gives you a life-size 3D image and the links to your nervous system allow
you to shake hands, it's like being in the other person's office. It's
impossible to believe that won't be the normal way of communicating.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

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