- 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 rich.
- 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 IT.'
- 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
- '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 years.
- 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
- '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
- 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