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 scary’.
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 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 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.