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BBC News BBC News Frontpage | Back to the Future 
Ian Pearson,

Ian Pearson
In 1900

In principle we should be able to make a computer version of your brain which runs a thousand million times faster.

Death need not be a major career problem in the late 21st century.

People will cheat death by getting electronic immortality.

The boundary between humans and machines becomes so blurred that eventually we can't draw that line at all, and human beings begin to cease to exist.

We might be facing voluntary extinction, maybe round about 2200, 2300.

Chopping people's heads off with swords was horrible, but at least it was honest.

We might have individual insect-like robots running around on the lawn snipping off every blade of grass.

If its possible to do time travel, we'll know how to do it before 2050.
Q: What is going to happen to computers in the next 100 years?

A: Computers are getting smarter all the time, we don't really notice it, we just go from one generation to the next and there's a small improvement here and a small improvement there. Over a period of several decades, we'll get to the points where the computer has left us behind in terms of its overall capability. We think we'll achieve man machine equivalence in a computer by about 2015.

Q: Explain to me about the size and speed of the human brain and how we might begin to approach and surpass that with computers.

A: The human brain's got about ten to the power of eleven, its a hundred thousand million brain cells, and each of those has got hundreds or thousands of connections to other brain cells, its immensely complicated. But already the world telecom system is of that sort of complexity, and within a few decades from now, a single computer will have that level of complexity, but of course its running much, much faster. It will be running at electronic speed rather than the very sluggish speed that the signals transfer in brain cells. A signal in your brain travels at hundreds of metres per second; a signal in an optical fibre it travels at hundreds of millions of metres per second, its a million times faster.

So if we could make a computer representation of your brain very, very much smaller, so we get another factor of a hundred or a thousand in speed there. We think in principle we should be able to make a computer version of your brain which runs a thousand million times faster but otherwise has more or less the same structure. If we were then able to combine with that all of the computer processing capability around the planet, plus the connections to everybody else's brains, then effectively you would have access to all of human knowledge just by thinking about it and you can process it infinitely faster than you possibly could in the 'mark one' human brain inside your head.

Q: Explain to me about the potential and the possibilities of the brain interfacing with computers.

A: I think when we connect the brain to the computer, we're getting the best of both worlds. A computer's a very mechanistic machine, it does what we tell it. In the future it'll have a bit more flexibility. It'll have neural network technology, quantum technology, photonic technology, just about every other sort of technology that we can imagine will help. So when we connect our brain - which just works in one way - to that, we've got all that extra versatility. So now we can solve problems that we couldn't solve previously, now we can solve problems which require immense amounts of computation.

People aren't very good at doing computation. What people are very good at is recognising images and remembering experiences and stuff, and computers aren't very good at that sort of thing, so we have complementary skills. Linking the two together would make a major step forward for mankind.

The biggest breakthrough though is that if you've got all your thoughts constantly being read by the computer, your brain's being backed up in cyber space. When you get run down by a bus, you have got a back up, so your kids can pick up the android at the DIY store and they upload you into it and you carry on. Death need not be a major career problem in the late 21st century. People will cheat death by getting electronic immortality.

Q: If I can back up my brain in cyberspace, do you think I could also have access to your brain and you could access to my brain? What does that do to individuality?

A: It goes without saying that once you can connect your brain to the machine, and that machine's connected to a network, which is connected to other people's machines and their brains in due course, I've effectively got telepathic communication with all the other people on the planet.

I can think a thought to my wife, the computer picks up who its for, sends it across the network and then in the early stages with voice synthesisers into an earpiece that she'd be wearing. A few decades later, we will just put the thought straight into her mind. So I think its very feasible indeed that we will have telepathic communication between people. We can even think in terms of a global consciousness, all the people in the world sharing the same consciousness. I think some of the world's religions buy into that idea; the realisation of consciousness is something they aspire to, that'll be technologically feasible some time between 2050 and 2100.

Q: What about if I can load my brain onto a computer and you can have access to my brain on a computer, does that make you me?

A: I think with getting access to other people's thoughts, we would learn various social protocols with allowing access to certain public areas of our minds but not access to the nitty gritty perverted thoughts that we might be trying to hide away from everybody else. We would have to have different levels of access to each other's minds.

Q: Is there a chance that by sharing our consciousness with others in which our individuality will be changed in ways that we can't possibly contemplate?

A: I think that most technologies are essentially neutral and its how we choose to use them which makes the difference between whether they're good or bad. If we look at things like sharing consciousness, we can see obvious implications for things like individuality. You know what is you, when you're sharing your thoughts with me all the time, where do you stop and where do I begin?

If you look at it from a religious point of view you've got even more complicated issues. We'll find ways of dealing with it. We're not talking about discovering this level of technology overnight, it will come over a period of decades and we'll have decades to gradually get used to it.

Q: How far could this go? What is the point at which the machine takes over?

A: By 2030 we should be able to do a full link to the nervous system, maybe even a full link directly to the brain, so your thoughts can execute in the machine world. In that same time frame we'll probably see the first adults coming out with optimised human genomes... so now we've got something like the Borg on Star Trek with a body like Schwarzenegger and a brain like Einstein. This guy can run a mile in three minutes and yet is one of the smartest guys that has ever lived.

At that point we'll be woven directly into the internet all day long, and of course eventually we make the complete transition. As people start dying their brains are backed up in cyber space, now they're a totally machine based organism, they just have a mind, they pick up an android when they need it, maybe we're talking 2060, 2070 there.

That's the good side of the technology, you know when we start making a much, much closer link to the machine world, the boundary between humans and machines becomes so blurred that eventually we can't draw that line at all, and human beings begin to cease to exist. We might be facing voluntary extinction, maybe round about 2200, 2300.

Q: What about space exploration?

At that point we can download all of that mind into a tiny fraction of a pinhead, stick it in a tiny little space capsule - just a fraction of a millimetre across - and catapult it through a tiny wormhole to colonise a planet, hundreds of light years away, maybe. We might have that level of technology. Colonising the stars might be like a dandelion throwing off seeds; rather than getting in the starship Enterprise and flying at warp factor 10, you know, I really don't believe in the Star Trek model of space exploration. It would be far easier to do it with tiny little nanoprobes and tiny little spaceships that you can't even see.

Q: Will these incredibly sophisticated computers which are connected to us so intimately have emotions or a consciousness?

A: Future computers will certainly have emotions, we're already working on that today. People say oh computers will never feel and they'll never do this, we think that they will have to feel if we want to make much more progress in artificial intelligence. If you want to get a computer programme which is really capable of flying an aeroplane, and actually cares whether the plane crashes, you know, so that it doesn't crash, I think we need to get emotion in there somewhere.

The other thing which we need to do with computers is to make them much more organic in their way of behaving and we're working on that too. It will become much more natural to talk to a computer in future. Already we've got a the technology to put a face on the machine with a computer programme behind it, so that when you're talking to the computer you think you're talking to another human being. Eventually with virtual reality you won't know whether you're talking to a computer or a human being, and you won't know whether they're male or female, fat or thin, ugly or attractive or ten or a hundred, you won't care either.

Q: What's your future timescale for the replacement of inadequate body organs with things that can do the job as well or better?

A: We're going to see an awful lot of spare body parts coming in over the next few decades. Already we can replace basic things, we've got blood substitutes already which work for a short time, they will get better, we've got skin substitutes already. I did a calculation a few years ago, we worked out that 98% of your body mass could theoretically be replaced by artificial components by 2020, you know we'll even have artificial eyes by 2020 almost as good as the real thing, maybe even as good as the real thing.

The only bit that we can't replicate in 2020 probably is the brain, that might make till 2030 or 2035 or 2040 even. But you might not want to, the technology that comes out round about the 2020, 2025 time frame which is really key is nano-technology, and nano-technology promises to go back into the actual cells in your real body, the original body, and to fix all of the damage that's done. It is one of the biggest technologies of the 21st century, so we can look forward to a world of staying in peak condition right up until the day we drop dead.

Q: What's the future for warfare and in particular for weaponry?

A: Warfare is quite interesting, I spent the first four years of my career in missile design and its always interesting looking at it to see what's coming next. I think nano-technology's a very interesting one there - nano-technology is the science of taking and of manipulating things at the atomic level, individual atoms at a time.

Nano-technology promises to provide us with tiny little gadgets which are so small you can hardly see them which just sort of float across the battlefield until they find the right people and they just disassemble them into sickly goo. They would just take the enemies apart cell by cell. You know theoretically, in physics terms, that might be possible. But that's one of the big technologies that we really hope doesn't happen. Somebody might even be tempted to make that, and if they do and if the don't get it quite right, everybody could be eliminated with that technology. It is one of the big accidents that could happen in the late 21st century.

Another one is, is genetically based warfare. You could produce viruses which attack people with certain characteristics, you know, wrong colour hair or the wrong coloured skin or the wrong colour eyes or the wrong height or something. I think you know, those sorts of things are real abuses of the technology, we should really try and get international agreements which ban those developments because they could be amazingly divisive compared to any form of weaponry we've had in the past.

Warfare has always been horrible. Chopping people's heads off with swords was horrible, but at least it was honest, you know you had to get next to the guy and chop his head off.

Now with these things you just sort of drop a canister of germs over a city, and the wrong people are eliminated. You know I think that's a horrible way of doing war, I'm not looking forward to that sort of warfare at all in the future but I think its realistic to expect it.

Q: What other developments in nano-technology will there be?

A: A lot of people in the robot industry think that we'll be moving towards insect like robots, insects are very easy to build, they've got six legs, they don't fall over when you take one leg off the ground, so its very simple to control them. That means that a lot of people are thinking in terms of getting instead of one single robot that goes round and hoovers your floor, maybe we'll have a flock of insect-like robots that pick up individual dust particles and take them to the dustbin and drop them in. We might individual insect like robots running around on the lawn snipping off every blade of grass once it gets to 2.5 cm long or something. They might even be able to control real insects to some extent and you know kill the bugs on your roses - whatever it happens to be, so it'll be an interesting world.

Q: What's the home of the future going to be like in 2100?

A: I think the home in 2100 won't be that much different than it was say round about 1950 or 1960. Now we've been getting used over the last couple of decades to getting more and more boxes taking up space in our living room, we've got a huge hi-fi stack, now we've all got satellite receivers and digital TV receivers and video recorders. BY 2010 there will be less conspicuous technology, much more useful technology, very simple interfaces, very easy to live with, and when you're not watching television its just a painting on the wall or it is an imaginary window onto a Bahamas beach or whatever it is you want. Much more pleasant environment, 2100.

Q: What is the likelihood of time travel in the far future of 2100?

A: I'm really interested in the possibility of time travel. Today we don't really know whether its possible or not. Steven Hawking, brilliant, most brilliant physicist of our time probably, he doesn't seem very sure, sometimes. If we can find the solution to it, then we can be fairly certain that that solution will be found sometime between 2030 and 2050. The reason I can be that certain is that computers will catch up with our intelligence at about 2015 or 2020, and it won't take them much more than a decade to figure out just about everything about physics which is possible and which isn't. So if its possible to do time travel, we'll know how to do it before 2050, and we might have the capability to do it by 2100.

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