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Digital Immortality - Download the Mind by 2050

Posted on June 4, 2005, 8:39 a.m. in Computers and Medicine
The wealthy will be able to download their consciousness into computers by 2050 - the not so well off by "2075 or 2080", claims futurologist Dr. Ian Pearson, head of the Futurology unit at BT.

While it sounds like science fiction, Pearson is serious about his claim. He believes that humans will achieve a kind of virtual immortality by saving their consciousnesses into computers within the next 45 years.

"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."

Dr. Pearson's background is in applied mathematics and theoretical physics. The 44-year-old spent 4 years working on missile design and the last 20 working with optical networks, broadband network evolution and cybernetics.

He thinks that today's younger generation will benefit from the advances in technology to the point that death will be effectively eliminated. He explains his logic with a simple example.

"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.”

He isn't talking about pure data here. Pearson believes that the human consciousness can be stored in digital format.

"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."

'It would definitely have emotions - that's one of the primary reasons for doing it. If I'm on an airplane 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 lot of jobs. Instead of phoning up a call center 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 center again.'

Pearson also considers the implications of such machines on our lives. He believes that before the creation of these new "smart" machines, there should be a national debate.

"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.'

The conscious computers wouldn't be the first step in the process. Pearson believes the process called 'ambient intelligence' will be the next phase in the progress.

"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."

"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 its reset to the factory setting."


Pearson also predicts the popularity of virtual reality taking hold around 2020. "We will spend a lot of time in virtual space, using high quality, 3D, immersive, computer generated environments to socialize 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."

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