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Ashes to ashes, brain to disk

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Death could become a thing of the past by the mid-21st century as computer technology becomes sophisticated enough for the contents of a brain to be "downloaded" on to a supercomputer, according to a leading British futurologist.

However, he told The Observer newspaper, this technology might be expensive enough to remain the preserve of the rich for a decade or two more.

Among other eyebrow-raising predictions by Ian Pearson, head of the futurology unit at British telecommunications giant BT, is the prospect of computer systems being able to feel emotions.

This could eventually involve such things as aeroplanes being programmed to be even more terrified of crashing than their passengers, meaning they would do whatever possible to stay airborne.

While the predictions might sound outlandish, they were merely the product of extrapolations drawn from the current rate at which computers are evolving, Pearson said in an interview with the newspaper. "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," he said.

"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."

As an example of the advances being made, Pearson noted that Sony's new PlayStation 3 computer games console is 35 times more powerful than the model it replaced, and in terms of processing is "1 per cent as powerful as a human brain".

"It is into supercomputer status compared to 10 years ago. PlayStation 5 will probably be as powerful as the human brain," he said.

Pearson said the next computing goal would be to replicate consciousness.

"Consciousness is just another sense, effectively, and that's what we're trying to design on a computer," he said.

"Not everyone agrees, but it's my conclusion that it's possible to make a conscious computer with superhuman levels of intelligence before 2020."

One of the "primary reasons" for such work would be to give computers emotions, Pearson said.

"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."

Pearson predicts an age of "virtual worlds" by about 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," he said. "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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