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This Is Your Brain On Chips

David Utter
Expert Author
Published: 2005-05-23

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In about 50 years, a British researcher thinks we will be able to cheat the Grim Reaper and keep part of ourselves alive.

The sky was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

That is the opening to the seminal 1984 novel "Neuromancer" by author William Gibson repeated the word 'cyberspace,' first used in his short story collection "Burning Chrome." It's a term used and overused many times since the development of the World Wide Web.

For legions of wanna-be cyberpunks and technophiles, "Neuromancer" described a new frontier. A console cowboy could jack-in to cyberspace, make his way among the strata of data structures representing real-world constructs, and if he had the talent and the guts he could pull off thefts that make Ocean's 11 look like a convenience store heist.

And in cyberspace, a person could live, in a sense. It's the dream of geeks, living beyond the physical, where your brain is important and intellect is strength.

For British Telecom futurologist Ian Pearson, that future could be 50 years away. According to an Observer interview, he sees a point where the human brain could be downloaded to a computer.

"(W)hen you die it's not a major career problem," said Mr. Pearson.

He cites the development of the PlayStation 3, with its Cell processor technology, that is 1% as powerful as the human brain. At the rate of development seen today, the capability for the very wealthy to be neatly digitized would arrive around 2050, and the technology commoditized where more people could afford it 25 or 30 years later.

Press 0 To Speak With A Virtual Human

Mr. Pearson sees some mundane uses for the technology, such as intelligent phone systems that "converse" with callers instead of playing the usual "press 1 for tech support" options. Whether someone would want to spend eternity as a virtual operator is another question.

But Mr. Pearson doesn't go in the other direction, which would be uploading from a computer to a human body. Imagine a scenario where death is merely a rest break between bodies. Author Richard K Morgan touched upon that topic in his novel "Altered Carbon."

In "Altered Carbon," the body is merely a 'sleeve' and true physical death only happens if the storage unit holding your recorded brain gets destroyed, and you don't have a backup recording. Getting hit by a truck means your brain gets downloaded into a new sleeve, and off you go.

Mr. Morgan touches briefly on how part of Earth society might disavow this process and refuse to take part in immortality. Consider the firestorm of protest over the relatively benign efforts by scientists to perform stem cell research; now imagine the chaos Mr. Pearson's prediction would unleash, should it come to pass.

Either fantastic wealth or government need will probably drive the first consciousness download. It has been said in the media that the Bush Administration would like Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan to stay on the job beyond the end of his term next year.

What if Mr. Greenspan could serve forever? Should he do so? Would he do so?

While it is entertaining to think about the future, it should also be noted that Mr. Pearson also envisions a time when your morning yogurt could have a conversation with you before you eat it and go to the gym. So much for a guilt-free breakfast.

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About the Author:
David Utter is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business. Email him here.

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