Death will no longer be a big career problem
Enhanced human beings, customised cells and personal memories living in synthetic devices – Ian Pearson, British Telecommunications futurologist, takes a provocative look at the things to come.
Looking at (professional) sports people are always on the look-out for performance enhancing substances, accepting a health-risk while doing so. Taken to the extreme we enter the field of transhumanism. What are your thoughts on that subject?
Ian Pearson: I think we will eventually see safer drugs and additives that will enhance performance, as well as genetic modification and smart implants, but it is obviously not fair to have enhanced people compete against natural ability people, so it is likely that we will have two streams of sport, one for natural, and one for enhanced. The enhanced sports might be much more exciting to watch, and even to play, whereas the pure natural human sports may be more easy for ordinary people to relate to.
There are big hopes in the field of nano-technology. One scenario believes that we will have nano-bots chasing through our blood-stream to rid it from malevolant cells, to apply medication etc. When do you think we will reach this level of technology?
I think it depends what you call a nanobot. People often think of the tiny submarines from Fantastic Voyage, but I think that sort of thing will remain sci-fi. What we are more likely to see is customised cells, using synthetic biology perhaps, or extremely simple electro-mechanical or laser devices that perhaps comprise just small spheres with probes that can kill rogue cells using electricity or laser components. I could imagine we could have some of those ‘in the lab’ by 2020.
How can we control the risks of such nano-bots not running amok or simply failing?
We would only get permits to use devices that we could be certain fail safe and which we can remove from the body when they are no longer needed. With synthetic bacteria, they might simply be designed to die or be made deliberately vulnerable to our immune systems so that the body can remove them naturally. With electro-mechanical devices or lasers, we would need to be able to collect them, perhaps using magnets for example.
In the science-fiction movie "Strange Days" brainwaves and memories of people could be recorded and played back to others. Do you believe such a device will ever be made?
Certainly, I think we will be able to make transparent links to the nervous system and our brains by 2050, which would act as if they are just an extension of our natural capability. Many of our thought processes and memories would actually live in these synthetic devices. Eventually this could grow to the point where synthetic processes provide most of the platform on which your mind runs. When your body eventually dies, it might be that you only lose a small proportion of your memories, feelings and abilities. Death would no longer be a big career problem.
Many people fear that the world will fall into two sectors: the techno-haves and the techno-have-nots. Looking at how things have been evolving over the past few years, this seems rather probable. Is there a way to avoid this gap?
I think the haves and have nots is evolving into the wants and don’t wants, as costs will fall rapidly and things will become easier to use. Almost everyone will be able to afford the important technologies, but not everyone will want to. We may end up with a slow stream that values the traditional ways of life, and a fast stream that is happy to use technology to enrich their lives.
Currently there is lots of speculation about the future of quality print newspapers. When will the coffin of print newspapers be closed? What kind of technology will it take (i.e. e-paper, tablet-pc …)?
I have said many times that if paper had only just been invented, we would hail it as one of the most important breakthroughs of the century. Most of us who have been using IT since the 1970s are quite content to use the web when we want to, but still prefer to read newspapers and magazines in paper form. What we will see though, just as we first saw the inclusion of colour in daily newspapers in the 1980s, we will soon see the inclusion of touch sensitive panels that allow video and web interactivity, probably using e-ink or some other digital paper.
You will be giving your speech «The Future of Life on Earth» at the third European Futurists Conference Lucerne. What can we look forward to?
I will take a provocative look at the potential impacts of new technology in creating and modifying life, raising some of the interesting problems and opportunities it might cause. For example, how will governments cope with mass immigration of conscious AI entities from computer games into robots to become members of our society?
Ian Pearson graduated in 1981 in Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics from Queens University, Belfast. He spent four years in Shorts Missile Systems, in many different disciplines from mechanical engineering to battlefield strategy simulation. He joined BT Laboratories in 1985 as a performance analyst, and has since worked in network design and evolution, cybernetics, and mobile systems. He now concentrates on mapping the progress of new developments throughout information technology, considering both technological and social implications. As a futurologist and a principal consultant, he lectures extensively on his futures views. In between conferences, current projects include machine consciousness, social trends and advanced computing technology.
He has received many awards for his papers, written several books and has made over 400 TV and radio appearances. He is a fellow of the British Computer Society, the World Academy of Art and Science, the Royal Society of Arts, the Institute of Nanotechnology and the World Innovation Foundation.
Ian Pearson, Futurists BT Group Chief Technology Office
Keynote Speeker «The Future of Life on Earth»,
Culture and Convention Centre KKL, Lucerne, Switzerland
November 21, 2007; 15.50 h