The ultimate PC: a silicon chip in your head

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Science Correspondent

The human brain may be connected directly to computers within the next 50 years, according to a far reaching study by one of Britain's leading technology "futurologists".

The study by Professor Peter Cochrane, the head of BT's high-tech laboratories at Martlesham Heath, Suffolk, predicts that by 2020 scientists will start to develop ways to link powerful silicon chips directly to the brain, possibly by growing nerve cells on the chip.

Such a link would allow someone to carry around the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica on a chip inserted into their head. The link would create a physical connection between the carbon-based memory of the human brain to the silicon memory of the computer chip.

The link would hugely augment the power of a brain because by that stage silicon chips will match the brain's ability to store and retrieve information. Professor Cochrane's research suggests that should be possible by 2015.

The amount of digital information transmitted by optical fibres is doubling every year and the size of memory chips is increasing almost as fast.

This will create an ever-accelerating improvement in computer power, Professor Cochrane said.

"At 2015 the computer will be equal to you and I in terms of storing the stuff you and I can store," he said.

Computer memories are growing so much "very soon we will be able to put all 24 million volumes in the library of the US Congress in the living room", he said.

The direct link between computer chips and the brain is the most startling conclusion of Professor Cochrane's study on technology trends. It also includes these predictions:

n Daily health checks by computers over the phone by the year 2000.

n Automatic dialling by talking to a phone that can recognise individual voices by 2006.

n Artificial noses that can detect the entire array of odours identifiable to humans by 2008.

n Medical devices that can roam inside human blood vessels under their own power by 2011.

n Portable machines that can translate a simple conversation in two or more languages by 2011.

Professor Cochrane said that past attempts to predict the future course of technology have suffered from being too conservative. "My wristwatch wields more power than some 1970s mainframe computers. Ordinary cars today have more intelligence than the original lunar lander."

The computers of 2015 that will match human brain power will be large supercomputers. Five years after that they will be desktop computers.

These computers will talk and listen to their owners, with apparent feeling, Professor Cochrane said.