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A new memory chip--for the brain

British Telecom is developing a chip that will extend memory--in humans.

Scientists from British Telecom's Laboratory today announced a memory chip for the human brain. No kidding.

At a presentation for Yorkshire Post newspaper, BT scientists said the chip would attach directly to the optical nerve and store incoming sensory impulses that could then be downloaded and played on a computer or implanted in someone else's memory. As far-fetched as it may seem, BT scientists are taking it seriously: They even assigned it the appropriately gee-whiz product moniker of "Soul Catcher 2025," as well as some fairly detailed specifications. The 2025 refers to the year the scientists think the idea will become a reality.

A lifetime's experience could be stored in about 10 terabytes, according to Peter Cochrane, head of advanced applications and technologies for BT. "I tend to think of computers now as my third lobe," said Cochrane, who asserts that integrating actual circuitry into the human body is the next logical step.

Cochrane insists that BT is taking the project seriously, perhaps leading some to question what company executives already have in their heads. The phone company has invested 267 million pounds (about $400 million) in its Lab, a playground for futurists and their inventions. "BT the telephone company is no different from any other telephone company in the world, but they do have this advanced applications laboratory where they think up great thoughts," said Ben Rooney, editor for the Daily Telegraph's weekly Connected section.

Some analysts don't think it's a joke either, explaining that the Soul Catcher project is just one possible application of BT Lab's research. The larger reason for delving into artificial life research is the hope that BT can create telecommunications networks modeled on the most complex network of all: the human brain.

The research will help scientists apply the complex organic routing mechanisms found in the human brain to networking and Internet problems, said Stephan Somogyi, senior editor of industry newsletter Digital Media. "Some of the most complicated technological problems out there today involve routing and switching algorithms."

"This project is a very small part of our total effort," agreed Cochrane. In the intervening 30 years between now and the potential delivery of the Soul Catcher, he predicts that BT's direct brain links research will develop much simpler and potentially lifesaving devices.

"Right now you have a Xerox machine that rings up for help. All the Coke dispensers and candy bar machines in England are wired...so that they let you know when to top them off," Cochrane said. The research that is contributing to the Soul Catcher could also spawn pacemaker chips that alert wearers or nearby hospitals of an imminent heart failure or constantly monitor the blood sugar levels of diabetics and release insulin into the bloodstream as necessary, he said.