Admit it or not, we all have this fear of death that either motivates us to achieve something in life before dying, or demotivates us from doing anything as, ‘everyone has to die one day’. Nonetheless, this fear of mortality exists and the best of minds have developed technologies to extend our life and “cheat death” – be it neural prosthetics to improve specific functions, or nanotechnology to take care of the cells. However, no matter how much we try to delay it, death is still inevitable; or at least it is till we perfect ‘Mind Uploading’. You might have already come across this concept in a science-fiction movie (Transcendence, Self/Less) or perhaps in a series (Upload, Black Mirror). It is largely based on the hope that one day we’ll be able to translate our thoughts, our memories into ones and zeros, and forever live on in the digital world.
If you remember your secondary education, words like neurons, axon and dendrites should take you right back to the class where you studied about the nervous system in biology. You might recall learning about electrical impulses, set off by chemical reactions, travelling from one neuron to another, across a synaptic gap, and passing the information down billions of neurons to the point of action. The human brain is made up of EIGHTY SIX BILLION neurons, connected by a HUNDRED TRILLION synapses! All the neurons and their interconnections make up the Connectome. Each neuron makes thousands of connections with its neighbours, which function in different ways and form the essence of us. However, even with the current advancement in technology, our understanding of the brain isn’t sufficient to facilitate replication of the mind needed for Mind Uploading, yet. Using MRI scans of the brain and their 3D representation called voxels, a computer can determine what the brain is processing (e.g. it could tell when a PUBG player wanted to turn left or right!); but emotional responses are a different ball-game altogether.
Even though the present artificial neural networks don’t yet encompass the complexity of the human brain, they do illustrate that most activities of the brain can be reduced to computations; theoretically, Mind Uploading is possible. This idea has actually been around longer than you’d expect. Randal Koene, a neuroscientist, first discovered Mind Uploading in the 1956 Arthur C. Clarke classic, The City and the Stars. It talked about a city set far into the future, whose residents lived multiple lives and during the transition period, existed in the memory banks of a central computer capable of generating new bodies! This might have seemed like science fiction then, however, we’ve come a long way for us to know that Mind Uploading is the future. We just need to cultivate skills to map the structure of the mind, learn how that matches functions and develop the software and the hardware to run it, simple!
Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and a futurist, has predicted that by 2045, we’ll soon be approaching ‘singularity’ – the moment in time when technology will surpass human brain power, create a kind of superintelligence and humanity will undergo an irreversible change. Transhumanists, those who advocate evolution of life beyond human limitations with the help of technology, name this advancing singularity as ‘digital immortality’. We’ve already made significant progress in brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) to restore damaged motor skills (neural prosthetics), and scientists are now working on something called ‘memory prosthesis’. The aim is to identify the brain’s code for memory (firing of neurons simultaneously) and basically digitise something as abstract as memory, for better long-term memory. Mind Uploading includes scanning the brain on similar lines, but in much greater detail such that we’re able to create a digital version of the person’s mind, memories, thoughts, emotions and their personality as a whole! The Na’vi people (blue aliens) uploading their memories to the ‘planet’s neural network’ in Avatar, could be an example of Mind Uploading.
The issue with Mind Uploading is that it involves recording and analysing all the connections of individual neurons. And until we understand everything that influences neural signals, we won’t know what to scan in order to copy the brain. In April 2013, the BRAIN initiative was unveiled to map these neural functions; similarly the EU’s Human Brain Project aims to create a ‘super-computer simulation that incorporates everything we know about the working of the human brain. So let’s assume that we do acquire that knowledge, the next step is to match the structure to functions. The existing MRI technique can accurately scan a living human brain with ‘resolutions of about half a millimetre’; and in order to detect a synapse and distinguish it, we need to scan at a resolution of a micron, i.e. a thousandth of a millimetre! Scientists at two American universities (USC and WFU) have been able to do this in rats (uncover neural code for certain memory tasks); and even take it to the next step – replicating the electrical impulse in another rat as if it’s coming from its own brain – creating the world’s first artificial neural implant! To achieve this for humans, we’ll need to make significant upgrades to the traditional machine learning techniques. For instance, neuromorphic chips are computers that can mimic our neurons and send pulses of information; the closest we’ve come.
It is safe to say that even though there’s still a long way to go, we might actually achieve digital immortality through Mind Uploading. Till then, scientists are also looking for ways to preserve the brain and its million neural connections, such that it could be uploaded once the Mind Uploading is perfected. In fact, there are some who have already chosen to freeze their bodies and enter a cryogenic state in the hope that when they wake up, they’ll be able to live for hundreds of years (as a computer-based brain with avatar bodies). There’s also a start-up, Nectome that has developed a technique to ‘preserve the human brain in microscopic detail using a high-tech embalming process.’ There’s only one problem; for this to work, the brain needs to be fresh, which essentially means you have to be alive during the process that kills you. It believes its service will be legal under California’s End of Life Option Act that permits doctor-assisted suicide for terminal patients. What’s even more interesting is that 25 people have already joined its waiting list!
The unknowns are substantial; there is a lot that we still don’t understand about the brain, the connectome, the consciousness. The entire process of Mind Uploading is quite complex. However, until we know any better, it remains a possibility. On the other hand, whether we should go through with it or not remains an open-ended question. So, if you could wake up in a virtual environment with all your memories intact in the exact moment that you die, would you?