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Will You Live Forever—or until Your Next Software Release—by Uploading Your Brain into a Computer?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Neurons of the retina

Ray Kurzweil and other so-called transhumanists have promised that in coming decades we will be able to transfer a digital copy of the trillions of connections among nerve cells in our brains into a computer. We would essentially reincarnate ourselves as non-biological beings that persist for eternity inside a laptop, on the endless links of the Internet or as avatars inside a television set. After achieving the ultimate copy and paste, we would wave goodbye to death as we know it.

For fairly evident reasons, biologists tend to dismiss out of hand the ideas of Kurzweil and the transhumanist lot as the ravings of computer jocks who know nothing about the real workings of the DNA and cells that make up living tissue. Into this debate comes Sebastian Seung, a young and well-regarded computational neuroscientist from MIT, who has taken a serious look at some of the questions put forth by the transhumanists.

In Connectome, due in February, Seung conveys the excitement of studying the complete circuit diagram of the brain for which the book is named. A full connectome might provide telling insight into what goes goes awry, for instance, in an autistic child or an Alzheimer’s patient (definitely worth reading for these bits alone). In the last chapters, though he takes up the claims of the transhumanists who desperately would like to get their hands on a full connectome for the ultimate upload into binary immortality.

Seung tries to come to grips with the controversial assertion that  someday you might be able to transfer the equivalent of a connectome.doc file to computer hardware, software or any other robot or avatar that you can pick from back issues of Analog.

Seung strikes a pose that mixes skepticism with fascination. The advance reading copy that Scientific American received acknowledges some doubts :

“In his book Live Long Enough to Live Forever, the inventor Ray Kurzweil predicts that immortality will be attained in the next few decades,” Seung writes. “If you can manage to live long enough to survive to that point, you will live forever. Personally, I feel quite confident that you, dear readers, will die, and so will I.”

But Seung remains intrigued by the notion that a unifying mechanism drives the workings of the meat machine between our ears and its mechanics might be decipherable and reproducible. And he is at least willing to cast a critical eye on  the prospect of a 2.0 version of the self that, when transferred into a supercomputer, laptop, or software avatar, might then live on as an electronic ghost. (Yes, some would say that ESPN and Facebook have already brought us there, but Seung doesn’t address social media as immortality.)

The central question for Seung—and the one that also keeps the transhumanists on tenterhooks—is whether you are your connectome. If you could deduce every connection point of every brain cell, the strength with which each neuron fires, and the way these firing patterns change as the cells interact with each other, would, in fact, you be left with a copy of you?

In a chapter called “To Freeze or to Pickle,” Seung undertakes, from multiple perspectives, an earnest and unsmirking analysis of the connectome as a pathway to immortality. All of his conclusions point to obstacles that could very well prove insurmountable.

First he considers what might called the meatlocker problem. Because it may take a while to create that complete wiring diagram, many transhumanists have plans to place their heads or whole bodies in a cryonic liquid nitrogen Dewar soon after death—or, as alternatives, to preserve themselves in a glassy solid or by another process called plastination. (Plastination is the form of preservation used in the Body Worlds tour of skinless corpses.)

Once the uploading technologies are perfected, the idea goes, the preserved tissue could be used for piecing out the wiring plan. On its own, this expectation may be a showstopper because of the difficulty of maintaining the integrity of the brain’s unfathomably complex circuitry. “At the present time, cryonics is closer to religion than to science,” Seung writes. “Its members believe that a future civilization will be able to resurrect them, based only on their faith in limitless technological progress.”

Even if this niggling detail can eventually be resolved, there remains the unresolved issue of what information the connectome contains exactly. To better understand brain connections, scientists have been trying to simulate at least parts of the brain for decades. They are now also taking on the larger question of recreating the whole thing. The Human Brain Project in Europe has targeted the task of crafting a model of the entire organ a decade from now. The model would, in principle, simulate the thousands of different neuron types as well as the connections among them—and their changing structures as the brain learns and forgets.

The Human Brain Project is intended as an exploration of basic science, not a preparation for eternal life. But Seung points out that even an impressive endeavor of its magnitude might fail to capture all the necessary information.

One potential flaw: The model of the brain might have to take into account the way neurons communicate outside known channels—foregoing the transmission of chemical and electrical signals across the small gaps, called synapses, between brain cells. To overcome this hitch, it might be necessary to create a simulation of each atom in the brain, an undertaking of such unimaginable complexity that it would verge on the impossible. “It seems absurd to even consider the enormous computational power required, and is completely out of the question unless your remote descendants survive for galactic time scales,” he writes.

Seung ends his book with an epilogue that calls for a “return to reality”—a recognition that “grand challenges” remain, beyond quixotic quests for eternal life. A 10-year effort to find the connectome of a mouse brain is on his wish list. Such a quest lacks the box-office appeal of contemplating eternity as a file on a flash drive. In the end, though, Seung believes a project of this more modest scale would, like The Human Genome Project push researchers to the limit but vastly deepen our knowledge about an organ that remains largely a mystery.

One thing that I didn’t understand after reading the book was why he didn’t end the chapter about uploading with a blanket condemnation of a seemingly absurd endeavor, a conclusion that would have been fully justified from his arguments.

I e-mailed Seung and asked him whether he thought these far-fetched technologies might ever materialize. He replied that he has received this question before but prefers not to respond. “People often think I’m being coy by not answering the question you ask,” he writes. “I’m not being coy; I just don’t want to waste my readers’ time with matters that are purely matters of opinion. It’s impossible to predict events so far in the future, and my opinion is no more likely to be correct than those of other people. In the book, I address questions that can be discussed scientifically.”

He continues later: “In my book, I compared transhumanism to religion. Effectively, you’d like to know whether I belong to this religion. (i.e. perhaps you’re just asking me a personal question.) Strangely enough, the answer doesn’t matter…I’ve realized that transhumanists view me as working for their cause, whether or not I believe in it. I’m part of their vision of manifest destiny, whether I like it or not.”

Seung undoubtedly retains a lingering fascination with the possibility of an intersection between connectomics and transhumanism. At a TED talk given last year, he commented that connectomics might eventually put to the test whether a technology like cryonics will eventually be feasible. And Seung is a member of an advisory board to the Brain Preservation Foundation, which is offering a prize for technologies that would successfully preserve the structure of either a mouse or large animal brain after death for “science,” “memory donation” or “continued life.”

Don’t let any of that deter you, though. Even without meditations on crossover dreams between science and fiction, this is a great book if you want to know where neuroscience is going during the next 10 years and maybe far beyond.

Source: Aleksandar Zlateski and Sebastian Seung

Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Jerzy New 8:22 am 12/5/2011

    Interested readers could also visit the Orion’s Arm project, especially Encyclopedia Galactica.

    This giant science-fiction project extensively discusses transhumanism, artifical minds and mind uploading. The timeframe of the next 10,000 years and picks countless colonized planets and space habitats. This means that all questions you may think of are discussed extensively, together with dozens which you probably didn’t imagine yet.

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  2. 2. Rationalist 3:10 pm 12/5/2011

    > why he didn’t end the chapter about uploading with a blanket condemnation of a seemingly absurd endeavor

    It is incredibly arrogant of you to assume that you can predict the future of technology forever with absolute or very high certainty. A “blanket condemnation” of uploading would amount to saying “I don’t know how the brain really works, and I don’t know what marvels of technology will be available in 1,000 or 10,000 years, but I hereby assert that this process will be impossible forever.”

    What possible grounds for such an assertion could you have, other than some kind of quasi-religious faith?

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  3. 3. Nebetsu 6:12 pm 12/5/2011

    The problem I see with this is that after the contents of your brain is copied to the computer and you die, YOU STILL DIE. This is essentially, making a clone of yourself and pretending like you’re going to live forever, through your clone. So why not just have a kid? It amounts to pretty much the same thing (Being immortal through something that isn’t you, but has your properties.)

    Alert me when they can stop the aging process or put human brains in jars and plug them into a virtual reality.

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  4. 4. jtdwyer 6:50 pm 12/5/2011

    So, if I download my computer into my brain, will I be my computer? Will my computer be alive? Have fun, kids, but don’t try this at home – even anytime in the future!

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  5. 5. blindboy 7:42 pm 12/5/2011

    Uploading a human consciousness into a computer would be better described as punishment or a form of torture. We are so intimately attached to our bodies that existence without physical stimulation and sensory input would be excruciating.

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  6. 6. openeyes999 7:44 pm 12/5/2011

    I agree Kurzweil is a kook, but the author does not seem to know much about transhumanism. In reality, only a minority of transhumanists are believers in uploading. Transhumanism is simply the belief that technology can make us better than we “naturally” are. If you support grandma getting a pacemakers you’re a transhumanist.

    Most transhumanists are more focused on biotech and orgs like the Methuselah Fdn and the SENS Fdn. These orgs look to make people healthier by repairing/ replacing biological tissue; while their goal is not life extension, as a side benefit people would probably also live longer as a result. IMO, adding a few healthy decades onto the human lifespan is possible, as it has already been achieved in mammal models. (up to 40% life extension in mice using CR or genetic tweaking, see PubMed)

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  7. 7. Pawelotti 9:29 pm 12/5/2011

    What Rationalist said is spot on – Seung says he can’t predict the future yet by saying that his readers will surely die is doing exactly that. Mind uploading is hardly the only option we have to survive longer.

    It is also disheartening to see many scientists use knowledge and technology today that came from ideas of yesterday. Those that dreamed and predicted yesterday, gave life to what is developed today and will be used tomorrow. How can the scientist of tomorrow not see that?

    You can laugh about fringe and protoscience all you want, but those “divisions” of science are propelling science forward in major ways. Seung will be spending a decade to do the connectome of a mouse, while somebody today is making technology to do it in a month.

    In current choices and research one should absolutely be realistic. But realism is realism. You can’t close your eyes to the rapid development of technology. It’s exponential and though Kurweil makes “fantastical” claims – he backs it up with data. Don’t ever forget that claims about today just 20 years ago were nothing sort of fantastical too.

    Downloading a full movie in a few seconds? Walking around with tablet computers? The whole world using mobile phones? The human genome project seemed an impossible task when they began, yet now in the coming years it will just cost a few thousand bucks to get it done, and just a week or month in time.

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  8. 8. genevehicle 9:36 pm 12/5/2011

    Downloading ones’ consciousness directly into a computer (even if eventually possible) and then expecting that thing in the computer to be “me” seems ridiculous. Clearly, it would be a copy.

    However, what would happen if there was a more gradual process where I could slowly add to my existing mental processes? Expanded memory, expanded sensory capability, expanded processing capability, and, if we could successfully model “consciousness processes” we could add a bunch of that too. If what I thought of as “me” at any given moment occupied that entire space, conceivably, we could get to a point where “I” was 90% digital / 10% biological. Or maybe 95/5 or 99/1. At that point, if my biological components failed, would I cease being me?

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  9. 9. Dr. Strangelove 3:57 am 12/6/2011

    Resurrection from the dead by cryonics is crap. Once the brain cells die, how do you bring it back to life? You can clone the brain but that would be a different person. The memories are lost. Immortality by stopping the aging process is possible I believe through genetic engineering.

    As for saving your memory in a computer, if Kurzweil can build a computer as smart as a cockroach, he would be more credible.

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  10. 10. jgrosay 8:03 am 12/6/2011

    Some french researchers did long time ago the experiment of having a monkey brain isolated and living, by some kind of out of body circulatory help devices. An old science-fiction tale spoke about a man, having committed some crime, who was given the penalty of his brain being isolated, and put in command of an accountability computer for some two hundred years. Besides physical isolation of brain, with no input from a body, a situation close to experimental no senses input, that soon induces serious mental disorders, and brain surgery such as Egas Moniz’ lobotomy, there are psychotherapy approaches that do eliminate any affective production of our mind, thus transforming people having this kind of intervention into human computers, or even worse, something close to a zombie. It’s astonishing how deep are the mental health professionals’ interventions, even when nobody is able to give a working definition of what the heck the psyche is.

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  11. 11. jim53 6:28 pm 12/6/2011

    A file of the connection map and its synaptic weighting factors does not capture any information about the real-time pattern of electrochemical signalling that is, we all suppose, the biophysical basis of our thoughts. A frozen brain or connectome.doc file is roughly akin to removing the power supply from a functioning computer and pulling out the motherboard, then later expecting the motherboard to still be running the last state of the machine once it is later powered up. Include me out.

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  12. 12. dantevialetto 7:44 am 12/7/2011

    I was very happy to read this article because more than 20 years ago I was just saying this argument to my children. Nevertheless I think that it will be not so easy for two reasons:

    One reason is that every human brain is not only different for what it contains, but also the brain itself is different. So every person should have a different not-prêt-à-porter computer, fact that it is not so easy to do because it must be tailored ad personam .

    The second reason is that what it will be inside this special computer will be only a clone, a twin, not the person that did it. Sure, this clone will be sure that “he” is that person, but really he or she will be only a copy.

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  13. 13. dirk.bruere 7:47 am 12/7/2011

    There seem to be two arguments against uploading.
    a) That there is “something more” to us than the atoms and connections that make up our body ie the religious view
    b) It’s really difficult or impossible.
    Since this is a science blog (a) is of no consequence as it is not testable
    However, as far as (b) goes we should be able to get some idea by computerizing the connectome of simple creatures eg worms, and then moving up scale. How fast we can do this is another matter.
    As for cryonics, the alternative is 100% dead with 100% certainty.

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  14. 14. EJames 6:44 pm 12/7/2011

    To overcome this hitch, it might be necessary to create a simulation of each atom in the brain, an undertaking of such unimaginable complexity that it would verge on the impossible.

    Forget computing power, doesn’t the Heisenberg uncertainty principle rule fundamentally rule this out?

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  15. 15. hitekmastr 2:16 pm 12/8/2011

    There’s only one problem. You can be immortal to everyone else, but not to yourself! Let’s say I transfer “me” to a computer and so “I” exist there and can interact with everyone in the world now and in the future (wouldn’t it be great to have Stephen Hawking available this way?) – HOWEVER – when my brain and body die, I’m dead. I live in the computer but it’s not me. I’m gone. That’s the glitch. Everybody else gets to interact with me, and I leave “me” behind and the avatar me in the computer can even keep learning and evolving…but I’m gone. The me in the computer will even think it’s me. So everyone benefits…except the real ME!

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  16. 16. lonnrot 12:05 pm 12/9/2011

    The main issue with Kurzweil is that he postulated a time frame that was so aggressive that it spooked a lot of researchers and provoked a reflexive negative reaction on the topic. If you went back to the same people but had a conversation on the time frames of 100 to 200 years, you’d start to find a lot more agreement with his ideas. Now, think about how many decisions we’re trying to make today with projections of where the climate will be in 200 years. If you conservatively extrapolated advances in computing technology over the next 200 years in a way that most experts would agree with, you’d still get to a point where computational equivalence to human intelligence was hit and exceeded in that time frame. Now, the question of whether the set of memories that we upload into a computer represent us is a moot point, it’s “us” as much as the set of stories, values, and traditions we teach our children are “us”. That’s what we’re really talking about here.

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  17. 17. outsidethebox 4:10 pm 12/10/2011

    I would suggest that this is as much a matter of social acceptance as it is science. You go to bed tonight and lose consciousness. In the morning “you” achieve consciousness and claim you are the same person that went to sleep last night. Society accepts that convention. But if what “wakes up” in the morning happens to reside on a computer because “you” (whatever you means) died last night is it any less you than when sleep overcame “you”?

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  18. 18. lsparrish 9:05 pm 01/3/2012

    > “At the present time, cryonics is closer to religion than to science,” Seung writes. “Its members believe that a future civilization will be able to resurrect them, based only on their faith in limitless technological progress.”

    I sincerely hope Seung was just exaggerating for effect there, not trying to make a serious argument…

    If cryonics enthusiasts are religious fanatics whose faith leads them to imagine future technology to be limitless, why the heck would they be bothering to freeze or vitrify anyone?

    Stick them in a box, burn them to ash, it all makes no difference if you can just wave your hand over it all with infinitely powerful computers. That’s what religion preaches will happen, after all, with even more magic — and probably explains why the faithful shun cryonics even more than atheists do.

    The central premise of cryonics is that it *does* matter what state your body is in, as a strictly medical matter of fact. If you want a resurrection cult that doesn’t care about the inconvenient facts of biological decay, look to Tipler — or one of the mainstream Abrahamic faiths.

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  19. 19. jakedanger 6:22 pm 12/13/2014

    The idea of mind uploading is potentially dangerous, even deadly. It’s really a philosophical question whether a copy of your brain would be accompanied by subjective experience or whether it would merely mimic consciousness. See here for a more thorough discussion:

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