In early October, the Singularity Summit took place on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a conference that highlighted the prospects for abolishing the ravages of aging and disease. So you’ll be able to live forever, unless you get hit by a truck.
Living forever is mainly about preserving brain function. That’s why the cryonicists—the ones who freeze themselves until some hypothetical medical miracle emerges to revive them—often just put the part above the neck into deep storage. The head in the cooler, it is assumed, retains the operating system and all of the applications software needed to resurrect the former self, even if it is ported to some new, cybernetic body. Less real estate and a lower electricity bill means a reduced rate at the cryo farm until you are brought back from the “legally dead.” In essence, bleacher seats for the Singularity.
If the cryonicists are ever going to successfully come unfrozen, they are going to need the help of the multitudes that attended the Society for Neuroscience (SFN) meeting in Chicago just a few weeks later. But, unfortunately, neuroscientists are not gearing up to study how to take the freezer burn off cryopreserved brain tissue.
In fact, the attraction lately for so many smart, young researchers is how little we know about the brain and how much work is left to deduce the way that the 100 billion neurons inside our noggins all work together. Memory researcher and Nobelist Eric Kandel lamented in an informal talk with the media at SFN how little progress has been made in advancing new approaches to drugs for neuropsychiatric conditions like depression. His praise was reserved, instead, for cognitive-behavioral therapy, a form of talk therapy that produces results comparable to Prozac. Talking about your problems? How fin-de-siecle ! Not exactly a royal road to immortality.
The one take-home message from the conference might be that building a brain in a box cannot be reduced to just a software problem. Here is what some researchers want to know: Can what your mother ate increase your propensity to addictive behaviors? Do sex hormones allow you to build one success upon another? Can playing the piano cure dyslexia? Work reported at SFN suggests that there may be affirmative answers to all of these questions. But the entire field maintains a simmering sense of awe at the magnitude of challenges posed by the brain and the behaviors it induces.
Immortality did not merit even a conference mini-symposium. Anyway, things may all shake out in the end. The Singularity conference was attended by fewer than 1,000 people. The neuroscience conference attracted more than 30 times that number. All hail the wisdom of crowds.
Image : Wikimedia Commons