By: Eileen Marable
Understanding how our brain works is the holy grail of neuroscience. Our brains are estimated to be made of 85 to 100 billion neurons with electrochemical signals jumping between them, creating thought, decisions, bodily functions, and the essence of who we are. If we understand how these neurons and synapses operate then we could cure diseases, prolong our health and memory, and maybe – just maybe – we could copy those patterns to a computer or to host bodies.
The creation of a “substrate independent minds” sounds like science fiction or the subject of fringe science. The fact is, the project to upload a human mind to a computer is happening right now with neuroscientist Randal Koene as a chief advocate.
For Koene, the idea is very simple. If you map the brain and identify the patterns by which the neurons fire, you could effectively copy them as basic binary computer code. If you do this correctly you would copy those unique synapses that make up our emotions, skills, and personalities. Koene believes that if all the basic functions of the brain are copied and the complexities of how the neurons communicate are rendered accurately, then the computerized version of your brain would be self-aware.
Are you freaked out? Do you have questions? Of course you do.
This is a big idea that raises a lot of unknowns. While something may be possible, it doesn’t mean that we know exactly how it will work. That’s much like the story in the movie Self/Less – just because we could upload our brains to another, younger body doesn’t mean we know what would happen.
Koene has theorized that we could potentially live in host bodies – human, or even human ones that our computerized brains have adapted to different living environments. Koene also thinks we could simply live in a digital environment much like the “Cloud.” While we know how our brains react to each other as humans, we don’t know how our brains would act towards each other in bodies we don’t recognize now or even just as a digital brain occupying space in the Cloud. Our synapses for memories and behavior would probably have to evolve.
This evolution or expansion of our consciousness is exactly why Randal Koene believes uploading the human brain is a good thing. As a species we need to find a way to evolve to meet the rapidly changing future and infrastructure around us, and this could be the answer. After all, many prominent minds like Stephen Hawking haven’t been shy about stating they believe the very artificial intelligence and robots we’ve created will one day evolve themselves beyond our intelligence and eventually take over. Suddenly it doesn’t sound like science fiction any more, but perhaps a necessity to keep our species – or at least the intelligence and essence of it alive.
In fact, it isn’t science fiction it’s science fact that Koene’s research and those of others’ are real. There is an open source movement called “The Open Worm Project” that has already created a virtual brain of a roundworm and uploaded it into a Lego robot. YOU can even participate in refining that project to begin to get comfortable with creating virtual intelligence.
There is also the research being done at USC and Wake Forest where in 2011 scientists created the world’s first artificial neural implant which works in a rat. They targeted the rat’s hippocampus where neurons and electrical signals create the memory to perform tasks. The scientists copied the patterns of the signals and placed them on a chip. Next, they removed the rat’s hippocampus and the rat couldn’t do the tasks. Adding in the chip? The memory to complete tasks was restored.
It’s cutting edge science, but no longer science considered on the fringes. In 2013 the EU and US announced initiatives to boost the field of brain research and hopefully move the goals into the mainstream.
We’ve come a long way, but we all know worm and rat brains are far from the beautiful, complex machine that is the human brain. Koene’s continued work on mapping the brain with the goal of creating a “whole brain emulation” could take years and years to complete. So each neural pathway Koene and other neuroscientists explore is critical in achieving a full understanding of the brain and how to replicate it.
That time may be just what we need to wrap our minds around the enormous consequences of creating our own virtual intelligence means. How long would we be able to live? Would we redefine what it means to be human by programming out undesirable traits? Would we be able to have relationships?
In short, would the rush of being “immortal” be replaced by a reality that brings on more questions than answers? One can theorize, but we can’t yet answer that question. As we find out in the movie Self/Less, it will likely be a very personal question.
Would YOU upload your brain? Let us know!