A doctoral student at McGill says computers could help humans achieve immortality. While the scenario may sound like an episode of the X-Files, Randal Koene envisions a network of uploaded brains. The question is, who gets a shot at prolonged life?
by Kathy Zucca
Despite medical advances, humans are still subject to the law of aging; at some point our bodies break down and we die. But death may not always be the end result.
The latest in humanity’s quest for prolonged life involves scanning brain tissue and creating an equivalent representation of the mind. Though still in the theoretical stages Mind Uploading, also known by the more technical term “Whole Brain Emulation,” could one day allow people to continue living long after their human body has degenerated and ceased to function.Randal Koene, a doctoral student in Psychology at McGill university, has long been fascinated by the idea that one could replicate humans. His dissertation, in fact, involves research on how to do a neurological reconstruction of the region of the brain called the hippocampus.Since the brain is simply a collection of electrical connections, and since personal identity and self-awareness reside in the brain, Koene and other proponents of Mind Uploading assume it should be able to recreate a human life in a computer.They note that while brain damage severely affects personality, the destruction of other body parts – the loss of a limb, for example – does not. The functions of the brain are behavioral characteristics, not dependent on the hardware used to enact them. Thus an equivalent system – made of biological, electrical, or chemical components – should be able to perform the entire sequence of transfers in the brain which creates the self as we know it.An uploaded brain could be contained in a variety of physical forms or vehicles: a human or organic body, a robotic body, or in virtual space. Once transplanted into its new ‘body,’ the uploaded person could interact with other uploaded persons.
Can’t upload yet
Mind Uploading is still just a theory. Koene foresees the first possible upload in about sixty years. However, nanotechnology has made some progress and scientists have managed to recreate all of the neurons in a small snail-like worm. But while this worm’s brain consists of only a few hundred neurons, the human brain, in comparison, has approximately ten billion. Koene however, is unfazed by the difference in scale.”Once we learn how to do it [scan and model], the process can be automated and scale will no longer be an issue. The problem right now is that everything must be done manually.”Furthermore, while there are no working models of the entire human brain, there are models for parts of it. Koene believes that scientists will be able to reproduce brain functions through the models if there is sufficient detail.Unfortunately, current efforts to scan the brain either destroy brain tissue or do not achieve sufficient detail. Koene hopes for the development of an MRI(*) that would scan the brain without damaging it. The MRI would tell the location of every synapse and neuron which could in turn be entered into a computer database. The database would then create a model to implement each area of the brain in either soft or hardware.
Proponents compare Mind uploading to other techniques aimed at lengthening the human life span. They note that humans have always tried to prolong life and that “old age” is just the latest affliction to threaten human life.Arthur Kroker, a political science professor at Concordia, disagrees. He believes that there is a cycle of life and maturation which technology seeks to overcome. Kroker fears that the prolongation of human life often serves as an excuse for the most perverse kinds of experimentation.”Justification for experiments often speak to us in the language of facilitation, but prolonging human life is not always admirable,” he explains.Kroker also takes issue with the premise that Mind Uploading would be a prolongation of life as we know it. Rather, he calls Mind Uploading “losing your mind.” Kroker explains that “it is another way for humans to become passive mechanisms of technoculture. It is a lie to say there will not be a difference in quality of life. Being part of a machine is distinctly different from being an autonomous being.
Means of control
Mind Uploading raises questions of social control and authority. For example, uploaded people may be able to retain their positions of authority as they increase their life spans. This prolonged control might stifle innovation in social, political and artistic fields. Kroker calls Mind Uploading a means of extending power over younger generations.”The world of electronics is a means of the old to control the young and of the dead to control the living,” he said.And what of non-uploaded persons exploiting the uploaded? Koene concedes that the possibility of the enslavement or total control of uploaded persons is there. But an uploaded person is still a person with the same rights and protections as a regular human. Organizations would have to be established in order to regulate the process of uploading and protect those who have been uploaded.
The philosophical, economical, and scientific questions raised by Mind Uploading are endless. What would be criteria for choosing who would be uploaded? Would it be a privilege reserved for the very rich or the highly intelligent? What if dangerous criminals were uploaded?Debate also continues over the implications of Mind Uploading on world population trends. Some worry that the growth of Mind Uploading could mean the abandonment of natural means of reproduction. And if the world’s population declines, Mind Uploading may have a greater impact.But Koene says that uploaded people will not be immortal. He notes that Mind Uploading is still subject to the laws of physics; uploaded persons will cease to exist at some point due to a variety of circumstances. So while Mind Uploading could potentially prolong life, those who search for the secret to immortality will have to go back to the drawing board(*) Note: A small glitch. A process with far greater resolution than an MRI, but preferably with the MRI’s relatively benign effects on the scanned person’s brain was implied.