Can the Human Brain One Day be Fully Digitized and Uploaded?

"Human Brain Illustrated with Millions of Small Nerves", Image by Ars Electronica

“Human Brain Illustrated with Millions of Small Nerves”, Image by Ars Electronica

Can the human brain somehow be digitized? Can someone’s mind  be bitmapped and uploaded to a computer? Even if this ever becomes possible, is it something anyone would actually want to have done?

A Senior Scientist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus named Kenneth Hayworth is currently working on this possibility. He is also the President and Co-Founder of the Brain Preservation Foundation. His work in this field is the subject of a most interesting profile in the May 2015 edition of Smithsonian Magazine entitled The Quest to Upload Your Mind Into the Digital Space by Jerry Adler.

I will sum up, annotate and ask a few questions about this piece. I  also recommend clicking through and reading it for more of the details.

Hayworth’s plan is to digitize and upload his “memory, skills and personality” to a computer. In turn, this system can be programmed to “emulate” the operations of his brain. As well, this system could perhaps enable him live on indefinitely in this electronic form.

This kind of adds a whole new meaning to keeping someone in mind.

If Hayworth does achieve this goal of producing human-level or above intelligence embedded in silicon, it will be considered to be one of the  technological manifestations of The Singularity, an anticipated point in the next few decades where machine intelligence equals and then surpasses human intelligence. The prediction of this event was the subject of a fascinating book by the renowned inventor and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil entitled The Singularity is Near (Penguin Books, 2006). I suggest reading this if you are ever looking for a truly original and challenging science and technology book.

Carboncopies.org is another organization working towards a similar goal of producing a “substrate independent mind” (SIM). Dr. Randall Koene is the founder.

In their best case scenarios, Hayworth and Koene believe this will cost billions and take about 50 years to accomplish. Hayworth’s plans are to devise a chemical or cryonic means to preserve the full human being at death and then scan its structure into a database in order to then achieve the mind’s emulation. However, this remains based upon an as yet unproven hypothesis that all of the “subtleties of the human mind and memory” are held within the brains “anatomical structure”.

Furthermore, these projects will require significant leaps in technological development. One of these, among others, is the building of the connectome, a long-term initiative to fully map the billions of neurons and, in turn, their trillions of connecting synapses in the human brain. As also previously discussed in the December 27, 2014 Subway Fold Post entitled Three New Perspectives on Whether Artificial Intelligence Threatens or Benefits the World :

For an absolutely fascinating deep and wide analysis of current and future projects to map out all of the billions of connections among the neurons in the human brain, I suggest reading Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are (Houghton Mifflin, 2012), by Sebastian Seung.  See also a most interesting column about the work of Dr. Seung and others by James Gorman in the November 10, 2014 edition of The New York Times entitled Learning How Little We Know About the Brain. (For the sake of all humanity, let’s hope these scientists don’t decide to use Homer J. Simpson, at fn.3 above, as a test subject for their work.)

Furthermore, a program announced by the US government in 2013  to build a comprehensive map of human brain activity. It is intended to operate on the scale of the Human Genome Project. (For detailed coverage of this see Obama Seeking to Boost Coverage of Human Brain, by John Markoff, in the February 17, 2013 edition of The New York Times.)

Among “mainstream researchers”, opinion is split as to whether Hayworth’s objective is even possible. Moreover, will such machine brains experience comparable human emotions, needs and desires? Will they be truly sentient?

My own questions are as follows:

  • Is this story really about machine capabilities or the ages old human dream of becoming immortal?
  • What protocols and laws, if any, should be drafted and enacted to make certain that this area of development does not lead to any unintended or dangerous consequences? Are Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics a logical place to begin studying these issues?
  • In addition to neuroscience and artificial intelligence, what other scientific fields and commercial marketplaces might these projects influence and benefit?
  • What entrepreneurial opportunities might exist now and in the future to facilitate and support these initiatives?
  • What would be the long-term economic and social consequences if this form of singularity is ever achieved?
  • Will the prospect of this achievement be so unsettling that it might result in some form of scientific and/or public backlash?

Finally, the notion of transferring an individual’s consciousness from one person to another has long been a popular plot device in science fiction. My own recommendation for one of the best sci-fi novels I have ever read to ever use this is Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan (Del Ray, 2003). It presents a truly, well, mind-bending plot and crackling prose about a future world where brains can be downloaded and implanted multiple times from a form of central server. (September 12, 2016 Update: Altered Carbon is being adapted for a new TV series. The details were reported in a post on Deadline.com today in an article entitled ‘Altered Carbon’: Marlene Forte & Trieu Tran Join Cast of Netflix Series, by Denise Petski. I am definitely looking forward to seeing how the production, writing and acting crew do with this very rich source material.)

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