Towards an Immortal Brain

by futurist Kit Worzel

In my last blog I wrote about longevity and how there were a number of possibilities as to how we could make the body last longer. I touched on the brain, but only briefly, because there was enough on brain longevity for another post.

The brain is probably the least understood organ in the body. This isn’t just due to its complexity, but because we couldn’t really see how it worked until we had MRI machines, or at least EEGs, to measure electrical activity in the brain. For a long time, it was believed that the heart was the center of reason, and the brain was there merely to cool blood. We obviously know better than that now, but the brain is complicated enough that there are all kinds of issues repairing it.

The biggest issue in repairing the brain is interlinkage. When you learn something new, or do something new, you create a new neural pathway. These neural pathways are physical structures in the brain that record information and memories. While we are close to being able to clone parts of the brain to replace damaged parts, we lack the technology to replicate or even measure neural pathways, so any linkages that were lost in the damaged section are gone. This is not just memories, though losing those are bad enough. It also includes things like how to walk, how to interpret visual data, the names for things, that a stove top can be dangerous when its on, and so forth. Literally every experience you’ve learned from birth, up to reading this blog post right now is encoded in your brain, and as of yet, we have no way to restore any of those in case of damage or trauma to the brain. Things like head injuries, cancer, Alzheimer’s, senile dementia and many other diseases of the brain and higher nervous system, cause these kinds of trauma, and billions of dollars are spent every year working to overcome the difficulties they create.

Thinking Outside the (Brain) Box

While treatment for the separate diseases are a good thing, as well as productive, there are some people who are thinking much farther outside of the box, and developing concepts that will literally change the way we think.

Ever since we started using computers, it has been a goal to control them using only the power of our minds. The first interfaces were clumsy, including punch cards, which eventually developed into cursors and keyboards in the late 70’s/early 80’s. We’ve pretty well been stuck there to present day. Now people have started experimenting with mind impulse units, and have come far enough that several proof-of-concept examples exist.

Brain-Machine Interface technology (BMI, or sometimes BCI for Brain-Computer interface) is no longer in the realm of science fiction. There are prosthetics that can be operated with BMI, and mobility assistance exoskeletons that enable paraplegics to walk, using similar technology. There are computer games that can be controlled with mind impulse units, such as the BrainGate series. It is likely that the first person to have a modem installed in their brain will do so before 2020. Innovators and inventors are working with the possibilities of mapping neural responses to improve the usability of devices, and each iteration is becoming more effective. We are probably less than ten years from the first commercially available BMI unit that can replace keyboard, mouse, trackpad et al.

As the technology becomes more advanced, we will continue to grow closer to computers, allowing more precise control over many things, including medical devices. Having a pacemaker or insulin pump synched to the autonomic nervous system could improve control and reduce the size (and therefore the power requirements) of the devices.

Neural Dust

One current view on where to go with BMI involves nanomachines. The University of California at Berkeley has proposed what they describe as neural dust, thousands of non-replicating machines that interface with nerves to allow very direct mind impulse control. Neural dust would be embedded directly into the cortex between neurons and can detect the electrical signals between neurons with an electrode and a very tiny sensor. This does have a number of hurdles still to overcome, but is a giant leap forward, both in regards to control, and to biocompatibility. Many brain implants have issues with scarring and causing neuron damage, which hopefully these nanomachines will be able to avoid [since they do add to the brain rather than destroying part of it]. Another major issue with brain implants is that they cannot be standardized, as all brains have slightly different structures, making them more unique than fingerprints or DNA. This makes a solution like the neural dust, which will be distributed based on a CAT scan, rather than a rigid structure, an ideal solution.

This is not to say that there aren’t problems. The neural dust chips are too small to store data, and can’t be wired into a receiver, due to the body’s reaction to wires stuck through flesh and bone. So they have to transmit wirelessly. Which means, potentially, someone could hack your brain. Or at least spy on your thoughts.

The next (projected) step beyond merely interfacing the brain with a computer, or even beyond permanently connecting one to the brain would be to upload an entire brain into a powerful computer.

Upload Your Mind

The concept of uploading one’s mind to a computer is a science-fiction staple, starting as early as 1955 with Frederik Polh’s story “The Tunnel Under the World”. At the time, it would have taken a computer larger than the world to contain a human brain. We still have yet to build one of sufficient complexity and power, though we are getting closer. Experiments with Artificial Intelligence, such as Deep Blue, the chess playing computer that beat Gary Kasparov in 1996, and Watson, the trivia machine that won on Jeopardy! in 2011, have shown that complexity great enough to beat a human in a given field is possible. Beyond that are the DARPA autonomous vehicle challenges, which began to show success in 2005, and AI’s used for huge numbers of other tasks (including, prominently, video games). Dmitry Itskov, a Russian billionaire, is convinced that mind uploading will be possible by 2045, and he may be correct. Following Moore’s law, which states that computer power doubles in power and halves in cost every 18 months, we will increase computing power by more than a million times in the next thirty years, meaning that at this rate of increase, we will have Petabytes of RAM and Exabytes of storage for the cost of a cup of coffee. That should, hypothetically, be enough capacity to accept the contents of a human brain.

Ray Kurzweil, an inventor, futurist, and director of engineering at Google, is fond of speaking about the singularity – the point where technology will have surpassed human brainpower – and he predicts that it will happen in the next 30 years. People like Itskov and Kurzweil are transhumanists, people who believe that immortality is possible for our minds, if we can transfer them into technological bodies with computerized brains. They might be correct, but only if the technology really improves. I, for one, don’t want to have to reboot my cerebellum after it crashes, and the “blue screen of death” would take on a whole new meaning in that context.

Issues with Brain Uploading

There are, of course, a host of issues with brain uploading. First, how do we translate thoughts into electronic format? Brain interface units help, but that’s only conscious thoughts so far, and our brains are much more than that. There are some transhumanists who are mapping the brain with unprecedented detail, each of the billions of neurons and trillions of synapses are being found and labeled for future replication, under the assumption that the shape of the brain determines the contents (this is not a radical theory, but also not yet proven.)

Secondly is the issue of legal identity. This is particularly important since it is likely that uploading a person’s brain won’t erase it. This means there will be a biological version of the person walking around while the electronic version is cruising through cyberspace. Which one is legally the person? If brain uploading is done for a dying person, and their body passes away, is that person still alive? If the electronic version of a person commits a crime, is the biological version culpable? And how do you imprison an electronic person? What happens if the electronic version copies themselves again? The legal issues surrounding this are truly profound, and something that will need to be dealt with in the future.

It is also possible that brain uploading will help prevent senility and dementia, since they have physical causes. At this point, we don’t truly understand how dementia works, which makes developing a cure or treatment difficult, but it is known that it is caused by ongoing long term damage to the brain neurons (a side effect of aging). Not having neurons could help prevent this damage.

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