Human brains as software the next tech step

The Sydney Morning Herald May 1st, 2014

By Andrew Masterson

Sometimes the tenets of technology and articles of faith are damned difficult to distinguish. Central to both – at least when gazing hopefully into the future – are the ideas of freedom from space and time. In the glory days to come, we will be everywhere at once, and we will be immortal.

In the Christian tradition, this will happen when the good among us boogie off to Heaven and the trumps call out the end of history. In science fiction, it will happen when kindly aliens whisk us away, cure all our ills and teach us how to teleport.

“Eventually we will reach escape velocity and then you only die voluntarily. ”

Philip Rhoades, the Neural Archives Foundation

And in technology, it will come about when we finally figure out how to upload ourselves onto the internet, there to live, widely distributed, for eternity.

Make no mistake, the pursuit of net-based happiness is massively popular right now. There are start-ups and think tanks in the US, Europe and Australia, all jostling for a market-leading position in the mind-uploading industry.

”I think it is an inevitable consequence of where things are going,” says Philip Rhoades, 62, who heads a Sydney-based not-for-profit organisation called the Neural Archives Foundation. ”I don’t think there’s any doubt it will happen – unless we ruin the environment in the meantime and end all human life before we can do it.”

The NAF has been operating for six years and claims to have half a dozen brains in cold storage ready for experiment. The organisation’s stated aim is not to revive and upload deceased personalities per se, but to retrieve the information encoded in the brains as a record ”of memories, expertise, even wisdom”.

”We have a long-term goal of extracting information,” Rhoades says. ”We don’t promise we can ever re-create the person – but if it happens, all well and good.”

NAF, however, in common with groups such as the US-based start-up Brain Backups and the lobby group Carbon Copies (which promotes ”realistic routes to substrate independent minds”), faces one substantial obstacle. Like the Rapture and Star Trek, imagining digital immortality is easy, but no one has a clue how to actually make it happen.

Few, if any, people now think raising – or at least unfreezing – the dead is a realistic aim. Even simply retrieving inanimate data from deceased persons requires the discovery of precisely how the stuff is laid down in the first place. There have been huge advances in mapping the brain’s neural network – the ”connectome”, as the jargon has it – but how information therein is stored remains a mystery.

In the new realm of mind uploading, however, confidence married to hope can sometimes obscure a dearth of detail.

”The [whole brain] data itself looks something like a 300-terrabyte database or XML file,” says Russell Hanson, of Massachusetts-based company Brain Backups. ”The raw data, of course, is very messy. Just as it takes sophisticated statistical analysis to determine ‘hot spots’ in the genome for different diseases, interpreting the raw brain-map data will likely be of most interest to specialists and scientists.”

Hanson compares backing up brains with sequencing genomes. The latter was very expensive a few years back, he says; now it’s as cheap as chips.

Brain Backups, which quotes a prospective price per brain of $US80,000 ($86,000), is about to kick off a crowd-funding exercise to raise capital, and it’s confident that market forces will soon come into play.

”The price quoted was the price of the hard-drive storage needed to record the brain-map at a neuronal-connectivity-type resolution,” Hanson says. ”I am optimistic that the $3000 to $4000 price point can be reached, as it has for the genome.”

There is a definite industry-wide certainty that cyber-brain success lies just around the next corner. After all, science-fiction writers have been banging on about transferring human brains into non-human vessels since well before the internet.

Then, of course, the man widely regarded as a cyberpunk seer, William Gibson, used external brain storage as the central theme of his ground-breaking 1984 novel Neuromancer. Since then, it’s been on like Donkey Kong.

Ray Kurzweil, Google’s chief engineer, is convinced that human futures are digital. At a conference in New York last year, he bullishly predicted that ”biology as software” will be commonplace within two decades.

His conference address built upon a book he wrote in 2005 in which he foresaw ”software-based humans” who will ”live out on the web, projecting bodies whenever they need or want them, including holographically projected bodies, foglet-projected bodies, and physical bodies comprising nanobot swarms”.

The title of Kurzweil’s book, still widely referenced, was strangely apocalyptic, perhaps unconsciously echoing millennial religion. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine self-appointed cyber-prophets standing on street corners with it written on placards: The Singularity Is Near.

Back at the NAF, Philip Rhoades thinks Kurzweil ”hypes too much”. He’s wary of enthusiastic soothsayers, whom he characterises as ”nano-nirvana people”.

”I think it’s dangerous to promise these things,” he says. ”It falls into the idea of religious ecstasy.”

Nevertheless, he sees NAF’s work as part of a broad tapestry of research that, collectively and incrementally, but eventually, nevertheless, will free humanity from death.

”Research into longevity, brains and brain chemistry will each add a few years to life,” he says. ”Eventually we will reach escape velocity and then you only die voluntarily, when you decide you’re too bored to live any longer.”

But, hey, how boring can it get? Leading digital life lobbyists Carbon Copies favour ”research which seeks to understand the brain and nervous system of a wide range of organisms, including humans, in order to facilitate emulation of these organisms in an artificial substrate, for example a computer processor”.

In monotheist religious tradition, God made the Earth. In the kind of existence predicted and sought by advocates of mind-uploading, the deity in charge would be, numerically at least, Bill Gates.

Which is perhaps a thought sufficient to make many question the appeal of immortality.