The Weird Neuroscience of Immortality – Uploading the Human Mind

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Neuroscientist Kenneth Hayworth, 41, recently of Harvard and a veteran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, believes that he can live forever, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports. “The human race is on a beeline to mind uploading: We will preserve a brain, slice it up, simulate it on a computer, and hook it up to a robot body.” Hayworth wants his 100 billion neurons and more than 100 trillion synapses to be encased in a block of transparent, amber-colored resin—before he dies of natural causes. Why?  Because Hayworth believes that he can live forever.

“If your body stops functioning, it starts to eat itself,” Hayworth says, “so you have to shut down the enzymes that destroy the tissue.” If all goes according to plan, I’ll be a perfect fossil.” Then one day, not too long from now, his consciousness will be revived on a computer. By 2110, Hayworth predicts, mind uploading—the transfer of a biological brain to a silicon-based operating system—will be as common as laser eye surgery is today.Haysworth is pioneering the field of connectomics –a new branch of neuroscience. A connectome is a complete map of a brain’s neural circuitry. Some scientists “believe that human connectomes will one day explain consciousness, memory, emotion, even diseases like autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s—the cures for which might be akin to repairing a wiring error. In 2010 the National Institutes of Health established the Human Connectome Project, a $40-million, multi-institution effort to study the field’s medical potential.”

Connectomics scholar Sebastian Seung, a professor of computational neuroscience at theMassachusetts Institute of Technology and a prominent proponent of the grand theory, describes the connectome as the place where “nature meets nurture.”* Hayworth looks at the growth of connectomics—especially advances in brain preservation, tissue imaging, and computer simulations of neural networks—and sees a cure for death. In a new paper in the International Journal of Machine Consciousness, he argues that mind uploading is an “enormous engineering challenge” but one that can be accomplished without “radically new science and technologies.”

“There are those who say that death is just part of the human condition, so we should embrace it. ‘I’m not one of those people,” he adds.* Hayworth ansers critics his many doubters in academia saying that science is about overturning expectations: “If 100 years ago someone said that we’d have satellites in orbit and little boxes on our desks that can communicate across the world, they would have sounded very outlandish.” One hundred years from now, he believes, our descendants will not understand how so many of us failed for so long to embrace the idea of immortality.

“We’ve had a lot of breakthroughs—genomics, space flight—but those are trivial in comparison to mind uploading. This will be earth-shattering because it will open up possibilities we’ve never dreamed of.”* In 1986, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education, “researchers did manage to map the nervous system of a millimeter-long soil worm known as C. elegans. Though the creature has only 302 neurons and 7,000 synapses, the project took a dozen years. (The lead scientist, Sydney Brenner, who won aNobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002, is also at Janelia Farm.) C. elegans’s remains the only connectome ever completed. According to one projection, if the same techniques were used to map just one cubic millimeter of human cortex, it could take a million person-years.”

“In 2010, Jeff Lichtman, a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard and a leading light in connectomics, and Narayanan Kasthuri, also of Harvard, published a small paper full of big numbers. Based on their estimates, a human connectome would generate one trillion gigabytes of raw data. By comparison, the entire Human Genome Project requires only a few gigabytes. A human connectome would be the most complicated map the world has ever seen.” State of the art methods of preserving brain tissue top out at around one cubic millimeter—far, far short of an entire human brain.

“Mind uploading is part of the zeitgeist,” says MIT’s Sebastian Seung. “People have become believers in virtual worlds because of their experience with computers. That makes them more willing to consider far-out ideas.”

Taking a stark contrary view, J. Anthony Movshon, of NYU, says that more than 25 years after the C. elegans connectome was completed, he says, we have only a dim understanding of the worm’s nervous system. “We know it has sensory neurons that drive the muscles and tell the worm to move this way or that. And we’ve discovered that some chemicals cause one response and other chemicals cause the opposite response. Yet the same circuit carries both signals.” He scoffs, “How can the connectome explain that?”

“Our brains are not the pattern of connections they contain, but the signals that pass along those connections,” concludes Movshon.

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