Its harsh but inevitable truth of life that one day our bodies are going to break down and we’ll die. Our brain will decay and disappear forever. But, what if it didn’t have to? Right now there are scientists around the world working on technology that could one day take your brain, and possibly your consciousness, and upload it onto a computer. This would be a game-changer in neuroscience and some believe could lead to immortality. So, how close are we to downloading our brains?
According to Dr Kenneth Hayworth, President of the Brain Preservation Foundation. “There’s on the order of 100 billion neurons in a human brain and each of those neurons has tens of thousands of connections. You are looking at hundreds of trillions of those synaptic connections, each of which has been tuned by your life’s experience,” says Dr Hayworth.
In order to download your brain, each one of those trillions of connections would have to be precisely scanned, mapped and digitally reconstructed on a computer as an emulated brain. The idea would be, that this simulation would not only behave like a biological brain but could retain the thoughts and memories of the person whose brain was scanned.
Even if you could download the memory, what would you be downloading?’. The original adrenaline-inducing fright won’t be downloaded. Your memory of the memory with all the emotional overlays would be downloaded, edits and imagined additions! So how reliable is that?’ ‘This then adds many ethical questions. If you could make a device to upload memories, should it be perfect? Like data on a hard drive? What if it’s been edited? If you select the free version of Top 5 memory uploads 2029’, will there be an ‘in-memory purchase’ to remove the ads?
The 14bn neurons amount to pretty much the number of neurons that a baboon brain has or almost half the number of neurons in the gorilla brain’. This shows the scale of the task at hand.
‘There are puzzles that we still haven’t solved about animal brains either, even with these techniques, so our knowledge of the human brain – and human-specific skills, such as language – has a long way to go,’ Dr Lindsay says. A number of organisations have emerged over the years to help us better map out our brains. The Brain Initiative is mapping the brain to show how individual cells and neural circuits interact, Darpa has been funding scientific research into brain-computer interfaces and Blue Brain Project is building accurate digital reconstructions and simulations of a rodent’s brain with the goal to do the same with a human brain in the future. ‘We have a decent general understanding of perception, memory and motor action,’ Dr Anders Sandberg, a senior research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, tells Metro.co.uk ‘Other things like attention and emotions are harder, and when it comes to intelligence or consciousness we are still quite confused. We have in a sense not mapped them.
’ If a whole brain emulation is to become possible, we can’t skip the first step of mapping out the brain. Even then, it’s going to be difficult to figure out exactly how it works, especially without a physical body. ‘Deciding which parts of the brain are necessary for its function as we know it is an ongoing question for neuroscience,’ Dr Lindsay says. ‘What [parts would need to] be on the list of things to “upload” and which parts are merely “supportive” where they are needed to keep a carbon-based brain running but wouldn’t be needed in silicon? ‘The “brain in a jar” notion of uploading assumes neurons can be cut and replaced with appropriate simulations of the signals they normally send in, but that assumes we know what part of those signals is truly important and how to simulate them.’ Safe to say it’s complicated. Dr Sandberg believes that this ‘understanding’ is even more important than mapping – we need to know how to construct a brain.
The idea with uploading is that we do not need to understand the high-level patterns, just how the parts work and connect,’ he says. ‘That’s a bit like constructing the ultimate Ikea bookcase just by following the instructions.’ Dr Lindsay thinks it could even be more complicated than that: ‘We’d need the physical properties of all the neurons and how they connect to each other, she says. ‘It’s possible that even that isn’t sufficient because other cell types may turn out to have some important computational roles.’ Another consideration when it comes to uploading a brain is how big it actually is – will we have the room and the power to ‘run’ it on our computers? It’s another unknown, with estimates ranging from one terabyte (1,000GB) right through to around 2.5 petabytes (2,500,000GB), but can we ever really compare our brain to our laptop? ‘We can do a guesstimate by looking at how many synaptic connections there are (about 10^15, a quadrillion) and estimate that each holds somewhere between a bit and a byte. That would give about a petabyte,’ says Dr Sandberg. ‘But we do not function like computers: we store memories by associations, so if I see something I will activate patterns of neurons that were activated by similar things in past experience. ‘But these reconstructions are often not at all like what I actually experienced so how many things I truly remember is a bit ill-defined. Another tricky thing to understand is that, as Dr Sandberg tells us, no human has ever seemed to run out of memory.
Now, all this is great to think about and makes for interesting dinner conversation, but we have yet to scan a complete human brain let alone test the theory of consciousness. That’s not to say some progress hasn’t been made though. There are projects all over the world working on scanning and simulating brains in the name of healthcare and medicine. This is more about unlocking mysteries of our brain and less about unlocking the key to immortality.