In a future of mind uploading, will you still be you, and who will own your mind?

  • The US startup Nectome wants to upload your mind to the cloud
  • The 2045 Initiative promises to help humanity achieve immortality by 2045
  • Current evidence suggests that mind uploading is theoretically possible
  • The practical and ethical issues of mind uploading

Achieving immortality has long been humanity’s holy grail. Ever since we first became aware of the fragility of our own existence, we’ve been looking for ways to cheat death and prolong our lives indefinitely. Although advancements in medicine have enabled us to significantly increase our lifespan, true immortality has remained out of reach. Achieving physical immortality may very well prove to be beyond our capabilities, but what about digital immortality?

The US startup Nectome wants to upload your mind to the cloud

A US startup called Nectome recently unveiled plans to help humanity achieve digital immortality by preserving the brain – using a revolutionary new embalming technique – and subsequently uploading it to the cloud. The process is called vitrifixation, or Aldehyde-Stabilised Cryopreservation. It involves replacing the blood flow in the brain with embalming chemicals that preserve its neuronal structure in microscopic detail, basically by turning it into ‘frozen glass’. “You can think of what we do as a fancy form of embalming that preserves not just the outer details but the inner details,” explains Robert McIntyre, a co-founder of Nectome.

Digital representation of a human brain
A US startup called Nectome recently unveiled plans to help humanity achieve digital immortality by preserving the brain – using a revolutionary new embalming technique – and subsequently uploading it to the cloud.

There are a couple of caveats, though. The biggest one is that you can’t actually survive the procedure. Furthermore, in order for it to work, it needs to be performed on a living brain. If the brain has been dead even for a short amount of time, it will become irreparably damaged and the procedure won’t be successful. That means that it would essentially be a form of suicide, which would make it legal only in those US states that allow euthanasia, such as California. Another major downside is that Nectome still isn’t even close to developing a method for reviving or uploading the preserved brain to the cloud.

However, this uncertainty didn’t stop people from investing in the idea, with 25 people already having joined the waiting list by paying a $10,000, fully-refundable deposit. One of those people is Sam Altman, the chief executive of the successful startup accelerator Y Combinator, which recently welcomed Nectome into its fold. The company managed to raise more than $1 million in funding so far and was awarded two prizes by the Brain Preservation Foundation, as well as a large government grant to collaborate with MIT. However, the widespread public criticism that followed the waiting list announcement resulted in MIT cutting all ties with Nectome.

The 2045 Initiative promises to help humanity achieve immortality by 2045

Nectome isn’t the only company working on uploading our minds to a computer. In 2011, the Russian businessman and billionaire Dmitry Itskov founded the 2045 Initiative, an organisation that aims to help humanity achieve immortality by 2045. “Within the next 30 years, I am going to make sure that we can all live forever,” claims Itskov. “The ultimate goal of my plan is to transfer someone’s personality into a completely new body”.

The 2045 Initiative has laid out its plan in three stages. The first stage involves building a humanoid robot called the Avatar, and a cutting-edge brain-computer interface system. The second stage consists of building a life support system for the human brain, and linking it with the Avatar. The third and final stage involves creating an artificial brain that would hold the original individual consciousness.

Current evidence suggests that mind uploading is theoretically possible

So, can it actually be done? Is it really possible to upload a mind to a computer? The short answer is: yes, theoretically. “All of the evidence seems to say in theory it’s possible – it’s extremely difficult, but it’s possible,” says neuroscientist Randal Koene, the scientific director of the 2045 Initiative. The human brain is an incredibly complex organ, consisting of about 86 billion neurons that constantly exchange information with one another. All of the connections between the neurons in a brain are called the connectome, and many scientists believe that this connectome actually holds the information that makes us who we are. And mapping it could potentially allow us to recreate a person’s mind.

Our current assumption is that all brain activity is computable. If that’s true and the brain does work like a computer, and if we could find a way to map that activity, scan the brain at the necessary level of detail, interpret the scan in a way that would allow us to reconstruct the brain’s neural network and create a faithful simulation, and if we had enough computing power to run such a simulation, then we should be able to recreate the human mind in a computer. That’s a lot of ifs, but until we know different, it remains in the realm of possibility. However, it’s a very remote possibility at this point. “We are pitifully far away from mapping a human connectome,” says Dr Ken Hayworth, a neuroscientist at the Janelia Research Campus in Virginia. “To put it in perspective, to image a whole fly brain it is going to take us approximately one to two years. The idea of mapping a whole human brain with the existing technology that we have today is simply impossible.”

The practical and ethical issues of mind uploading

The main problem is that there are so many things about the human brain we don’t know yet. We don’t know how the mind is created. We don’t know what consciousness is or how to measure it, so even if we were able to create a simulation of the human brain, we wouldn’t be able to determine whether that simulation really is conscious. We don’t even know exactly which brain structures and biomolecules need to be preserved to recreate a person’s memory or personality, or if it’s even possible.

Many scientists are certain it can’t be done. “You cannot code intuition; you cannot code aesthetic beauty; you cannot code love or hate,” argues Dr Miguel Nicolelis, a neuroscientist at Duke University. “There is no way you will ever see a human brain reduced to a digital medium. It’s simply impossible to reduce that complexity to the kind of algorithmic process that you will have to have to do that.”

Digital representation of five human heads
The main problem is that there are so many things about the human brain we don’t know yet

The whole idea is also rife with ethical issues, and some experts are suggesting that ‘Can we do it?’ isn’t even the right question to ask. Instead, what we should be asking is ‘Should we do it?’. Let’s say that we’ve successfully uploaded a human mind onto a computer. Does that mean that personal identity has also transferred along with memories and that this person is still the same? Or is it a new person with a different identity that just happens to share the same memories? What rights would this digital person have? And if you could create one copy of yourself, why wouldn’t you be able to create multiple copies? In that case, which one of those copies would be the ‘real’ you? And since you wouldn’t have a physical body anymore and would essentially be reduced to a stream of data, who would that data belong to? Who would own you? How could you prevent major corporations from misusing your data?

Mind uploading is a fascinating concept, but we’re not sure yet whether it’s even possible. Our existing technology and our understanding of the human brain aren’t advanced enough to answer that question at this time. Even if uploading the human mind onto a computer eventually turns out to be impossible, the idea is still worth pursuing further, because the technology Nectome and others are working on could have many other useful applications. For example, it could facilitate brain banking for future research into health and disease states, help us discover new brain disorder drugs, or enhance our basic neuroscience circuit mapping.

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This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

Trendwatcher, futurist and international keynote speaker Richard van Hooijdonk takes you to an inspiring future that will dramatically change the way we live, work and do business.

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