NOTE: This article was written by Tim Wu and published in The New Yorker on February 22, 2015
Could technology help to make our minds last forever? Consider the following parable, about a very wealthy man I’ll call Nicolas Flamel.
As he became older, Flamel became fixated on the idea that he didn’t want to die. After considering the problem for a long time, he figured that what he needed to do was move the contents of his mind into a receptacle more stable than a human head. Flamel was an engineer who made his fortune in networks, and he felt confident that what we think of as our brains—and as ourselves—was really nothing more than a combination of electrical pathways. Surely these could be copied and stored somewhere safe. The task would be daunting but not impossible: there are eighty-five billion neurons in the average brain, and mapping them seemed to be a problem not unlike mapping the Internet. Flamel liked to tell his friends, “One day, you’ll start reading e-mails from me, and wonder where I went.”
Flamel dedicated his fortune to the brain-uploading project, and over the years came to realize that he’d be able to do what he wanted—with one rather important catch. Transferring the information contained in his physical brain would require the brain’s destruction. But, at the age of eighty-eight, after testing his technology on rats, he eventually decided to go forward. He would submit to his own procedure.
Flamel remained awake for his surgery, and as he lay on the hospital table his brain was picked apart, its information transferred to a computer one neural connection at a time. At first, he felt nothing, but eventually he experienced a sense of fading, as though he were falling asleep. And then something unexpected happened. The computer said to him, distinctly, “I am awake.” But Flamel observed that he was still lying on the table. And then he understood that, whatever might happen to the computer, he was about to die.
The story of Flamel is just a parable, but uploading the brain, or achieving “whole brain emulation,” has in recent years become something of a cause célèbre among certain scientists and entrepreneurs. “It’s theoretically possible to copy the brain onto a computer, and so provide a form of life after death,” Stephen Hawking said last year. Ray Kurzweil, the author of a series of books about what he calls the Singularity, has declared that we may be uploading our brains by the twenty-thirties. Currently, the best-known effort to develop brain uploads is something called the 2045 Initiative, founded by Dmitry Itskov, a Russian billionaire. His goal is to enable “the transfer of an individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality.”
Assume, along with Hawking and Kurzweil, that it is plausible for the information in our heads to be digitized and stored somewhere else. And assume, as scientists now tend to do, that our minds are actually stored in our physical brains. (Descartes, on the other hand, thought that the mind resided in the pineal gland.) As the story of Nicolas Flamel suggests, it’s still not at all clear what uploading the brain would mean. What if what’s created, even if it has a copy of your brain, just isn’t you?
For the rest of this brilliant and fascinating article, please go to this link: http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/live-forever