Artificial Intelligence, Science, Technology
Comments 2

How to Live Forever By Tim Wu

Wu-Singularity-690

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

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This entry was posted in: Artificial Intelligence, Science, Technology

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I made my bones as an advertising copywriter. My TV, radio and print ads have amused millions of people and helped sell tons of cleaning products, coffee, macadamia nuts and other goodies. But I prefer that other kind of fiction: short stories and novels. My first published novel, Mindclone, is a near-future look at the amusing and serious consequences of brain-uploading. It’s garnered mostly five star reviews. The sequel is percolating in my brain even now. Stay tuned.

2 Comments

  1. zenzeddmore says

    I would think that if you had artificial neurons (residing side by side with you biological ones) that each learn to emulate the same input output of the neuron it was hooked up to and simply took over that neurons job when the neuron died that no personal sense of death would occur during the replacement.
    It is said we shift out all the atoms of our bodies over the course of several years, yet still retain the sense that we are the same person. How would this be any different?

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    • Ray Kurzweil talks about this as well. This would be a gradual replacement strategy, and should work in theory, assuming the technology gets there–a big assumption! The new entity would most likely be satisfied that it’s still “you” but with some possible enhancements. There are other strategies, though. In the parable by Tim Wu, the brain is destroyed in the copy process, so “you” have no other choice than to accept that the replacement version is still “you.” But in my novel Mindclone, the strategy is to scan the brain without destroying it, and upload the entire “connectome” to a digital version. So when the new entity comes awake, he and his “donor” get to interact. It’s akin to getting yourself a twin brother (or sister) that shares ALL your memories up until the moment it splits away from you. One of the problems for the entity in my novel is that it had no body to go along with its very human mind.

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