The year is 2045, and you are just waking up from a week-long procedure to copy your brain. An army of billions of nanobots—miniaturized robots no bigger than a blood cell—were injected into your blood stream. They search out and follow every neuron in your brain and record the countless trillions of tangled connections like tiny Google cars making street-view maps. As you awaken, you see a team of robot doctors looking down at you.
“Am I immortal now?” you ask.
“Yes, you are,” the head robot physician says. “We uploaded your brain holo-scan into the Neural-Netric MindPro 3000. Would you like to speak with your immortal self? We’ll boot him up right now.”
THE CONUNDRUM OF CONSCIOUSNESS
Transhumanists—a growing movement of people who believe that humans will evolve into new forms through advanced technology— are convinced a scene such as this will be possible in the not-so-distant future. But high-tech immortality is not what it sounds like. “You” will not be immortal; that is, your material body will still die. Even worse, you’ll never be able to know if your digitized self is actually conscious— you’ll just have to trust the salesman.
The greatest summit to be climbed by biologists, engineers and computer scientists is the challenge of scraping the human mind from its current brain substrate and transferring it into a machine. It’s also the most controversial. Even if it’s possible, it raises many ethical questions. If the process doesn’t kill you, then there will be two of you. In fact, once you are reduced to software, there is no limit to how many copies could be made.
Russian millionaire Dmitry Itskov has it all planned out, and through his 2045 Initiative, is currently funding research. “Within the next 30 years,” promises Itskov, “I am going to make sure that we can all live forever.” As crazy as it sounds, his scientific director, Dr. Randal Koene, says, “All of the evidence seems to say in theory it’s possible—it’s extremely difficult, but it’s possible.”
THE HARDWARE PROBLEM
Not everyone is so sure. Kenneth D. Miller, a professor of neuroscience at Columbia University, says that just having a map of the neuronal connections would not be nearly enough to recreate a thinking, conscious mind in a computer. According to Miller, “Each synapse is an enormously complicated molecular machine, one of the most complicated known in biology.” And they are always changing. Miller states that, “Without being able to characterize how each synapse would respond in real time to new inputs and modify itself in response to them, we cannot reconstruct the dynamic, learning, changing entity that is the mind.”
“All of the evidence seems to say in theory it’s possible—it’s extremely difficult, but it’s possible.”
Susan Schneider, coauthor of The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness, also has reservations about mind uploading. The problem? Carbon. Schneider theorizes that, “Consciousness may be limited to carbon substrates only.” She suggests, “Carbon molecules form stronger, more stable chemical bonds than silicon. If the chemical differences between carbon and silicon impact life itself, we should not rule out the possibility that these chemical differences also impact whether silicon gives rise to consciousness, even if they do not hinder silicon’s ability to process information in a superior manner.”
All these problems aside, what would it be like to meet yourself? Even if your mind upload wasn’t conscious, but resulted in a machine that acted exactly like you, you’d have a computer companion that would totally understand and appreciate your uniqueness. You could be your own best friend. What’s the harm in that?
OTHER PATHS TO FOREVER
If digital eternity is not in your future, there may be other alternatives.
Life Extension: British scientist Aubrey de Grey is working on preventing the aging process using regenerative therapies to repair the damage done to cells that accumulates over a lifetime. He has financial support from companies such as Google and PayPal, and expects some people already alive today may live 1,000 years or more based on imminent medical discoveries. “I think it’s reasonable to suppose that one could oscillate between being biologically 20 and biologically 25 indefinitely,” he says.
Cryonics: If your time should run out before immortality is attainable, you might get a second chance through cryonics—the freezing of your body until it’s possible to revive you in the future. Cryonics is here today. In fact, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona has been active since 1972. Although reanimation is not scientifically possible yet, Alcor has over a 1,000 members who have made financial and legal preparations for cryopreservation when their time comes.