If you’ve ever fancied living out eternity as a self-aware computer simulation, the start-up company Nectome has a pitch for you.
By embalming your brain with a special formula, they promise to one day be able to convert those neural connections into code that just might allow you to ‘live’ forever. Oh, and they’ll need that brain to still be living as they do it.
Get the sense that this might all be a bit premature? It is – this service isn’t yet for sale.
But there is a waiting list you can jump on for a refundable deposit of US$10,000. Already there are 25 super optimistic – or highly gullible – individuals waiting for their slice of digital heaven.
Nectome is still in its research phase, having just earned a US$80,000 prize for their work on preserving a pig’s brain in such detail, synapses were kept in place after it was returned to a pliable state.
This is the secret to their plan. By preserving your brain in a vitrifying solution that effectively seals every neural connection in a glass-like state, they hope to keep it intact just in case we ever work out how to model it in software.
But to do this, they can’t afford to wait until you’ve gone cold. As little as five minutes of interrupted blood flow could be enough to trigger the death of vulnerable neurons.
So the whole preservation process would need to commence while your heart is still beating.
Since this is for all purposes a death sentence, it would only be legal under very specific conditions, such as those proposed by California’s 2015 End of Life Option Act.
For patients facing an incurable terminal illness, Nectome would provide a glimmer of hope of awakening in a virtual afterlife with a digital brain in the far future.
None of this is new. Science fiction writers like William Gibson have been speculating over the so-called ‘Geek Rapture’ for years, dismissing its possibility or expecting its imminent invention.
Since the middle of the 20th century companies have been preserving bodies in deep freeze in the hope that one day they can be defrosted and returned to some form of life.
Whether a frozen brain can ever be repaired to a state of full functioning, or even translated into a functional code, would depend on some pretty significant leaps in technology.
But where cryopreservation does a poor job of snap-locking those all-important synapses in place, vitrification is predicted to do a better job of preserving your grey matter.
Of course there’s a huge leap between your skull’s meat computer and digital code, but the thinking goes that this program version of your brain should share your memories, and so will effectively be ‘you’ living virtually forever in a computerised form.
Most of this is based on hope more than science – research hurdles are just part of the problem.
For one thing, we’re yet to crack the big philosophical question of how physical systems like brains (and, one day, computers) can even produce consciousness – and whether a brain needs a body to function properly.
Modelling worm brains so their nervous system can drive Lego vehicles is one thing. Modelling a single human brain to ‘know’ itself is beyond our ability to comprehend, let alone create.
And if that’s not enough, there are also moral implications to wrestle with.
“Burdening future generations with our brain banks is just comically arrogant,” McGill University neuroscientist Michael Hendricks told Antonio Regalado at Technology Review. “Aren’t we leaving them with enough problems?”
Not to mention issues with digital security, privacy, and copyright. We struggle with these when it comes to who owns a YouTube music video – imagine if it was a mind from a long-deceased human.
Still, Nectome has already raised its first million, and no doubt will be continuing its research for some time yet. It has a timeline that envisions the first steps of memory preservation within the next decade.
Even if you’re keen to dismiss this rapture for geeks as pure fantasy, it’s clearly not a dream that’s going to die any time soon – so we might as well pay close attention.