Immortality by uploading your mind to a machine? Can’t be done, and we’re not even close. That doesn’t mean, of course, that people won’t keep trying.
One of the more recent attempts at such technological audacity comes courtesy of Nectome, a nascent tech startup out of Silicon Valley that's pitching a service that promises to preserve your brain for a future-based upload, with a catch: They need to euthanize you first.
Despite this dramatic hook, MIT Technology Review has reported that the 2016-founded startup in question is nevertheless gaining signatures on its waiting list – 25 and counting, at the time of writing. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sam Altman is one of them, and he’s paid around $10,000 to the company, hoping that their promise of living again on a hypothetical computer will come to pass.
It's worth noting, though, that Altman isn't going to "kill himself" like some outlets have claimed. In fact, he's recently taken to Twitter to lambast such claims.
In any case, during the still legally complex process of being euthanized (presumably at a ripe old age), the blood flow to the volunteers' brains will be replaced by specialized embalming chemicals. Ultimately, their brains will be stored in a chemical solution that will effectively imprison it in glass, waiting for the day that whole brain emulation (WBE) transmogrifies from sci-fi to reality.
Altman, 32, is the billionaire president of Y Combinator, a “seed accelerator” organization that helps startups nucleate and proliferate. His appearance on Nectome's waiting list might imply that Altman is confident in their potential, but he’s clearly not entirely sure how it’ll be realized, much like the startup itself.
“I assume my brain will be uploaded to the cloud,” he said. Indeed, this is certainly just one major assumption to make.
Before the cavalcade of caveats to come, however, it’s worth pointing out that this odd preservation method, termed “vitrifixation”, has been tested by Nectome before on rabbit brains. Their preservation of the animal’s connectome – the complete cartography of the brain’s neural connections – has netted the startup a Brain Preservation Prize. At the same time, the company has won a sizable federal grant, so it’s not like the MIT graduates in charge have no idea what they’re doing.
Preserving the brain is, strangely, a relatively old hat business, and various companies have shown that it’s possible in a variety of ways. Preserving the person’s mind, however, is something else entirely, and at this stage we simply have no idea if or when it’ll be possible.
The startup’s website suggests that “if memories can truly be preserved by a sufficiently good brain banking technique, we believe that within the century it could become feasible to digitize your preserved brain and use that information to recreate your mind.”
“Within a century” may be being a little bold here. As we’ve previously reported, we have an extremely poor understanding of how the brain works. Until a biomedical revolution takes place and we comprehend what “consciousness” is and how thoughts work, we’ll likely struggle to engage in WBE.
Besides, do all our memories – along with our other cognitive idiosyncrasies – remain intact upon death? There’s no evidence that they do, and even if they did, we not only don’t have a digital system that could adequately store and maintain them, but we aren’t even close to being able to pinpoint and then transfer them at high-resolution.
Will Nectome’s prophecy be fulfilled, and will its volunteers live as ghosts in a shell? Perhaps, but at the moment, there’s far too much uncertainty to fill in any of the missing details.