The sad but inevitable truth is that we’re all going to die.
Advances in healthcare and medicine mean we could live longer, healthier lives than ever before but our physical bodies are always likely to have an expiration date.
But what if our brains could live on forever without our bodies?
That’s the idea behind brain uploading (also known as mind uploading) or whole brain emulation (WBE).
It’s more likely to feature in science-fiction than in science labs but that hasn’t stopped it from gaining a resurgence thanks to advances in biotechnology and artificial intelligence.
It’s now become a valid topic of discussion among neuroscientists, futurists, philosophers and even transhumanists.
The Future Of Everything has already discussed ways to upload or download memories but what happens if it goes even further?
In theory, uploading our brains could allow us to live forever, exist solely in virtual reality, create backups of ourselves and even safeguard our species against disaster.
But could it ever really be possible? And even if it is, should we do it?
The details are mind-bogglingly complicated but the basic idea behind brain uploading is that we could take a brain and scan its structure.
We’d then create a model of it that’s so faithful to the original it can be run on hardware and will behave in exactly the same way as the original.
But this isn’t a simple copy and paste job. To understand how to upload a brain we need to understand what a brain is.
That’s the one organ that science is yet to understand.
‘The brain is a messy ball of neurons, glial cells. blood vessels, immune cells, and other things.’ Dr. Grace Lindsay, a computational neuroscientist and author, tells Metro.co.uk.
‘There’s so very much we don’t know,’ Dr Lindsay says.
This is largely down to the fact, she says, that we can’t use invasive techniques to record how individual neurons in human brains work.
‘Without that, we are left with only very coarse methods of estimating what neurons are doing,’ she says.
A great example is that we don’t even know the full scale of the task.
Scientists were confident we had around 100 billion neurons relaying sensory information from the outside world to our brains and then our muscles but researcher Dr Suzana Herculano-Houzel looked into it and found nobody knew where that figure had come from or who researched it.
Her own research put the number at 86bn.
You might not think that’s a big difference but, as she pointed out, ‘the 14bn neurons amount to pretty much the number of neurons that a baboon brain has or almost half the number of neurons in the gorilla brain’.
This shows the scale of the task at hand.
‘There are puzzles that we still haven’t solved about animal brains either, even with these techniques, so our knowledge of the human brain – and human-specific skills, such as language – has a long way to go,’ Dr Lindsay says.
A number of organisations have emerged over the years to help us better map out our brains.
The Brain Initiative is mapping the brain to show how individual cells and neural circuits interact, Darpa has been funding scientific research into brain-computer interfaces and Blue Brain Project is building accurate digital reconstructions and simulations of a rodent’s brain with the goal to do the same with a human brain in the future.
‘We have a decent general understanding of perception, memory and motor action,’ Dr Anders Sandberg, a senior research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, tells Metro.co.uk
‘Other things like attention and emotions are harder, and when it comes to intelligence or consciousness we are still quite confused. We have in a sense not mapped them.’
If a whole brain emulation is to become possible, we can’t skip the first step of mapping out the brain.
Even then, it’s going to be difficult to figure out exactly how it works, especially without a physical body.
‘Deciding which parts of the brain are necessary for its function as we know it is an ongoing question for neuroscience,’ Dr Lindsay says.
‘What [parts would need to] be on the list of things to “upload” and which parts are merely “supportive” where they are needed to keep a carbon-based brain running but wouldn’t be needed in silicon?
‘The “brain in a jar” notion of uploading assumes neurons can be cut and replaced with appropriate simulations of the signals they normally send in, but that assumes we know what part of those signals is truly important and how to simulate them.’
Safe to say it’s complicated.
Dr Sandberg believes that this ‘understanding’ is even more important than mapping – we need to know how to construct a brain.
‘The [misguided] idea with uploading is that we do not need to understand the high-level patterns, just how the parts work and connect,’ he says.
‘That’s a bit like constructing the ultimate Ikea bookcase just by following the instructions.’
Dr Lindsay thinks it could even be more complicated than that:
‘We’d need the physical properties of all the neurons and how they connect to each other,’ she says.
‘It’s possible that even that isn’t sufficient because other cell types may turn out to have some important computational roles.’
Another consideration when it comes to uploading a brain is how big it actually is – will we have the room and the power to ‘run’ it on our computers?
‘We can do a guesstimate by looking at how many synaptic connections there are (about 10^15, a quadrillion) and estimate that each holds somewhere between a bit and a byte. That would give about a petabyte,’ says Dr Sandberg.
‘But we do not function like computers: we store memories by associations, so if I see something I will activate patterns of neurons that were activated by similar things in past experience.
‘But these reconstructions are often not at all like what I actually experienced so how many things I truly remember is a bit ill-defined.’
Another tricky thing to understand is that, as Dr Sandberg tells us, no human has ever seemed to run out of memory.
The best of The Future Of Everything
The future of Evolution: What are the hard human limits of athletic world records?
The future of Technology: Graphene the ‘miracle material’ is stronger than diamond but what can it do?
The future of Health: Gene editing: will it make rich people genetically superior?
Read every Future Of Everything story so far
‘We can memorise fantastic amounts of information with some training and some people have nearly perfect autobiographical memories,’ he says.
‘At the same time we probably quietly forget enormous amounts of irrelevant details.’
Despite all these obstacles, Dr Sandberg believes that uploading a brain may well be possible:
‘I think we have a decent chance to have the technology to attempt it within this century,’ he says.
He believes that, in order for WBE to take place, there’d need to be a particular framework with highly advanced technology.
‘We need a lot of computing power, obviously, but that is being built anyway,’ Dr Sandberg says.
‘We need ways of scanning brain tissue at a microscopic level, which is already being done, but also to do it for whole brains, something that is not yet ready.
‘A brain is huge compared to the usual microscope imagery. We also need ways of translating the scans into simulated nerve cells.
‘Right now we have good neuron simulations, but much work on converting the scans are required. Finally we need a decent VR to put the emulated brain and its virtual body into.’
That sounds positive and sounds like it can be done.
The next question is why would we even want to do it in the first place?
‘The most obvious thing is that you can have a backup of yourself,’ Dr Sandberg says.
‘If your body gets killed, you can now download your latest backup into a new body (whether that’s a robot, android or a clone).’
He also imagines a future in which we’d be able to ‘live’ in virtual reality and experience unimaginable freedom.
‘You could travel via the Internet to other bodies or via laser-link to space,’ he says.
‘You do not have to age or get diseases. You can tweak your virtual brain chemistry, mood and inner workings and press “undo” if it doesn’t work.’
Some believe backing up our brains will allow us to protect our species against a catastrophic event.
We could all live on via computers – assuming the catastrophic event didn’t blow up all of the computers.
It may also be the answer to interstellar travel (The Future Of Everything will be talking about that next week).
We know the human body can manage a year in space but any longer and at higher speeds it might not be cut out for it.
Astronauts could instead send their minds to the stars as part of the spacecraft’s processing system.
There’s also a chance that brain uploading will lead to an artificial intelligence (AI) revolution.
It would then lead to a deep philosophical debate as to whether the uploaded consciousness is ‘real’ or ‘artificial’.
But just because we could, and there are benefits, does it mean we should?
‘I think most people assume that they’re uploading their consciousness,’ Dr Lindsay says.
‘They believe they will be transferred to a computer and be able to live forever on it.
‘But with uploading, there is the same problem that comes up with the idea of the transporter in Star Trek: if your whole body is dissolved into atoms and then rebuilt in a new place, is that still you?’ says Dr Lindsay.
‘Or were you destroyed in the process and some new consciousness was created on the other side?’
It also doesn’t take much of an imagination to think of other concerns around privacy, identity and ownership, like who has access to your virtual brain?
With no physical presence will you have the same rights? What if your brain gets infected with malware, a virus or is just deleted?
The welfare of everyone (and everything) involved must be considered, especially during early testing.
Dr Sandberg explains that the first step will be to use insect brains, then mouse brains before gradually working up towards humans.
As well as questions of an animal’s physical welfare, there’ll be questions of how to treat the ‘virtual’ animals created.
‘They could be just as conscious as the original, there is no way of knowing,’ Dr Sandberg says.
‘We should treat virtual mice as well as we treat real mice.’
Although more is being learned about the brain every day, there’s a long way to go before we’ll be backing up our brains as often as our computers.
Even then, there’s a chance our technology will never advance as far as we need it to:
‘The tools that we’d have to create to gather all the relevant data from an individual brain to perform a detailed simulation of it make it is so difficult as to almost be classified as impossible,’ Dr Lindsay tells Metro.co.uk.
‘But history is full of people confidently declaring that what was eventually done could never be done.’
The Future Of Everything
This piece is part of Metro.co.uk’s series The Future Of Everything.
From OBEs to CEOs, professors to futurologists, economists to social theorists, politicians to multi-award winning academics, we think we’ve got the future covered, away from the doom mongering or easy Minority Report references.
Every weekday, we’re explaining what’s likely (or not likely) to happen.
Talk to us using the hashtag #futureofeverything If you think you can predict the future better than we can or you think there’s something we should cover we might have missed, get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org or Alex.Hudson@metro.co.uk