Who Are You?
Do me a favour and ask yourself a seemingly simple question: “Who am I?”.
You will probably come up with a bunch of different answers: a singer or a manager or a designer, a daughter or a son, a husband or a wife, an extroverted or an introverted person, an enthusiast, a reliable person or a light-minded one. But, which one is the correct one?
All of them, believe me. And many, many more.
Because, even though you often forget this, you are something extraordinary: a unique specimen of the most complex organism walking this, or as far as we know, any other planet.
Have you ever looked at your existence that way? Have you ever thought what’s the thing which contributes to you being the way you are and not some other way?
Even as you read this sentence, billions and billions of neurons in your brain are actively working as a sort of mental filter which processes and sieves external data inputs, thus, contributing to your own unique experience. The processed information is afterwards “delivered” to your memory, where, regardless of what it is, it is bound to stay for a short period of time. If the usefulness of the experience isn’t proved by the necessity of reusing the knowledge in a future situation, the information is wiped out from your brain altogether. In the opposite case, however, it’s repacked into another box, where it’s stored for a much longer period of time.
This box is, more or less, the key to your mentality and mindset. It stores all the experiences your brain has deemed knowledge-worthy in the past. And every time you find yourself in a situation even vaguely similar to some of the episodes packed in this box, your brain unzips the relevant containers and shapes your initial reactions. Until a new reaction proves to be the more suitable one after being processed by the billions of neurons in your brain.
And so it goes, on and on.
This is you.
Now, if we are, more or less, familiar with the way our personality is shaped through the years, and if it’s mostly fashioned by our brains and not our bodies, a frightening question suddenly arises: why shouldn’t we be able to reconstruct someone’s persona outside of his physical existence? In other words: why shouldn’t we be able to recreate person A in person B’s body?
It may sound SF, but the question is neither new, nor unexplored. Even if you are unfamiliar with the number of scientists and philosophers who have delved into it ever since the beginning of civilization, you may have already seen films such as Dark City, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Mr. Nobody. Would you be you if you had other person’s memories? Would someone else become you if you share with him all of your recollections? Do we exist merely within the borders of our mental processes, or is there something anything else our personalities rely on?
We’re closer than ever to answering these kinds of questions. Because we’re actively trying to create a brain outside its biological environment.
One of the last things Richard Feynman wrote on his blackboard before he died was:
“What I cannot create, I don’t understand.”
Following his advice, thousands of scientists are trying to figure out how a human brain works, by trying to reverse-engineer it and simulate his inner workings outside a man’s body.
In this article, we go over some of their projects, and some of their accomplishments.
You wouldn’t want to miss neither.
In May 2017, The Wall Street Journal called Emily Borghard “one of the world’s first true cyborgs”. She “owes” the description to a neuromorphic chip implanted in her hippocampus to monitor and regulate the brain’s neural activity disrupted by a drug-resistant epilepsy. The Wall Street Journal was quick to remind us that
“in the not too distant future, there could be millions more like her. These high-tech implants have implications for treating Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, depression and even behavioral disorders.”
But, neurotechnology is already actively revolutionizing the field of medicine. And it’s not only helping us to treat some of the most complicated diseases – epilepsy, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and, in the near future, even cancers and heart attacks – but it also promises to one day move far beyond the measures of treatment.
For example, Bryan Johnson’s start-up “Kernel” – frequently compared to Elon Musk’s “Neuralink” – has set itself the objective to not only “develop technologies to understand and treat neurological diseases in new and exciting ways” but also use this to “interpret the brain’s complex workings in order to create applications towards cognitive enhancement.
After Elon Musk launched “Neuralink”, even the most cynical sceptics started reconsidering the prospect of a functional brain-computer interface. As explained by Elon Musk, at “Neuralink” they are working to develop a device which may allow us to upload and download our thoughts in the future. Similarly to Google’s nanoparticle platform, it’s imagined as a cluster of miniature brain implants, which should be transported through the blood to our brains.
At F8 earlier this year, Mark Zuckerberg confirmed Facebook’s commitment to build a brain-computer interface as well. Once completed, it should allow people to type words directly from their brains at a rate five times the speed possible on a smartphone. Unlike Neuralink’s design, this one requires no additional implants. And, to quote Regina Dugan, head of Facebook’s experimental technologies division:
Â “It sounds impossible but it’s closer than you think.”
For many years, the idea of “uploading” your mind was nothing more but a recurrent subject in cinema and literature. But, it’s the 21st century – and reality is starting to look a lot more similar to fiction than we are aware of. Creating a digital backup of your brain which can later be run outside of your body isn’t a ridiculous idea anymore.
According to Anders Sandberg and Nick Bostrom in their book-length technical report Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap (p. 7), the basic idea behind brain emulation is
Â “to take a particular brain, scan its structure in detail, and construct a software model of it that is so faithful to the original that, when run on appropriate hardware, it will behave in essentially the same way as the original brain”.
“to sustain person-specific functions of mind and experience in many different operational substrates besides the biological brain”.
The future is now, isn’t it?
Our brain itself is a kind of a computer. A fascinating one. In fact, as far as we know, we can independently control only an insignificant set of brain functions without directly invading and upsetting its structure. If we succeed in building a network with the architecture of a human brain, we will, in fact, have produced a supercomputer able to solve the tasks which modern computers are incapable of solving.
We already talked about this: most computers are based on the von Neumann architecture and, consequently, are capable of serial computation only; the human brain, however, works in a different manner called parallel processing, which is both faster and harder to achieve.
“researchers worldwide with ICT tools and mathematical models for sharing and analysing large brain data they need for understanding how the human brain works and for emulating its computational capabilities.”
Just after defining the concept of brain emulation, in Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap, Sandberg and Bostrom note something fairly important:
“if brain activity is regarded as a function that is physically computed by brains, then it should be possible to compute it on a Turing machine.”
Now, in case you forgot, let me remind you what emulation actually means. Because it’s different from simulation which may be defined as an imitation of a certain operation/process/system over time. Emulation is something more. It means creating a highly accurate model of the original object.
This certainly makes things much more complicated. And we have already faced at least two problems.
Emphasise on the word “functional”. Here’s the problem.
First of all: we have no definite idea of how our brains actually work.
Secondly: even so, we know that there are around 100 billion of neurons, each of which is connected in thousand different ways to some other neurons.
Automating the process usually means losing accuracy.
Creating something small is always a problem; but creating accurately something as miniature as a brain neuron is all but impossible with our current technology. We still lack the relevant tools.
One of the most recent technologies which give us hope for the future is the so-called ultrasonic neural dust created by scientists working at the University of California at Berkeley. Neural dust consists of 3mm-long wireless (1×1 mm) implants which contain piezoelectric crystals and which are capable of converting the active potential of neurons into electromyogram or electroneurogram.
The creators of neural dust are currently working on shrinking these implants to the size of 50 microns. However, even though the technology has an enormous potential even as it is and could be used for the treatment of numerous diseases, opening skulls for the sake of obtaining further necessary information is still unethical and may be forevermore.
Whether you are one of those people arguing that, soon enough, technology will be able to treat brain-related diseases, or you daydream about digital immortality, or you ardently wait for that supercomputer based on one of your favourite scientist’s brain – you may be living in the right historical moment. Somebody somewhere is currently working on making either of these things possible.
Neurotechnology, one of the most exciting scientific fields of today, is revolutionizing both neuroscience and technology, and, according to some of the most prominent AI researchers, will very soon transform humans once and for all.
And if you remember well, these diseases-immune practically immortal humans of the future will probably live in cities made of bones and eggshells!
Makes you wish you were born few decades later, ha?
Â Flagships are visionary, science-driven, large-scale research initiatives addressing grand Scientific and Technological (S&T) challenges. They are long-term initiatives bringing together excellent research teams across various disciplines, sharing a unifying goal and an ambitious research roadmap on how to achieve it. (Â https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/en/h2020-section/fet-flagshipsÂ )