Ask yourself the question “Who am I?”. You may come up with the bunch of different answers, and you may not know which is the right one (all of them, believe me). At the same time, you can be a singer or a manager or a designer (just a random pick), a daughter or a son, a husband or a wife, an extroverted or introverted person, an enthusiast, a reliable person or a light-minded one, whatsoever. It’s all about you, the most complex organism on the Earth and the unique personality. Have you ever thought about what makes you what you are?
Billions of neurons in your brain work as the mental filter that processes every external data input into your own unique experience. After that, it’s “delivered” to the memory storage where it stays for a short period of time. If the usefulness of the experience isn’t proved, it vanishes out. Otherwise, it gets into the other box and becomes more secure. The sum of the experiences that stay with you for a long time forms the way you deal with the following ones. This is the short version of the main processes that make you who you are.
The question is: can we reconstruct our personalities outside our bodies? This question makes us go back and, also, question the origin of our personalities. Do they exist only within borders of our mental processes, or is there anything else our personalities rely on? Most likely, we will be able to answer most of these questions only after we create a brain outside its biological environment.
Richard Feynman once said: “What I cannot create, I don’t understand”. Today thousands of scientists are testing their knowledge of human brain this way. They are trying to reverse-engineer brain and create its simulation outside the human body. In this article, we will explore the approaches to the brain emulation and the accomplishments you certainly shouldn’t miss.
In May 2017, The Wall Street Journal called Emily Borghard one of the first human cyborgs. This title she “owes” to drug-resistant epilepsy, which means that surgery was the only possible way of treatment. Placed in hippocampus, neuromorphic chip listens to the neural activity and regulates it.
Although Neurotech (the field that lies on the intersection of technology and neuroscience) is actively revolutionizing the way we treat the most complicated diseases – epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and, hopefully, soon Alzheimer’s disease – the possibilities and expectations go far beyond the measures of treatment. B. Johnson’s startup “Kernel” is a good example of the initiative that combines different goals.
Been frequently compared to Elon Musk’s “Neuralink”, the primary Kernel’s goal is not the telepathy but the restoration of brain dysfunctions along with the enhancement of the physical abilities of the human body.
After Elon Musk launched the neurotech startup, even the most skeptic people started reconsidering their attitude to the idea of the brain-computer interface. As explained by Elon Musk, Neuralink team works on the creation of the device that will allow us to upload and download our thoughts. It will contain a number of the small brain implants, which will be delivered through the blood vessels.
On the other hand, at F8 earlier this year Mark Zuckerberg announced building brain-computer interface by the Facebook team. It will allow to type directly from your brain and to hear through the skin sensors. Moreover, no invasive implants are meant.
For a long while, the idea of “uploading” mind was nothing but the subject for fictional movies and books. However, it has already made steps towards the reality. Nowadays creating the digital backup of the brain that later can be run outside of the body doesn’t sound that ridiculous.
According to the book “Whole Brain Emulation: A roadmap”: “The basic idea is 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”.
Carboncopies is the non-profit organization that is working on such “uploading” technology. They call it Substrate Independent Mind. In other words, they are creating possibility “to sustain person-specific functions of mind and experience in many different operational substrates besides the biological brain”.
Our brain itself is a computer. However, we can directly control only a small set of brain functions without any kind of direct invasions into its structure. If we build the computer with the architecture of the human brain, it can become a supercomputer that will solve the tasks which modern computers are incapable of handling.
The main point is that modern computers are based on the Von Neumann architecture which implies serial processing (data flow between three main parts: the processing unit, I/O devices, and memory storage). In contrary, the human brain uses parallelism, which makes an approach to the data procession totally different.
The Human Brain Project, the €1-billion-Flagship of European Union, is the one to take a look at if you are seeking the platforms that are focused (among else) on the development of brain-concerned computing.
In the same “Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap” feature above, Anders Sandberg and Nick Bostrom explain the departure point of brain emulation:
“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 let me remind you what emulation means (just in case you forgot). While simulation focuses only on receiving similar output to the original one, emulation implies the creation of the highly accurate model of the original object (in our case brain). This certainly makes things more complicated.
The main hurdles so far:
Creating precise functional models is the primary key to success here. However, it’s an extremely challenging task. First, we don’t know enough about how the brain works. Second, there are around 100 billion of neurons, each of which has thousands of connections with the other neurons. Trials to automate the process usually lead to loosing accuracy.
The problem is that all the measures of brain functions should take place at the nanoscale. This means that the appropriate tools should make possible real-time transmitting the activity of neurons to the digital device.
One of the most recent technologies that give such opportunity is so-called Ultrasonic Neural Dust created by scientists from the University of California at Berkeley. Neural Dust represents 3mm-long wireless (1×1 mm) implants that contain piezoelectric crystal, capable of converting action potential of neurons into electromyogram or electroneurogram.
Now creators of Neural Dust are pursuing the goal of shrinking these implants to the size of 50 microns. Although this technology has a huge potential for neuroscience and treatment of the numerous diseases, the necessity of opening skull only for the sake of obtaining information will stay scaring for a long time.
Whether you think of treating brain-concerned diseases with the help of computer science, or you daydream about digital immortality, or you are eager to have the supercomputer based on your brain – take a deep breath and realize that somebody is currently making it possible.
Armed with the knowledge of brain and technology, scientists gave birth to one of the most thrilling fields of nowadays – Neurotech, which is actively developing and, according to the most prominent AI forecasters, will reach most of what we expect in a 15-year period.
 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. ( http://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/en/h2020-section/fet-flagships )
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