In 1990 I got a chance to interview the lawyer for Thomas Donaldson, Ph.d, the neuroscientist who at the time was suing for the right to have himself killed and frozen. At the time Donaldson was fairly young, but had been diagnosed with brain cancer. He was a proponent of cryonic suspension, but feared that by the time he died, the cancer would have destroyed his brain. So he wanted to have a team of doctors remove his brain and put it into suspension while he was still healthy.
Donaldson lost the case, but his cancer did not reemerge until 2006. At that time he flew back to the center, and the operation was performed, though exact information on how he died is not readily available.
What fascinated me was this complete leap of faith. There was no method, or any proof that a method would ever be developed, to recover the actual mental states from a brain that had been suspended using this method. This is still the case today. But adherents to the cryonic faith believe it will happen. They also believe that, for some reason, a future civilization that develops these techniques will then concern itself with all those cryonically suspended brains from the present.
While the cryonic movement never really took off, there is a new group of neuroscientists out there who want to upload their brains into computers. One of the leaders is Randall Koene, who was quoted in Popular Science as saying:
“I got into this because I was interested in exploring not just the world, but eventually the universe. Our current substrates, our biological bodies, have been selected to live in a particular slot in space and time. But if we could get beyond that, we could tackle things we can’t currently even contemplate.”
Koene has targeted the year 2045 for uploading a mind onto a computer of some kind, and has even organized a conference with that stated goal.
Others have proposed creating a model of the brain. The European Union has set aside a BILLION dollars for this effort, and the Obama administration has launched the Brain Initiative to map it all out. There is also an independent brain mapping project called Connectome, that gives a visual interface to known data about neural pathways.
The year 2045 probably comes from the works of Ray Kurzwell, who has also been a speaker Koene’s conference. Kurzwell is often described as a futurist and inventor. He is an advocate for the idea of the singularity—a point in time at which human and artificial intelligences merge and become more powerful. 2045 is Kurzwell’s estimate of when that would happen. He and his followers believe that the singularity is inevitable, a point of view that has led many to conclude that he has essentially created a new religion with a new salvation. (The term “singularity” was originally introduced by a science fiction writer, Vernor Vinge, in 1984.)
Critics have attacked Kurzwell’s model of the human mind, as well as his “law” that predicts the rate of progress towards the singularity. He is not a neuroscientist, and his major successes have been more in the fields of computers, sensors, and information processing.
Though Kurzwell’s ideas about the singularity have been criticized, his successes in other fields prompted Google to take a chance on him. They have hired him to “work on new projects involving machine learning and language processing.”
It is probably way too soon to predict what will actually be happen, or if we are moving at all in the right direction. Will there really be a human brain either simulated by a computer, or uploaded to a computer by 2045? At present, the people who are trying to do so have more the air of true believers taking a leap of faith than of scientists closing in something they know is there. But even if the lofty goals fail, the efforts being taken in this quest are bound to produce many side benefits. Our understanding of ourselves and the computers that we work with should both improve greatly as a result.
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