Don’t Want to Die? Just Upload Your Brain

Oxford researchers say we are only a few decades away from a chance at digital immortality.

l haven’t seen “Her,” the Oscar-nominated movie about a man who has an intimate relationship with a Scarlett Johansson-voiced computer operating system. I have, however, read Susan Schneider’s “The Philosophy of ‘Her’,” a post on The Stone blog at the New York Times looking into the possibility, in the pretty near future, of avoiding death by having your brain scanned and uploaded to a computer. Presumably you’d want to Dropbox your brain file (yes, you’ll need to buy more storage) to avoid death by hard-drive crash. But with suitable backups, you, or an electronic version of you, could go on living forever, or at least for a very, very long time, “untethered,” as Ms. Schneider puts it, “from a body that’s inevitably going to die.”


This idea isn’t the loopy brainchild of sci-fi hacks. Researchers at Oxford University have been on the path to human digitization for a while now, and way back in 2008 the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford released a 130-page technical report entitled Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap. Of the dozen or so benefits of whole-brain emulation listed by the authors, Andrew Sandberg and Nick Bostrom, one stands out:

If emulation of particular brains is possible and affordable, and if concerns about individual identity can be met, such emulation would enable back‐up copies and “digital immortality.”

Scanning brains, the authors write, “may represent a radical new form of human enhancement.”

Hmm. Immortality and radical human enhancement. Is this for real? Yes:

It appears feasible within the foreseeable future to store the full connectivity or even multistate compartment models of all neurons in the brain within the working memory of a large computing system.  

Foreseeable future means not in our lifetimes, right? Think again. If you expect to live to 2050 or so, you could face this choice. And your beloved labrador may be ready for upload by, say, 2030:

A rough conclusion would nevertheless be that if electrophysiological models are enough, full human brain emulations should be possible before mid‐century. Animal models of simple mammals would be possible one to two decades before this.

Interacting with your pet via a computer interface (“Hi Spot!”/“Woof!”) wouldn’t be quite the same as rolling around the backyard with him while he slobbers on your face or watching him dash off after a tennis ball you toss into a pond. You might be able to simulate certain aspects of his personality with computer extensions, but the look in his eyes, the cock of his head and the feel and scent of his coat will be hard to reproduce electronically. All these limitations would probably not make up for no longer having to scoop up his messes or feed him heartworm pills. The electro-pet might also make you miss the real Spot unbearably as you try to recapture his consciousness on your home PC.

But what about you? Does the prospect of uploading your own brain allay your fear of abruptly disappearing from the universe? Is it the next best thing to finding the fountain of youth? Ms. Schneider, a philosophy professor at the University of Connecticut, counsels caution. First, she writes, we might find our identity warped in disturbing ways if we pour our brains into massive digital files. She describes the problem via an imaginary guy named Theodore:

[If Theodore were to truly upload his mind (as opposed to merely copy its contents), then he could be downloaded to multiple other computers. Suppose that there are five such downloads: Which one is the real Theodore? It is hard to provide a nonarbitrary answer. Could all of the downloads be Theodore? This seems bizarre: As a rule, physical objects and living things do not occupy multiple locations at once. It is far more likely that none of the downloads are Theodore, and that he did not upload in the first place.

This is why the Oxford futurists included the caveat “if concerns about individual identity can be met.” It is the nightmare of infinitely reproducible individuals — a consequence that would, in an instant, undermine and destroy the very notion of an individual.

But Ms. Schneider does not come close to appreciating the extent of the moral failure of brain uploads. She is right to observe an apparent “categorical divide between humans and programs.” Human beings, she writes, “cannot upload themselves to the digital universe; they can upload only copies of themselves — copies that may themselves be conscious beings.” The error here is screamingly obvious: brains are parts of us, but they are not “us.” A brain contains the seed of consciousness, and it is both the bank for our memories and the fount of our rationality and our capacity for language, but a brain without a body is fundamentally different from the human being that possessed both.

It sounds deeply claustrophobic to be housed (imprisoned?) forever in a microchip, unable to dive into the ocean, taste chocolate or run your hands through your loved one’s hair. Our participation in these and infinite other emotive and experiential moments are the bulk of what constitutes our lives, or at least our meaningful lives. Residing forever in the realm of pure thought and memory and discourse doesn’t sound like life, even if it is consciousness. Especially if it is consciousness.

So I cannot agree with Ms. Schneider’s conclusion when she writes that brain uploads may be choiceworthy for the benefits they can bring to our species or for the solace they provide to dying individuals who “wish to leave a copy of [themselves] to communicate with [their] children or complete projects that [they] care about.” It may be natural, given the increasingly virtual lives many of us live in this pervasively Internet-connected world, to think ourselves mainly in terms of avatars and timelines and handles and digital faces. Collapsing our lives into our brains, and offloading the contents of our brains to a supercomputer is a fascinating idea. It does not sound to me, though, like a promising recipe for preserving our humanity.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.