A collection of neuroscientists believe that within the next hundred years it will be possible for the human brain to continue life after death - through a computer or type of simulation. Some neuroscientists claim this to be theoretically impossible, or at least far, far off in the future.
While plenty of pieces need to fall into place for this to become improbable theory to become reality, recent high-tech methods used to help our understanding of the brain are making those pieces seem a little more plausible.
Let's take a quick look at how close, and far, neuroscience is to making progress on this futuristic idea of mind uploading.
Preserving The Brain
The foundation for mind uploading lies on the understanding that much of who we are is stored in unique patterns of information between the neurons - the cells tasked with carrying chemical and electric signals throughout the brain.
Individually these neurons are called synapses while collectively they are referred to as theconnectome. These neuron networks are so vast that a single square centimeter of the brain contains more neurons than there are number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy.
Mind uploading requires these patterns of neural connections, or the connectome, to transition into a state where it can be monitored and is free from decay.
Recently, two groups of scientists created two separate ways to achieve this in smaller mammals. If either of these two techniques can be used on human brains then it is theoretically possible to have a brain sit in a freezer for centuries while scientists work on the rest of the steps needed for mind uploading.
Both methods begin by reconstructing the brain with a chemical similar to embalming chemicals used by funeral homes.
The first method starts by soaking the brain in osmium and a special unnamed solvent. Osmium is a heavy metal used to stain the outline of the entire neuron structure so that it can be examined with a microscope, while the solvent's job is to thoroughly even out the osmium stain. Water is then completely drained from the brain and then embedded into a plastic resin to preserve the brains neuron connections for future scanning.
The second method requires storing a human brain at cryogenic temperatures. The problematic stigma associated with freezing brains at cryogenic temperatures is that the formation of ice and buildup of crystals can potentially slice up neurons and completely destroy synapses.
While there is such a thing as cryoprotectant to prevent the formation of ice, this often results in dehydration causing the brain to shrink to a point to where neurons are too small to be seen under the electron microscope.
With this second method scientists seemed to have solved this problem, in pig's brains, at least. They begin by fixing the brain structure and altering the various chemicals pushed through the brain. This second method is more popular and seems far more efficient at preserving the molecular structure of the brain.
Scanning The Synapses
Currently the only way to get a clear picture of the brains entire neural connective maze is by zooming in on brain tissue with an electron microscope. The microscope then begins scanning the brain using thin sheets, one by one, and then puts the scans together using a computer to form a composite picture.
The brain is composed of densely packed pathways that contain memories of tastes, smells, sights, habits, etc. In order to keep all memories properly intact scientists must take a cubic millimeter of brain tissue and carve it into around 30,000 slices. Each brain contains at least one million of those cubic millimeters.
The improvement of technology and tools has made this painstakingly slow task faster than it has ever been. But even with better equipment the process will still take some time. One specific side project taking place today is the scanning of an entire mouse brain connectome, which is expected to take at least five years to complete. At this rate, it would take around few thousand years to scan the entire human brain connectome.
One scientific study claims that it may be possible to cut larger chunks of the human brain and have several electron microscopes working in tandem together without compromising the final scanned picture.
But even if this works and an ultra-thin-slicing device could be created, and someone wanted to put up a couple billion on electron microscopes, then the human brain could potentially be scanned within a 25 year period.
Writing The Simulation
Compared to most of the other steps involved with making mind uploading a reality, neuroscientists are fairly confident this piece of the puzzle should be simple.
The Human Brain Project created by the European Union is the largest simulation of its type to date. The problem with the Human Brain Project, according to its critics, is that the program is ahead of its time in the sense that its simulations are working off of assumptions rather than given data.
Even with this said there are in fact computer simulations widely used in neuroscience to test reality theories which can be used on a couple hundred neurons.
Unfortunately there are currently no computers powerful enough to simulate the entire human brain. However, several years from now scientists are supposed to roll out Exascale computers, which are supposed to match the human brains computational speed.
The Final Test
Testing whether the experienced simulation is in fact yourself is the most important part. The honest truth is there really are no current ways to know that an accurate copy of your brain is really you and your brain.
Debates continue to arise over whether mind uploading would actually transfer human consciousness or if it would simply make a copy of the person, in which case creating a human copy could theoretically be cool for your friends and loved ones, but you would still be dead.
There still is no analytical way to come to either of these conclusions. While some may say it would be obvious for the uploaded person to know whether it was actually them or not, others maintain that it would not be so simple.
Scientists are just as divided on this as ordinary citizens. What if person uploaded into another body contains all the original brains original thoughts, feelings and memories, and claims to be that person. How could people really tell the difference?
Sure. Maybe we're getting ahead of ourselves. Or maybe mind uploading is just around the foreseeable future. In the meantime, it's best to take care of the neurons we know are actually ours by taking advantage of the highest grade tools available to man.