Transhumanism is not a new idea. The belief that human beings can evolve beyond current mental and physical limitations has been used in science fiction for many years. Cryonics, the process of deep-freezing people who have died, has also been around for some time. Now they are coming together in a start-up company called Nectome.
How amazing would it be to preserve our minds forever? We could retain precious memories like the thrill of winning a big pokies payout or holding our children for the first time. Sensations like gentle rain on skin or the smell of a flower could be remembered too. And of course, knowledge and wisdom from the greatest thinkers could be immortalised. Imagine if the minds of Einstein or Stephen Hawking could have been conserved.
The example of Hawking is especially fitting for a discussion about Nectome. The company, which has already raised US$1 million in funding, aims to preserve brains. Cofounder Robert McIntyre has been developing a method that combines embalming with cryonics. So far, he and his Nectome partner, Michael McCanna, have successfully conserved the brains of a pig, a rabbit and an elderly woman.
A Technological Approach to Living Forever
Once the brains have successfully been pickled, for want of a better word, what is the next step? The issues with brain and body degradation are sidestepped quite neatly by Nectome’s ultimate vision. Though not yet possible, McIntyre and McCanna believe the technology to convert the human mind to a computer simulation is not far off. From there, it could be uploaded to a data server and retained forever.
In the words of prominent neuroscientist Ken Hayworth, “If the brain is dead, it’s like your computer is off, but that doesn’t mean the information isn’t there”. Nectome derives its name from “connectome”, the word for the web of synapses connecting neurons in any brain. This is what its founders hope to see digitally reproduced, uploaded and shared.
Issues with Connectome
Many forward thinkers believe uploading human consciousness to Cloud Storage will happen in their lifetime, but some remain unconvinced. The connectome of a tiny worm called Caenorhabditis Elegans has been known for more than 10 years, but is not yet “uploadable”. And that features only 7000 synapses; there are trillions in the human brain.
Anders Sandberg of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University adds that all the information on the Internet today could be stored in just 283,000 human brain connectomes. In addition, the intangible about what makes a human mind or conscience may very well not survive the upload. People are also posing the philosophical question of whether it should.
Whatever you might believe, the day that you can upload your memories of playing in your first sports competition, your first kiss, getting married or anything else remains uncertain. At the moment Connectome can preserve brains for a future time when uploads are possible; the company can’t actually perform that function yet.
However, even though the website may make that reality seem a lot closer than it is, Connectome is generating a lot of interest. A waiting list for when the technology becomes available to public citizens has been started, with each spot costing US$10,000. Anyone committing to this will also have to be euthanised; brains must be preserved as soon as possible after death to avoid degradation. For this reason, the next trials for Connectome involve terminally ill patients.
The company believes it will stay on the right side of the law where doctor-assisted suicide is legal, such as in California. Since the procedure is “100% fatal” there could be issues for those who are not terminal, or are in other parts of the world. The legal questions are just as intriguing as the scientific and philosophical issues surrounding Connectome.