The Immortality Machine 

For decades, the theory of mind uploading seemed like science fiction. Now, neuroengineer Randal Koene is working to change that, and new research suggests the idea may not be as far-fetched as we once thought.

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In 2010, Koene and physicist Suzanne Gildert founded, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing research and organizing projects in order to achieve "substrate-independent minds," or minds that would be sprung free from their three-pound slab of grey matter and have their information stored longterm on more durable substrates (although Gildert is no longer involved with the project). By networking with other scientists and engineers around the world, Koene was better able to design projects that fit into the bigger picture of whole brain emulation.

Today, Koene calls himself a neuroengineer — a relatively new discipline (it got its own journal in 2004) that uses engineering techniques, like fine-scale modeling of structures, to understand neural systems. He founded NeuraLink Co., a small for-profit startup in San Francisco, where he and a handful of scientists and engineers are working to build "cyborcells," tiny wireless neural probes, powered by infrared light, which could one day fit within a human circulatory system. This would allow researchers to put thousands, even millions, of probes inside the brain to collect a high-resolution map of neural activity, which they hope will get us one step closer to mind uploading.

When you think about it, there would be some interesting benefits to living in a world where mind uploading is mainstream. We could survive harsher environmental and political climates; we would be immune to bioweapons and nuclear wars; and, Koene points out, we would even be able to erase a traumatic event from our minds or selectively tune our emotional response to be okay. It's an attractive thought. How many of us, after we watched the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, kind of wished we could smudge out a memory of a bad breakup or the death of a loved one?

In fact, Gallant says that current evidence suggests that erasing specific memories is far more likely than mind uploading. "Scientists think that memories are re-encoded each time they are recalled, so if some method is used to prevent this re-encoding during recall, then traumatic memories may lose their efficacy over time." If this could be done, he says it might serve as a valuable tool for psychotherapy.

UC Berkeley philosophy professor John Searle disagrees, saying that our lives are formed by our memories. "If you systematically lose your memories, you lose your life," he said. "It would destroy everything because your relationships are largely based on your memories. That's why memory loss is such a tragedy."

Koene's team at NeuraLink Co. is only at the very beginning stages — they're creating experimental designs to test and verify desired features of the probes and still need someone to build a prototype of a cyborcell. With these kinds of longterm, experimental endeavors, it's hard to know if a project will receive funding to its completion. Right now, the team says it has enough investment to push forward, but to see the entire project through would be very expensive. Koene estimates that the cyborcell project, from start to finish, will be a multimillion-dollar investment.

That may sound like a lot, but there are some surprising (and wealthy) investors behind artificial intelligence projects.

It's hard to pin down exactly how much money mind uploading research is getting. Koene estimates the amount isn't much — perhaps around $1 million annually. And while he wouldn't reveal how much money his startup is receiving, he said that 31-year-old Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov, who founded his own futurist foundation last year, the 2045 Initiative, has provided NeuraLink Co. a chunk of money to get its work off the ground.

Other investors in the transhumanist cause include Martine Rothblatt, founder and CEO of United Therapeutics, and Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel, who has invested a couple hundred thousand dollars to a project called Nemaload, which is working to digitally replicate the functionality of the brain. There are many other projects, however, that aren't directly related to uploading, but that are building tools that Koene says could be used to advance mind uploading, like The Human Connectome Project. If you count all of these supplemental projects, Koene says the amount of money involved is tens of millions of dollars.

The Human Connectome Project, led by David Van Essen at Washington University and funded by the National Institutes of Health, is the first real attempt to map every neural connection in the brain (an average adult has about 100 billion neurons and one quadrillion connections), a network known in its entirety as the "connectome." The team believes that mapping every synaptic pathway in the brain, which it hopes to have done by the end of the century, will lead to a better understanding of myriad disorders, like schizophrenia, autism, and multiple sclerosis.

While the connectome project has won funding from one of the world's leading medical research centers, a number of projects that aim to develop these ultramodern tools are funded by private investors, many of whom belong to a group who call themselves "transhumanists." It's a crew of about 6,000 techies, mostly white men, who believe that certain experimental practices, like cryonics, gene manipulation, brain-machine interfaces, and mind uploading, will allow us frail, biological beings to transform ourselves into stronger superhumans.

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