Call it mind transfer, uploading, brain backup, whatever—the idea of copying the human brain to a computer so it can live on without the body has a strong hold on futurists, neuroscientists, and folks that just want to live forever.
Also Stephen Hawking. At screening of a new film about his life this week, the cosmologist said he believes it's possible to retain a digital version of the brain after the body dies—though it probably won't happen in his lifetime.
"I think the brain is like a program in the mind, which is like a computer, so it's theoretically possible to copy the brain onto a computer and so provide a form of life after death," he told a crowd in Cambridge, reported the Guardian. "However, this is way beyond our present capabilities."
The quest for immortality has been enjoying a moment in the limelight this month, not least because of Google's new moonshot project, Calico, which will focus on studying the science of aging—namely, how we can stop it from happening.
Larry Page is just one of a crop of influential wealthy businesspeople that have poured millions into immortality research lately. But while Calico tackles how to slow down our physical decay, many futurists believe that the key to extending human life isn't the body, it's the brain.
These thought leaders in cybernetics gathered this summer in New York City for the Global Future 2045 International Congress, organized by Russian multimillionaire Dmitry Itskov. Itskov grabbed headlines for claiming humans will download digital copies of themselves into android avatars by 2045—just how a Cylon downloads its consciousness into the next copy when it "dies."
Futurist and transhumanist Ray Kurzweil, Google's director of engineering, suggested at the event that we'll be able to transfer the entire human mind to a computer within four decades. "Based on conservative estimates of the amount of computation you need to functionally simulate a human brain, we'll be able to expand the scope of our intelligence a billion-fold," Kurzweil said at the conference.
Indeed, for all its sci-fi fanfare, technical singularity is rooted in science. And there are continuous advances in cybernetics lending credence to the claim that mind transfer holds the key to a post-mortal human race. Massive supercomputers are getting better at simulating the human brain. Artificial intelligence experts are developing increasingly smart machines that can reason, think, and learn by mimicking the brain's cerebral cortex. And brain-computer interfaces—machines that can effectively read your mind—are advancing fast.
Still, the concept of digitally preserving the human mind is based on what's theoretically possible, not a step-by-step roadmap. One of the biggest holes in the theory (and there are many to poke) is more philosophical than scientific: the notion of whether consciousness would survive the digital switchover in tact. Or even beyond that, what about the soul? Or whatever it is that makes you you, beyond the biological puzzle pieces.
For the Battlestar Galactica fans among us, it's the mystery of what made Boomer No. 1 still love the Chief after Boomer No. 2 fell for that other guy, even though No. 2's consciousness was directly uploaded from the first. Can a virtual brain in a robotic avatar experience love? Can emotions be uploaded? And if not, is a digital immortality even worth it?