The science in sciencefiction
Uploading your brain or mind. From the classic movie the Matrix to the futuristic series Black Mirror, it’s a popular science fiction topic. In every film and series it works slightly differently. Sometimes it is possible to continue living in an online world and sometimes the “mind” is uploaded into another (robot) body. But how far are we in real life? In this article, we’re going to look at the science behind science fiction.
We first look at the brain. It is uncertain what our “mind” exactly is, but everyone agrees that the “mind” is at least largely in the brain. So the first challenge is uploading the entire brain. To do this, we first look at a brief explanation of the brain, explained by Maartje van Hooren. She is a medical master student with a bachelor in psychology, a real brain expert!
“The brain consists of a hundred billion neurons, which are connected by axons. In this way a network is formed with which information from the senses can be processed and processes in the body can be controlled. ”
If we want to upload the brain, all connections and processes have to go along. The Allen Institute for Brain Science is working hard on this. They’ve been researching brain uploading for over 10 years. They are currently uploading a mouse brain, and they are doing it as follows.
The mouse brain is cut into very thin slices. Those slices are scanned under electron microscopes and that way they can put all cells and connections in a large folder. This requires very good microscopes, if you want to know more about how they work: check “Calculating on a realistic image” on the blog!
In 2018, scanning a single cubic millimeter (0.1% mouse brain) took five microscopes for five months. After scanning, the different slices still had to be put together in a 3D model. This also took another three months. However, the Allen Institute has succeeded in completely drawing that one cubic millimeter of mouse brain, and that within one year. That is really special, ten years earlier something like this would have taken centuries.
But eight months for 0.1% mouse brain
is quite a long time. And besides the duration, there is another threshold. That cubic millimeter alone contains one petabyte of information, that’s about one billion songs! And that is only 0.1% mouse brain, or 0.0000001% human brain. So for a human brain, one billion petabytes of storage are needed. That requires a very good supercomputer.
Fortunately, there has been a lot of progress in the field of microscopes and supercomputers in recent years. This has certainly accelerated the process and continues to accelerate. The scientists at the Allen Institute think that uploading an entire human brain will be successful within 50 years, and that it could be routine within 100 years. Only fifty years ago, so that is certainly getting closer!
Brain versus “mind”
But that also brings us to the big question: suppose we can ever upload our entire brain, is that also our entire “mind”?
I talked about this with Dr. Dorothee Horstkoetter from Maastricht University. She knows an awful lot about neurobiology, and especially about the ethics involved. Her research focuses on ethics and she is therefore on the medical ethics review committee of Maastricht University.
She began with the following answer to the question “are we our brain?”:
“No, we are more than our brain: sensory contact, interaction with people, thinking about being able to think. We don’t know if an upload can ever replicate that. ”
After all, our brain is connected to our body. We are also shaped by our physical experiences, by interacting with our fellow human beings, by feeling. For example, our brain cells respond to touch or sight. With current knowledge, we cannot know how the brain will function without the body.
So what if we gave the brain a different body? They do this in the film the Matrix, for example. But in reality we do not know whether this is possible. We should exactly recreate the entire human body. And if that succeeds, then we will have a body with an expiration date again. That doesn’t make us truly immortal …
Dr. Hortskoetter is also clear about the option of, for example, a robot body. It remains a different kind of body, we don’t know how the brain interacts with it. It is a different system, the consequences for our personality cannot be determined. For this reason, Dr. Horstkoetter himself is not a fan of the idea of becoming immortal through mind uploading. Would you like to?
The Allen Institute thinks it is worth investigating the option of immortality, but for now mind uploading is still fiction. We don’t know enough about our brains yet. It remains to be seen whether we will know this within the previously predicted fifty years. As the American scientist Emerson M. Pugh said in 1977:
“If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”
Now, of course, we’ve made significant strides since 1977, so who knows, the Allen Institute may prove Pugh wrong!
It is also very interesting to think about what happens if immortality through mind uploading turns out to be possible. There is speculation by many scientists (and non-scientists) as to what it will look like if we become immortal in this way. And above all, what problems we then encounter. For example, YouTube channel Kurzgesagt has made a video about mind uploading. Towards the end of this video they speculate about “what if”, definitely a must watch!
Whatever the outcome, research into mind uploading has already yielded us an awful lot. We may not be immortal yet, but everything we learn about the brain works in our favor!