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Could technology hold the key to immortality?

A new movement is asking if uploading our brains to computers could help humans live forever.

The ConversationPeople have always dreamed about going beyond the limitations of their bodies: the pain, illness and, above all, death. Now a new movement is dressing up this ancient drive in new technological clothes. Referred to as transhumanism, it is the belief that science will provide a futuristic way for humans to evolve beyond their current physical forms and realise these dreams of transcendence.

Perhaps the most dramatic way transhumanists believe that technology will transform the human condition is the idea that someone’s mind could be converted into digital data and “uploaded” into an immensely powerful computer. This would allow you to live in a world of unbounded virtual experiences and effectively achieve immortality (as long as someone remembers to do the backups and doesn’t switch you off).

Yet transhumanists seem to ignore the fact that this kind of mind-uploading has some insurmountable obstacles. The practical difficulties mean it couldn’t happen in the foreseeable future, but there are also some more fundamental problems with the whole concept.

The idea of brain uploading is a staple of science fiction. The author and director of engineering at Google, Ray Kurzweil, has perhaps done the most to popularise the idea that it might become reality – perhaps as soon as 2045. Recently, the economist Robin Hanson has explored in detail the consequences of such a scenario for society and the economy. He imagines a world in which all work is carried out by disembodied emulations of human minds, running in simulations of virtual reality using city-size cloud computing facilities.

It’s a short step from the idea that our minds could be uploaded, to the notion that they already have been and that we are already living in a Matrix-style computer simulation. Technology entrepreneur Elon Musk recently revived this discussion by arguing the chance that we are not living in a computer simulation was only “one in billions”. Of course, this is just a technological revival of the idea that reality is an illusion, which has been discussed by philosophers and mystics for hundreds of years.

But there are some serious problems with the idea that we could upload our minds to a computer. To start with, the practical issue: our brains each have trillions of connections between 86 billion or so neurons. To replicate the mind digitally we would have to map each of these connections, something that is far beyond our current capabilities. With the current speed of development of computers and imaging technologies, we might be able to do this in a few decades but only for a dead and sectioned brain.

More than molecules

Yet even if we could create such a “wiring diagram” for a living brain, that wouldn’t be enough to understand how it operates. For that we’d need to quantify exactly how the neurons interact at each of the junctions, and that’s a matter of molecular-level detail. We don’t even know how many molecules are in the brain, let alone how many are vital for its functions, but whatever the answer it’s too many to replicate with a computer.

This points us towards a deeper conceptual difficulty. Just because we can simulate some aspects of the way the brain works, that doesn’t necessarily mean we are completely emulating a real brain, or indeed a mind. No conceivable increase in computer power will allow us to simulate the brain at the level of individual molecules. So brain emulation would only be possible if we could abstract its digital, logical operations from the messy molecular level detail

To understand the operations of a man-made computer, we don’t need to keep track of the currents and voltages in every component, much less understand what every electron is doing. We’ve designed the switching operations of the transistors so there’s an unambiguous mapping from the state of the circuits to the simple digital logic of ones and zeros. But no-one designed a brain – it evolved – so there is no reason to expect any simple mapping of its operations to digital logic.

Dangerous idea

Even if mind uploading is an impossible dream, some might argue that it does no harm to imagine such possibilities. Everyone at some point must fear their own mortality, and who am I to argue with the many different ways people have of dealing with those fears?

But transhumanism’s mixing of essentially religious ideas with scientific language matters because it distorts the way we think about technology. Transhumanism tends to see technology as a way to grant all our wishes. And this is often justified by the argument that technology will inevitably drive human development in a positive direction.

Yet this distorts our scientific priorities and gets in the way of us making sensible choices about developing the technologies we need to solve our very real current problems. Brain uploading is a great premise for speculative fiction, but it’s not a good basis for talking about the future.


Richard Jones is the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation at the University of Sheffield.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Photo: Getty
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Space suicide: the sad but noble death of the Cassini probe

It’s not surprising that scientists and space geeks around the world will bid it adieu with a heavy heart.

Since April 2016, a Twitter bot called @CassiniNoooo has been tweeting out “Nooooo” followed by random numbers of “O”s. The last tweet sent by the bot is just “I......”.  

The account has been paying a light-hearted tribute to one of the most important important scientific projects of recent times, and one which is soon to come to an end. 

Launched in 1997, Cassini-Huygens is a plutonium-powered probe that has been circling Saturn since 2004. Providing teams of scientists with unparalleled images of Saturn and its moons, it has allowed experts to examine the composition of solar bodies one billion miles away.

But on 15 September, Cassini will begin its final mission, referred to by Nasa scientists as its "Grand Finale". It will shed its modules and sensors as it heads towards a final fiery death in Saturn's gaseous atmosphere.

When news of Cassini's impending end was announced in April, scientists, casual space fans, engineers, teachers and other assorted stargazers expressed sadness about the craft’s suicide mission. Many are expected to tune in to watch the live stream of the probe's final moments on Nasa’s dedicated webpage

Cassini has provided some of the most intriguing discoveries about our solar system. It discovered a saltwater ocean under the icy surface of one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, by "tasting" molecules – a finding that could, in theory, support alien life. It also took photographs of Titan, a moon bigger than Mercury, which enabled scientists on earth to discover liquid on its surface – only the second body in the universe to have free-standing liquid after our own planet. 

In a way, Cassini's discoveries signed its own death warrant. Potentially life-supporting pristine environments must not be contaminated by Earth-originating microbes and, left to its own devices, Cassini could collide with one of the moons it discovered so much about.

Faithful until its last moment, Cassini will be diving in and out of the space between Saturn and its rings as it reaches the end of its final orbit, a feat never achieved before, transmitting completely novel data that would be too risky to gather unless it was already destined for immolation.

Cassini's contribution to science, laid out in this oddly moving webpage from Nasa, not only allowed us a deeper understanding of our solar system, but also helped us picture other kinds of worlds. It's a service that has been recognised well beyond academics or professional scientists. One six-year-old is even throwing Cassini a goodbye party, with a themed cake and games – because, he said, it was the “only spacecraft he ever knew”. Others have tweeted out music composed for Cassini, and comics depicting their versions of its final moments.

It has not been easy for the scientists who had to approve the decision to kill Cassini. In a press conference on 4 April, roughly three weeks before Cassini started its final orbit, Linda Spilker, a planetary scientist at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, admitted that it was hard to say goodbye to their “plucky, capable little spacecraft”. Some even referred the probe as their child.

On Earth, we get to think of these robotic explorers like astro-ambassadors, not least because so much of the current discussion around space monitoring centres on how information collected will enable life in space for humans. Now one of those ambassadors is about to make its final visit to a foreign planet, long before its creators will get to make their own introductions.