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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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The formal name of the futurist organization is Humanity+, and although its members are scattered across the globe, the beating, intellectual heart of transhumanist activity happens to be right here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and, more specifically, in Silicon Valley.

"This is the only bubble where all the stuff that people talk about in transhumanist circles is completely normal and nobody even blinks," Koene said. "It's dangerous ... because you get used to that."


But not everyone wants Koene to succeed in his sci-fi pursuit.

For the past two decades, George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at UC Berkeley, has argued — in books such as Metaphors We Live By — that mind and body need each other. Lakoff is best known for his work on the "embodied mind" theory, which claims that almost all of human cognition, up through the most abstract reasoning, depends on "low-level" facilities, like physical sensations and emotions.

Neurons can be found in every part of the body, not just in the brain. There are visual neurons that have connections to the retina and others that have connections to the auditory cortex, or hearing. There are neurons that connect to your muscles through the spine. The gut and the stomach have as many neurons as the brain.

"A computer doesn't have a body," he said. "It's the body that allows you to understand anything. It gives meaning to those neural firings." Even the structures of our ideas, which he calls "conceptual primitives," are shaped by our physical experiences.

We think in terms of metaphors, which he describes as circuits in the brain that link to different embodied parts of the brain. "When you get angry, your skin temperature rises half a degree, so that's why you're 'boiling mad,' and when you're scared, your temperature goes down half a degree, which is why you're 'frozen with fear.' Metaphors depend on that physiology." And, he says, we can't think without them.

Koene is familiar with this critique. He acknowledges that people need bodies to understand the world around them, but insists that robot substitutes would be effective fill-ins. By uploading a mind to a device, practitioners could connect a person's mind through radio waves to an android, which would continue to interact with the world, gaining knowledge through new experiences.

Also, he says that everything — every sensation and every emotion — is processed in the brain, and that if we perceive something to be real, then it is. We don't, he asserts, need our Earthly bodies for our minds to process information. "Your mind is the arbiter of what is real," said Koene. "That's where it's processed, and that processing is, ultimately, all that matters to you."

Even if an emulation of a mind could gain and process bodily experiences, Lakoff says a copy is still just a copy. The cognitive linguist has been working with colleagues at the Berkeley-based International Computer Science Institute for two decades, where they've been measuring neural activity and making high-scale models of the brain. But models, he says, still aren't the real thing.

"Suppose you can model the weather," he said. "The model of the weather is not the weather. You can't get wet from a computer program. The same is true for neural computation. You can model what the neurons are doing, but they're not the neurons and they're not in the body." In other words, it's a simulation of the brain, not a duplication.

While the potential for mind uploading may be in dispute, what's not misunderstood is the fundamental behavior of neurophysiology at a cellular level. For example, we know that neurons send out electrical impulses to other cells through pathways called synapses, which helps the brain process information and sensations. But what we do not know is how these actions integrate in a sophisticated manner to produce cognitive behavior, like emotional responses or decision-making, or what's happening in terms of activity in networks of neurons.

The whole-brain emulation approach acknowledges that we aren't smart enough to recreate the brain in its entirety, but instead looks to build one from the bottom up. By copying the lower-level connections, Koene hopes that as they operate in parallel, the higher-level behavior will emerge.

"It's like a bricklayer who has a good understanding of bricks and mortar," he said, "but really has no overall grasp of architecture. He may not be able to design a new bridge from scratch, but if he does his work well, he may be able to copy one brick by brick."

UC Berkeley neuroscientist Jack Gallant says that the biggest problem isn't extracting information from our minds, but our inability to define the phenomenon of consciousness — the elusive sense of indiviudal identity — that each of us has. "It could be tomorrow that some brilliant neuroscientist, or even computational neuroscientist, will wake up and say, 'Ah, I've got it. It's the equation here.' But ... I just don't think that's going to happen."

Philosophy professor Searle, a leading expert on consciousness, thinks transhumanists are simply living in a fantasy world where normal rules don't apply. "People love technology. They want to find a technological solution to everything. You're unhappy in love? We'll get a computer for you. It's bullshit what these guys are doing and it's amazing they're getting away with it."

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