When Randal Koene was fourteen, he read a science fiction novel that would shape the rest of his life. The City and the Stars, written in 1956 by Arthur C. Clarke, is a story set a billion years in the future, where people store their minds in a city's central computer and take turns living one thousand years in cloned bodies. To many, it must have seemed like another futuristic pipe dream, but to Koene, it presented an exciting prospect for human kind. "It gave me the notion that everything is information," he said. "We're all information."
The son of a particle physicist, Koene grew up believing that anything could be built "from the atoms up" — all you needed was the unique composition of atoms and sophisticated tools to do the job. As a kid, he spent most of his time with his younger brother dreaming up imaginary worlds, and as a teenager, he wrote a four-hundred-page novel about a civilization that lived deep underground at the center of the earth.
As he got older, Koene's belief in the fantastical endured, and he began to think that maybe, just maybe, he could bring to life the world from Clarke's novel where so-called "mind uploading" was commonplace. But it wouldn't be easy. He decided he needed to find a way to copy the mind in its entirety, and somehow capture consciousness — the sense of "I" that each of us feels — and save it forever.
Decades later, the 41-year-old is trying to make it happen. A neuroengineer at a small start-up in San Francisco's Mission District, Koene has come up with a theory called "whole brain emulation," which aims to make an exact copy of the brain — a replica so precise that all phenomena of the mind, including consciousness, would be contained. His goal is to take this copy and transfer it to another substrate, like a supercomputer or a silicon chip, much like how software is copied to a hard drive.
Mind uploading might seem at the very least hokey, and at the most, preposterous, but it has a growing number of followers and investors — many based in the Bay Area and in Silicon Valley, including some prominent members of the tech world. Just this year, Koene has traveled to five countries — including China and Russia — to spread the gospel of whole brain emulation, and people are listening. In August, he sat on a panel in Melbourne, Australia for the 2012 Singularity Summit, a conference on artificial intelligence and its future implications.
That said, there are certainly a few holes in Koene's theory, and most brain experts contend that it's built upon a fundamental misunderstanding of how the brain works. For the past twenty years, George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, has argued that the mind and body simply cannot exist without each other. Neurons aren't housed solely in the brain, he points out, but they occupy every part of the body that connects the brain directly to bodily experience.
Furthermore, after thousands of years of inquiry, nobody really understands what consciousness consists of. Jack Gallant, a professor of neuroscience at UC Berkeley, says that even if we find a way to upload facts from our neural circuitry, like memories, the main roadblock remains. "If you can't even define a phenomenon, how can you possibly expect to measure it and record it in a way that you could move it to another device?"
But Koene isn't troubled by the challenge — he says consciousness is included in the whole brain package. "We don't assume to understand the strategy that went into designing a software program," he told me. "Instead, we seek to copy it line by line." If the neural connections are mapped correctly, he posits, consciousness will simply show up.
Although Koene and others like him have long faced ridicule and skepticism from the greater scientific community, they're determined to push ahead. And a groundbreaking study published last year that came from more than a decade of research suggests that recreating parts of the mind is not as far-fetched as we might think. It implies that the brain isn't unique to biology, and that its functions could perhaps one day be carried out by a machine.
In which case, the future could be a lot closer than we think.
Koene was born in Holland in 1971, moved to Long Island when he was three years old, then to Winnipeg, Canada at five. His father was a physicist, so the young boy spent his childhood following his dad, who was chasing after experimental nuclear reactors and particle accelerators. This nomadic lifestyle never allowed him to call any place home. "I wasn't uprooted, really. More like unrooted. I never really made any roots."
In Long Island, Koene and his family lived on a scientific compound, inside the secured boundaries of Brookhaven National Laboratory, maintained by the US Department of Energy. Within the compound, the community hailed from around the world and imparted in Koene the idea that there are no national boundaries — that there is no real nation. He lived in a bubble where harebrained scientific theories were nurtured and explored, instead of judged or shot down.
Without a feeling of national identity, Koene has lived where he's wanted to, instead of where he feels he belongs. He got a bachelor degree in physics from The University of Amsterdam, but it wasn't enough; to build an emulation of a mind, he needed more. So, he went on to get a master's degree in electrical engineering at Delft University of Technology, and then to McGill University in Montreal where he received a Ph.D in computational neuroscience — a field that's emerged in the last twenty years that studies the brain using mathematical computations of neural networks.