It has long been held as one of the chief tenants of modern transhumanist thought: the ability to utilize technology to achieve whole-brain mapping. Once the labyrinth of the mind has been conquered, untold realms may await us, forever changing the fields of neuroscience, psychology, learning, and the very development of human thought.
In the 2014 film Transcendance, actor Johnny Depp plays a scientist who, after being mortally injured by anti-science extremists, becomes the subject of a radical new technology that successfully uploads his entire mind into a computer; and thus, all hell breaks loose as the film's protagonists rush to try and stop the seemingly limitless intelligence of Depp's trans-human essence from destroying the world.
While the reproduction of human minds and thought processes may be a long way off, a group of MIT researchers working alongside the University of Vienna have managed to innovate a new system of imaging that can generate 3-D videos of entire brains and their inner workings.
But here's the catch: these videos reflect the inner workings of the brains of worms.
The new system was developed with hope of visually mapping the activity of every neuron in the brain of a worm called Caenorhabditis elegans. The process is being cited as one of the most (if not the most) comprehensive visualizations of an organism's inner neural structure to-date.
Granted, the inner-workings of a worm's brains may not quite be the advent of Singularity that many of us have been looking for. Mapping the intricacy and neural complexity of a human mind will continue to prove challenging, let alone merely visualizing it with modern computer technology. However, according to leading transhumanist Ray Kurzweil in his book The Singularity is Near, it is his belief that such technology will indeed be achieved within the next two decades, although mapping and, eventually, uploading human consciousness will also call for physical counterparts to assist with the complex thoughts associated with human neural processing:
If we are truly capturing a particular person's mental processes, then the reinstantiated mind will need a body, since so much of out thinking is directed toward physical needs and desires... by the time we have the tools to capture and re-create a human brain with all of its subtleties, we will have plenty of options for twenty-first-century bodies for both nonbiological humans and biological humans who avail themselves of extensions to our intelligence. The human body version 2.0 will include virtual bodies in completely realistic virtual environments, nanotechnology-based physical bodies, and more.
Kurzweil goes on to speculate that the necessary technology for uploading the contents of a human brain will exist by the early 2030s, and for around $1000 (barring, of course, any cataclysmic economic upheaval that may greatly affect this monetary figure).
Ideally, if the process of backing up and restoring an individual's consciousness ever becomes a reliable technology, we could presumably create a backup of an individual's entire mind, and in the event that they were suffering from the onset of disease or death, the information of that individual's mind could be restored to a new body, much like the contents of a computer can be backed up and stored today.
Still, while such eventual technologies may afford us great things on down the road, their will likely be problems associated with the continuation of one's consciousness from body-to-body in such a way. For instance, where will we obtain the bodies into which a stored consciousness will be implanted or uploaded? Arguably, according to Kurzweil and many of today's leading transhumanists, the problem of finding vessels for uploading stored human minds will become of little concern, once we master the processes of creating bio-vessels that would be capable of housing human consciousness. In other words, future science may allow us the ability to not only back up and restore a person's mind, but also fit them with a "carrier" vessel that will support the brain information being preserved.
Indeed, this sounds very eerie for many (including this author). Still, such speculation is largely based on technologies already known to exist today and their behavior, as well as the presumptuous achievements of tomorrow. By the time a person's brain can be backed up and restored, arguably there will be other technologies having been innovated that will not only make the process seamless, but will also make indistinguishable the lines between "biological" and "fabricated."
Honestly, either possibility seems a bit unsettling by today's standards. But for now, despite our potential inability to discern what the technology of tomorrow may one day afford us, how does the notion of floating a person's entire mind on a computerized neural network sound to you? Will you embrace the future science of human brain mapping and preservation, which undoubtedly may lead to a sort of immortality, or are there too many ethical considerations involved?
On the other hand, is the entire concept really just too far out, or so unlikely, that it's not worthy of assigning worry to at the moment? We'd love to hear your thoughts, which you can share via the comments section below. And of course, if you happen to be the result of some military experiment that led to your mind being preserved within a computerized neural system, we're particularly interested in hearing from you... but please, hold the grey goo; we prefer our toast dry these days.