It won’t be long now until we can finally rid ourselves of these stinking meat sacs we call bodies and upload our consciousnesses into virtual realities – that is, if science fiction writers and futurologists have their predictions right. Some futurists estimate that we only have a few more decades to wait until our minds can be digitized, enabling us to live forever in android bodies or even simply in some sort of new electronic existence. While some still scoff at the idea as merely wishful thinking or some sort of new techno-religious concept of the eternal afterlife, scientists have made some recent strides in digitizing brains – well, animal brains. Really simple animal brains.
Already, neuron-for-neuron reconstructions of worm brains have been developed which behave in the same ways the real animal does. Now, a team of researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed what they’re calling a “cyberslug,” a fully virtual creature which behaves exactly like its real-world counterparts. Are we paving the way for the end of biological entities as we know them?
This “virtual predator” was based on the nervous system of the sea slug Pleurobranchaea californica. Invertebrates like sea slugs have rather simple neural circuitry, making them prime subjects for digital recreations. The virtual organism has a limited self-awareness, can hide from perceived threats, hunt prey, and respond to other virtual sea slugs exactly like the real ones do. Researchers say the cyberslug “relates its motivation and memories to its perception of the external world, and it reacts to information on the basis of how that information makes it feel.”
Physiologist Rhanor Gillette developed the cyberslug along with a team of software engineers. Gillette says that even though this virtual organism is rather simple, it serves as a proof of concept that such recreations are possible, maybe even for more advanced organisms:
I think the sea slug is a good model of the core ancient circuitry that is still there in our brains that is supporting all the higher cognitive qualities. Now we have a model that’s probably very much like the primitive ancestral brain. The next step is to add more circuitry to get enhanced sociality and cognition.
Given all of the apocalyptic predictions of ecosystem collapse and/or natural resource depletion, maybe it’s wise to start creating virtual reconstructions of all the little critters of nature. One day, the cybernetically-augmented test tube children of the future will be able to tour virtual zoos full of virtual animals as their space stations orbit the Earth waiting for the radiation to subside. That’s better than no animals, right? Will human brains be next? Maybe the right question to ask is when human brains will be next?