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Many futurists have speculated that one day we might scan the human brain and “upload” it to a computer. Some believe this could allow people to live on in digital form after death, or to keep a copy of themselves that will last long after they die. Of course, we are nowhere near capable of achieving that level of performance – but what if your brain could be preserved until technology enables the brain to be digitized?
That is exactly what the scientist Robert McIntyre is hoping for. In 2015, he founded a startup called Nectome, which specializes in developing technologies to preserve the brain. Today that startup is a bit out of the spotlight, but McIntyre’s dream of preserving the human brain so it can be digitized in the future is still very much alive. I sat down with him to find out about the current state of his ambitions to preserve the brain.
The conversation did not go as expected.
A philosophical twist
Almost immediately the interview took a philosophical turn. He challenged my opinion that a digital copy of a brain is not the same as someone who survived death by upload.
“The question is how do you value yourself or others. Is that good for you? Is it useful? Or does it hurt you? Isn’t it useful? “he asked.” Why do you value one way to get to a brain structure and no other way to get to a brain structure?
“When society develops a mechanism to preserve information and more accurately pass it on to the next generation, it will lead to radical changes in society.”
McIntrye argues that having a digital copy of your brain is in some ways a continuation of your life, even if we never get to a point where consciousness can somehow be transferred to a computer. He says every decision you’ve ever made affects how your brain has become the way it is today. So copying this brain is a continuation of this journey after death.
“When you have a copy of a person but you say that they are not really continuous with you, or that they are real in that way, there is a certain sense in which it is not. Definitely, ”says McIntyre. “A copy that was just [created] Obviously, they didn’t literally live through the events in that person’s life because they obviously weren’t. You just assembled it. On the other hand, there is a sense in which it is absolutely continuous with the person. If that person had different experiences and memories, the configuration of the copy’s brain would be different. “
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McIntyre often compares copying the brain to copying a famous painting. If you have been able to make a perfect copy of a famous painting, he asks why is it less valuable than the famous painting? The reason, of course, is that we tend to value authenticity and its connection to the past – continuity. But McIntyre claims we choose to cherish these things, arguing that authenticity is a “collective fiction” that may not serve us.
If a robot painted a new version of a classic painting using exactly the same brushstrokes as the original painter, McIntyre says, then it’s essentially like the artist controlling the robot from beyond the grave. If he or she had made a different move, the robot would have to make the same move.
During the interview, I sometimes felt like I was talking to Doctor Manhattan from the Watchmen comics. He clearly does not want to devalue people who care about authenticity and their connections to the past, but neither does he seem to believe that they are as important as we imagine them to be. He seems to think we can just get rid of these sentimental things and take advantage of them.
The tricky business of preserving the brain
Perhaps partly because of the extremely logical way McIntyre approaches things, Nectome was the subject of a lot of scandalous headlines a few years ago. The company emerged from the startup accelerator Y Combinator, had won an award from the Brain Preservation Foundation, had support from employees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and had a bright future. But according to an MIT Technology Review article in which McIntrye described his brain preservation process as “100 percent fatal” and the word “euthanasia” was circulated, MIT and beyond employees distanced themselves from the company.
Nectome has developed a chemical solution that can be injected into the body and essentially turned into glass for the brain to be scanned and uploaded when technology is able to. This would have to be done while someone was still alive, so the idea was that terminally ill patients could at some point choose to participate in this project. Unsurprisingly, this was viewed by some as a very controversial idea. McIntyre largely stepped back from the public eye after this controversy, but later interviewed STAT to sort things out in 2019.
Randal Koene, neuroscientist and neuro-engineer, co-founder of Carboncopies, told Digital Trends that Nectome employees initially had no experience communicating their plans and methods, which caused them some problems.
“It is important to focus on communicating scientific advances without confusing this with speculative hypotheses about future medical protocols, especially if they are based on assumptions about social and regulatory changes that have not yet been considered by experts or are subject to ethical guidelines “says Koene. “I actually have a very positive opinion about Nectome and its work. Robert McIntyre and his colleagues were meticulous in their studies (which were peer reviewed and published). The results, evaluated by the Brain Preservation Foundation and others, are of exceptionally high quality. “
McIntyre says he understands why people freak out when such topics are discussed because death is a scary thing. He’s still doing the work he was doing before this controversy, and he really believes his work could change society forever. In his view, maintaining and then uploading brains could change the way we learn about history and the way we learn from it.
“It’s going to create a whole new story and change society, I think, just as profoundly as writing.”
“The fact is, right now, when you die, all of the information stored in your brain is completely destroyed. It’s been like that for every generation, ”says McIntyre. “It is also true that every time society develops a mechanism to preserve information and more accurately pass it on to the next generation, it leads to radical changes in society. Indeed, I would say that this is the defining element that switches between historical epochs. It’s not about the Stone Age or the Iron Age or anything. It’s about information transfer. “
Just like the ability to write, the invention of the printing press and the other ways we advanced in conveying information changed society, McIntyre believes that brain uploading will have a profound impact on humanity. He says we are far from doing this so we should start protecting people’s brains as soon as possible.
“It’s going to create a whole new story and change society, I think, just as profoundly as writing,” says McIntyre. “We will then live in the era of living memory. Humanity will not really forget things like now. “