Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Upload human memories onto a computer? Some are serious about that!

Danielle Egan reports for New Scientist on the Transhumanists who want to acquire immortality by uploading their minds into computers:
I'M SITTING in a darkened hall listening to neuroscientist Anders Sandberg describe how to scan ultra-thin sections of brain. First, embed the brain in plastic, then use a camera combined with laser beam and diamond blade to capture images of the tissue as it is sliced.

The method is being developed (in mice, so far) to better understand the architecture of the brain. But Sandberg, who is based at the University of Oxford, has a rather more ambitious aim in mind. For him, this work is merely the first step towards uploading the contents of human brains - memories, emotions and all - onto a computer.

This is the opening session of the ninth annual meeting of the World Transhumanist Association (WTA) in Chicago. Sandberg and his fellow transhumanists plan to bypass death by using technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), genetic engineering and nanotechnology to radically accelerate human evolution, eventually merging people with machines to make us immortal. This may not be possible yet, the transhumanists reason, but as long as they live long enough - a few decades perhaps - the technology will surely catch up.

I’d heard vaguely about this, mainly via my favourite science fiction writer Rob Sawyer’s Terminal Experiment and non-mainstream physicist Frank Tipler’s Physics of Christianity.

I think that the Transhumanists have missed the point. The problem with the farrago of uploaded memories is that there won’t be a mind for them to be the memories OF. But their project raises an interesting question: What if - as neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and I argue in The Spiritual Brain - on the balance of the evidence, it is best to assume that the mind survives the body anyway? Wouldn’t those files left on the computer be a sort of embarrassment? I could see a good sci fi moving coming out of this.

Re the Transhumanists, Egan notes,
Now this small-scale movement aims to go mainstream. WTA membership has risen from 2000 to almost 5000 in the past seven years, and transhumanist student groups have sprung up at university campuses from California to Nairobi. It has attracted a series of wealthy backers, including Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, who recently donated $4 million to the cause, and music producer Charlie Kam, who paid for the Chicago conference. For the first time the organisation has recruited celebrity speakers, such as actor-environmentalist Ed Begley Jr and Star Trek veteran William Shatner.

Well, of course, before we get carried away by the significance of these numbers, we need to stop and remember one of the laws of (human) numbers: It is much easier for a group of 2000 to grow to a group of 5000 than for a group of 2 billion to grow to 5 billion. Small groups can grow more quickly than large ones.

A video of Tranhumanist Sandberg is also available here and a look at the cutting edge (literally, for once) technology here. Ray Kurzweil is said by Egan to be the group’s “unofficial prophet.” I guess that will reassure whoever it reassures.

Other New Scientist death stories are linked here.