While visions of the future may change over time, immortality has enjoyed a secure spot in our dreams of tomorrow. The possibility of living forever has occupied the human imagination for centuries. While living forever isn’t close to being a reality yet, it has nevertheless undergone an interesting transformation from fantasy to theoretical possibility in recent years.
Contemporary ideas of immortality have shifted from a focus on preserving the body to preserving the mind. As a result, the anti-aging sleep chambers of sci-fi movies have been replaced by the reality of cloud-based computing. New computer technology has become increasingly simulative of the human brain. For visionaries in the field, theintegration of the human mind into the rapidly accelerating digital world will take us beyond the boundaries of the mortal coil.
For researchers like Randal Koene, the new future of immortality is not one of isolated preservation, but rather digital integration. Koene sees the SIM (Substrate-Independent Mind) as the key to immortality. The SIM is a digitally preserved consciousness – the result of uploading a human mind into a powerful (and rapidly expanding) cyber-space. Koene is the head of Carboncopies.org, an organization dedicated to making SIM a reality by raising awareness, encouraging research, and securing funding for SIM initiatives.
Another visionary in the field of digital immortality is Ken Hayworth, president of the Brain Preservation Foundation. The foundation’s name is self-explanatory: currently, small volumes of brain tissue can be preserved with great effectiveness; Hayworth’s goal is to expand the capabilities of existing technology so that larger volumes of tissue (and eventually an entire human brain) can be preserved at the time of death, to later be scanned onto a computer in order to create a human-machine consciousness.
These are engaging – and extremely complex – ideas. The goal of preserving and uploading the contents of a human brain into cyberspace is a feat which depends on a close cooperation between computer development and neuroscience. One example of this interplay between the two fields is the development of the “the connectome” – a 3D map of the nervous system. The Human Connectome Project (HCP) is an online graphic interface which allows people to visually explore the human brain.
While the HCP has made great strides, it is still a work-in-progress, and some contend that the project of mapping the human brain in its entirety is too enormous a task to be achieved. This is but one of the hurdles facing researchers like Koene and Hayworth.
Even the most optimistic of timelines recognizes the serious trials involved in uploading a human mind into cyberspace: For instance, if the human brain is the most powerful and complex computer in the world, what manmade computer would be up to the task of housing it? Yet another challenge is the fact that initiatives such as the SIM make certain assumptions about the human brain which remain hypothetical. For instance, the belief that a human consciousness can be uploaded into cyberspace assumes that the complexities of the human mind (memory, emotion, association) can be fully understood through the anatomical structure of the brain – this assumption remains a hypothesis which has yet to be proven.
Besides the fact that immortality is an enduring fascination – perhaps even an obsession – for humans, the work of researchers like Koene and Hayworth is notable for its interdisciplinary nature. This is a realm where computer science and neuroscience meet. The digital integration of the human brain requires both faster and more advanced computers, and a better understanding of the complexities of the human mind. While the possibility of uploading human consciousness into the digital space is still at least fifty years away (by even the most optimistic predictions), the coming years will see interdisciplinary advances in a number of fields, as the quest for immortality presses forward.