By Kimberly Lee

Humans have been on a quest to find immortality since the dawn of time when we grasped the concept that we will all inevitably face death in time to come. It may be possible that this idea of immortality is not far from reality’s reach today.

There are already methods out in the market for one to possibly infiltrate the unavoidable demise of human life. Some have “opted out” from death in favour to have their bodies cryogenically frozen, in hopes that they would be able to come back to life in a future where science has finally reached a breakthrough to immortalise them. Some have chosen to undergo self-funded clinical trials where parabiosis – having younger people’s blood transfused into older people’s circulatory systems – will be performed with expectations that could conceivably lead to the furtherance of anti-ageing practices. Such procedures require us to live with our perishable biological bodies. However, do we really need our mere mortal bodies to witness possible future events?

The Singularity. A term coined by Vernor Vinge, a computer scientist and science fiction writer, who proposed that increasing technological change would definitely lead to an event where artificial intelligence would match and transcend human intelligence. Ray Kurzweil, world-renowned futurist and Google’s Director of Engineering, extended on this idea when he predicted that by 2045, “based on conservative estimates of the amount of computation you need to functionally simulate a human brain, we’ll be able to expand the scope of our intelligence a billion-fold.”

This forthcoming event can also be referred to as “digital immortality”. Futurists believe that humans will be able to exist forever in a virtual reality system by uploading their minds into computers. Mind uploading is a process by which the mind, a collection of memories, personality, and attributes of a specific individual, is transferred from its original brain to an artificial computational substrate.

So how does mind uploading exactly work? Neuroscientist, Randal Koene, explains that:

“The functions of mind that we experience are originally implemented through neurobiological mechanisms, the neural circuitry of our brains. If the same functions are implemented in a different operating substrate, populated with parameters and operating such that they produce the same results as they would in the brain, then that mind has become substrate-independent. It is a substrate-independent mind (SIM) by being able to function in different operating substrates. The popular term “mind uploading” can refer to the process of transfer, moving a specific substrate-independent mind from one operating substrate (e.g., the biological brain) to another. When an operating substrate for mind functions is created by carefully replicating many of the principles of the neurobiology, physiological and architectural characteristics, then we call that approach whole brain emulation (WBE).”

Without a doubt, it is an awe-inspiring ambition, almost teetering on the verge of science fiction. On the grounds that science is currently progressing on, this ambition might be a lot closer to us than we think.

According to Moore’s law, the processor’s speed, or overall processing power for computers will double for every two years. With this, Kurzweil calculates that humans will have immortality within their reach, with the aid of technology, in a little less than three decades. There are already high-tech efforts in place to understand the distinctive aptitude of the mammalian brain, and highly-funded research establishments have also been set up to find innovative methods to emulate brain substrates onto an artificial neural network.

Famed physicist, Stephen Hawking, stated that, “[i]t’s theoretically possible to copy the brain onto a computer, and so provide a form of life after death.” Although, he goes on to add that, “this is way beyond our present capabilities.” Despite this, mind uploading still seems to be a plausible option in a future that guarantees an exponentially increasing technological rate with promised succession of each technological generation.

So what exactly is stalling this mind-boggling process?

To start with, science has yet to answer how our brains actually work. The average human brain has about 86 billion neurons that transmit information to other nerve cells, muscle or gland cells. Neurobiologist Rafael Yuste of Columbia University whose main disciplinary is to explore the mysteries of the brain states that, “[o]ne could say that the rest of the body is pretty well understood, but that once you go higher than the nose, we’re still in relatively uncharted territory.” The workings of our brain that in turn generates the workings of our mental world, remains a mystery like no other in science.

This futuristic virtual reality might fall short given our current state of technology where there remain grey areas that science has yet to be able to comprehend. However, whether this remains as strictly science-fiction or becomes a groundbreaking step for humanity, there is no doubt that mind uploading is a premise that remains worthy of being explored.

Image: Smiths Detection