Brain research tests the limits of where we end and technology begins
The brain is the powerhouse of humanity, the CPU of the body. Brain research has delved into everything from how the brain develops to whether consciousness can survive outside the body. Brain research has shown us that it is an exceedingly complex organ, and answering one question about the brain raises several more. As technology becomes a larger part of our lives, not only does our understanding of the brain improve, the line between human intelligence and artificial intelligence blurs.
Dr. Alysson Muotri at the University of California, San Diego is using pluripotent stem cells to grow “mini brains” in a lab setting. The mini brains don’t think, but they do recreate the structure of the real thing, allowing researchers to better understand how the brain develops.
“The brain is one of the most complex tissues in the body,” Muotri, a professor in pediatrics and cellular and molecular medicine, told Digital Trends. “While we have a good idea of anatomy and how the adult brain works, the understanding of human brain neurodevelopment is at a very mysterious stage. This is because the intact human embryonic brain grows in utero, and, thus, it is very inaccessible.”
Muotri’s brain research is digging into why humans have developed the way we have. He is recreating the neural development stages of such social disorders as autism in the mini brains to test whether certain drugs can reset the neurons in diseased brains. Muotri is also using genome editing to replicate the structure of Neanderthal brains in an attempt to discover which differences were responsible for anatomically modern humans thriving and Neanderthals going extinct. Muotri is also looking into non-coding “junk” DNA to see whether “jumping genes” that can move from one place to another are responsible for the differences in individual personalities and if they are responsible for neurological and psychiatric disorders.
We already hook our brains up to computers, but the conversation is one-sided, with humans operating prosthetics and wheelchairs with electrical impulses from the brain. What people such as Elon Musk envision is a two-way connection. Musk founded Neuralink with the idea of using “neural lace” technology, implanting electrodes in the brain. Taken to its ultimate goal, this would effectively turn humans into cyborgs. Think of it having a smartphone inside your brain.
“It will enable anyone who wants to have superhuman cognition,” Musk said in September during an appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast.
“How much smarter are you with a phone or computer or without? You’re vastly smarter, actually,” Musk said. “You can answer any question pretty much instantly. You can remember flawlessly. Your phone can remember videos, pictures perfectly. Your phone is already an extension of you. You’re already a cyborg.”
Facebook has been working on an application for people to share “full sensory and emotional experiences,” as CEO Mark Zuckerberg put it, since at least 2015.
At The University of Southern California’s Center for Neural Engineering, brain research is being conducted to create a memory prosthesis that could take the place of the hippocampus in damaged brains, such as those of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Downloading the Brain
Should the fusion of human and artificial intelligence take place, how long before the physical brain is taken out of the equation altogether? After all, it’s vulnerable to all kinds of disease and, inevitably, death.
Nectome, a brain research organisation focusing on the science of memory, wants to download the contents of people’s minds and upload them to computers. The catch is, Nectome needs brains to be fresh in order to download them, so subjects need to agree to die in order for their brains to be preserved. Amazingly, Nectome has a waiting list of at least 25 volunteers, including Y Combinator president and OpenAI co-chair Sam Altman.
“The user experience will be identical to physician-assisted suicide,” Nectome co-founder Robert McIntyre told the MIT Technology Review. “Product-market fit is people believing that it works.”
It’s unclear when such a thing would be possible.
“There’s on the order of 100 billion neurons in a human brain and each of those neurons has tens of thousands of connections,” Dr. Kenneth Hayward, president of the Brain Preservation Foundation, told Seeker. “You are looking at hundreds of trillions of those synaptic connections, each of which have been tuned by your life’s experience” and each would need to be scanned and mapped.
Should people be able to download their brains, something akin to immortality might be achieved.
“If your biological self dies, you can upload into a new unit. Literally,” Musk said. He sees the idea as the only way for humans to remain relevant in the face of AI domination. “The merge scenario with AI is the one that seems like probably the best. If you can’t beat it, join it.”
Whether or not this is a pipe dream remains to be seen, but it’s both fascinating and terrifying to think about.