Is it possible to digitize human consciousness?

In theory, we’re only a few decades away from digital versions of ourselves.
© e-crow/iStockphoto

Dmitry Itskov predicts that in the year 2045, humans will be able to back themselves up to the cloud. Yep, he believes you'll be able to create a digital version of your human consciousness, stored in a synthetic brain and an artificial host.

Itskov, a Russian entrepreneur, media mogul and billionaire, plans to live forever — and he plans to take all of us along for the ages, as holograms. His project, called the 2045 Initiative, is named for the year he predicts he'll complete the final milestone in digitizing human consciousness. While substrate-independent minds (mind-uploading) may be a new reality to the next generation, the human desire for immortality certainly isn't.


Look as far back as the third century B.C.E., when the ancient Chinese credited mercury as the secret to immortality. It's believed that the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, ingested high levels of mercury in pursuit of everlasting life. He died of mercury poisoning at age 39.

Travel forward to the current day and meet Martine Rothblatt, a telecommunications lawyer, executive and the founder of both Sirius XM satellite radio and the biotech firm United Therapeutics, who believes that death is not certain; it's optional. Rothblatt is a transhumanist who founded the Terasem Movement. And she worries about the rights of your not-yet-created cyber-you, your immortal avatar that knows everything you know. Think of it not like a simulation but rather an emulation of you; your cyber-consciousness.

Let's go back to Dimitry Itskov. Before personal (and affordable) lifelike avatars can be developed, the structure of the human brain needs to be mapped, and neural structures, connections and their functions need to be deciphered. Electrical signals need to be translated into code, and hardware developed to run, well, the everlasting you.

Itskov's overall project to do just that is outlined in four phases. He's spent millions on the plan, called the Avatar Project, which operates under the umbrella of the 2045 Initiative. Developing a robot that's controlled by a human brain is Avatar A, the first of the four phases. Avatar B involves transplanting a human brain into a synthetic body. The contents of a biological brain will be uploaded into a synthetic one in Avatar C. The final piece of the Avatar Project, Avatar D, relies on emulation: replacing the biological body and brain with a hologram, or other avatar, that hosts a digital version of our human consciousness.

Istkov hasn't invested only in his own project. He's also given funding to, founded by neuroscientist Randal Koene in 2012. Even back in 2007, before the nonprofit was officially formed, a small group of similarly minded, Koene-led transhumanism advocates began to actively pursue the idea of digital immortality. The group began to frame the idea of whole-brain emulation, as well as outline the major tasks that would need solutions before emulating a human brain could become a reality. This includes mapping the structure of the brain, deciphering neural connections and their functions, and developing both the software and hardware to host you, immortal, in the silicon of a computer chip.

Also in 2012, Google launched the Google Brain project, an in-house research project focused on machine learning. (Machines will need to learn to effectively be you, after all.)


The Human Brain and Its Connectome

There are an estimated 100 billion neurons in the human brain.
© cosmin4000/iStockphoto

The Human Genome Project set out to identify all our human genes and sequence human DNA. The Human Microbiome Project was established to identify and sequence all the microbes colonizing the human gut. And another similar scientific research project is identifying, mapping and deciphering something else that defines our humanness: the brain's neural pathways. This is the Human Connectome Project.

The connectome, it's believed, is responsible for the things that make you who you are. The human brain contains an estimated 100 billion individual neurons, each one connected and firing messages to as many as 10,000 other neurons [source: Collins]. This signaling, which may be neurons firing simultaneously or in a sequence, is how the brain encodes and processes information, how it forms associations and how it performs tasks. It's possibly also the very essence of being human, including your personal memories, your talents and all the quirky things that make up your individual personality. That's all contained in your connectome.


The concept of human consciousness is often compared to the keys of a car; your car is an amazing machine, but without the ignition key there's no spark, no sign of life. Consciousness is how we know and experience both ourselves and the world around us, and it's created from the information exchange that happens in the brain's neural network.

There are a few leading theories, or at least starting points, as to what makes up human consciousness. Integrated information theorists, for instance, calculate the amount of integrated information in a neural network, a quantity called phi. The more links within the network, the more information sharing, and vice versa. Another theory suggests human consciousness works like computer memory. The global workspace theory suggests the brain collects information and the art of dispersing it across the neural network is, perhaps, consciousness.


Whole Brain Emulation, Substrate-independent Minds and a Lego Worm Robot

While the brain of the nematode C. elegans is nowhere near as complex as that of a human, translating it into digital code is no small feat.
© Carolina Biological/Visuals Unlimited/Corbis

Perhaps surprisingly, some of this futurist vision of digitizing human consciousness is actually already possible, at least in very early stages. Take, for instance, the Lego worm robot.

In the developing field of whole brain emulation research, scientists have successfully mapped the neural networks of the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), including its nervous system's 302 neurons and the 7,000 neural connections of each; think of this as a wiring diagram of the C. elegans' brain [source: Collins]. Modeled on the neural network and connections in the worm's brain, code is written and inserted into, in this instance, a Lego 'bot customized with a sonar sensor nose and motor neurons to replicate the biological neural wiring of the worm.


Theoretically, the same could be done with the human brain on a much larger scale; the human brain has 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections among them. Mapping the precise, city-streetlike grid and deciphering the rules of the human brain's neural network could lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of the roots of human neurological, neurobehavioral and neuropsychiatric disorders. It could also significantly contribute to innovations in preventing, treating and curing conditions associated with problems related to wiring of the brain [source: Collins]. It could also lead to a deeper understanding of how we think and reason, our sense of self, and ways we might emulate the human mind.

Mind-uploading, or creating substrate-independent minds, involves transferring the contents of your human brain to a new synthetic brain — a digital copy of not just your memories, but the particulars of your personality and your very consciousness. Although still in the early stages of C. elegans research, in the long run, scientists plan to develop a synthetic C. elegans, a hologram created to host the digital connectome of the worm.

And then there's the Avatar Project, under Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The Pentagon's project combines advancements in both remote operation and telepresence; in simpler terms, that means the Department of Defense is working on developing surrogate soldiers, controlled by real soldiers from a safe distance.

Also funded by DARPA, a study at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore succeeded in getting amputees to move their artificial limbs with mind control and the help of brain implants. Similarly, amputees in a study in Iceland were able to control their prosthetic legs via 5-millimeter-long by 3-millimeter-wide implanted myoelectric sensors (IMES), sensors developed to stimulate and control the muscles in the remaining part of the leg [source: Pollock].

Will we make Itskov's goal of being able to upload human consciousness by 2045? Only time will tell, but at least we know that worms have a strong chance at digital immortality.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: Is it possible to digitize human consciousness?

Critics of digital immortality question some of the basics of the concept. First, digital immortality raises serious ethical and moral questions, as well as concerns about integrity and privacy. For instance, do memories have rights? It possible to subpoena memories? Then there may be a problem with transplantation: Some scientists warn that to successfully transplant a human brain, the spinal cord would need to be transplanted concurrently. Critics have also questioned whether an emulation of the brain is truly conscious. Christof Koch, a neuroscientist and the chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Neuroscience in Seattle, perhaps said it best: "You can simulate weather in a computer, but it will never be 'wet.'" Similarly, Koch's peers continue on against replicating human consciousness in a silicon computer chip because, unlike inside the biological brain, the emulation can't and won't provide any unpredictable behavior or nonlinear interactions — a defining characteristic of being human.

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