Is it possible to digitize human 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.
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.

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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