July 03, 2011

A Prelude to Immortality

PR Newswire: Restoring Memory, Repairing Damaged Brains
Smart Planet: The Matrix Reality: Scientists Successfully Implant Artificial Memory
Additional background: Neurophysiology Lab at University of Pittsburgh
IOP Science .pdf file (membership required): A Cortical Neural Prosthesis for Restoring and Enhancing Memory

A key quote from the opening summary:
These integrated experimental-modeling studies show for the first time that, with sufficient information about the neural coding of memories, a neural prosthesis capable of real-time diagnosis and manipulation of the encoding process can restore and even enhance cognitive, mnemonic processes.

Dr. Berger's experiment involved replacing a portion of a rat's brain with a very limited microcircuit. The microcircuit functioned as a normal path in the rat's brain, acquiring a simple long term memory. When the circuit was moved to another rat, that rat gained the same very simple memory.

Already there's a lot of hype and buzz going around. All of it is very premature, including my own! While it is always true that once out of the box a scientific paradigm cannot be hidden again, it will take decades before this research can be successfully used to replace lost memory in Alzheimers patients and stroke victims. Even then, some facility would have to be developed to preserve the memory in the first place.

There is, however, an aspect of this research that no one else is mentioning and that completely fascinates me: immortality!

The first rat learned a skill. The memory of that skill was recorded on the chip rather than in the rat's biological brain. So if that chip were complex enough to record the rat's personality from birth to death, and then it were implanted in the brain of a clone derived from that rat, the rat's life would effectively be transferred into the new body. After all, to a great extent our personality is nothing more than a product of our memories and learned behaviors. Who we are is who we have become as a result of the successes and failures of our life. If it were possible to transplant a dying person's life into a younger version of their body, their personhood would transfer with it, effectively doubling their normal lifespan.

The danger would be that someone rich and powerful enough could arrange to have their circuitry transferred into a younger body of just about anyone. Rich drug lords could take over the bodies of their younger lieutenants, for example. Instead of transgender surgery, it would be possible to simply transfer the entire personality from one body into a pre-selected body of the opposite sex. The potential here for victimization becomes more extreme the further along this technology advances. New laws, new systems of ethics will have to be developed to define when such a transfer is reasonable and when it is criminal.

Unfortunately, the science of cloning is lagging behind. Even if these chips can become complex enough and reliable enough for complete personality transfers, we will not yet have the ability to clone a fresh young body from the cells of an elderly person. In other words, as long as cloning technology lags behind chip technology, then when the day arrives that a complete personality transfer is possible those individuals in positions of power and influence who already assume their life is more valuable than the life of another person will be more inclined to pull victims off the street in order to continue their own selfish existence.

Other questions arise as well. For example, (again, assuming the chips become complex and reliable enough to immortalize a complete personality), at what age is it desirable to insert the chip? After all, the person must learn and age naturally in order to write the memories to the first chip. That is how the technology currently worked in rats. The human brain is far more complex than a rat's brain. As we age, it passes through several patterns of growth and development. Just notice the difference in size between an infant's head and an adult head. The vast majority of that size difference is the expanding braincase. Everything else, facial features, sinus capacity, etc., derives from the expanding braincase, not the reverse. So there will be physiological minimum age before a personality-recording chip can be installed in the first place. What happens if a child dies before the chip can be installed? Would such a loss doubly traumatize parents who are themselves already in their second or third body? Will we develop the emotional capacity to deal with such a trauma?

But for now, it's just a matter of one rat learning to activate a lever to receive a drink of water and then transferring that memory into another rat. It's a very simple starting point. The aim of the Department of Defense is to develop a chip that will let them transfer the skills associated with flying fighter jets into the brains of new cadets without all that bothersome and very expensive training. The dreams of the folks at Smart Planet is learning martial arts without all that bothersome training and discipline.

My dream is a science of immortality. Not that it will ever benefit me, but just because Robert Heinlein is my favorite writer and he does such an admirable job of presenting the case for a science of longevity. Plenty of people would like to live forever in this ramshackle, unstable work of earthquakes, tsunamis, broken hearts, and broken minds. For those who don't find comfort in religion, a science of immortality would be a great boon. I suspect, however, that they would quickly learn the downside: the longer you live the more you have to lose and the more you have to lose the less attractive life becomes.