Developments

Cloud Brain


Next week, at YC’s “demo days,” Nectome’s cofounder, Robert McIntyre, is going to describe his technology for exquisitely preserving brains in microscopic detail using a high-tech embalming process. Then the MIT graduate will make his business pitch. As it says on his website: “What if we told you we could back up your mind?”

So yeah. Nectome is a preserve-your-brain-and-upload-it company. Its chemical solution can keep a body intact for hundreds of years, maybe thousands, as a statue of frozen glass. The idea is that someday in the future scientists will scan your bricked brain and turn it into a computer simulation. That way, someone a lot like you, though not exactly you, will smell the flowers again in a data server somewhere.

Either way, you should pay attention to Nectome. The company has won a large federal grant and is collaborating with Edward Boyden, a top neuroscientist at MIT, and its technique just claimed an $80,000 science prize for preserving a pig’s brain so well that every synapse inside it could be seen with an electron microscope.

McIntyre, a computer scientist, and his cofounder Michael McCanna have been following the tech entrepreneur’s handbook with ghoulish alacrity. “The user experience will be identical to physician-assisted suicide,” he says. “Product-market fit is people believing that it works.”

Nectome’s storage service is not yet for sale and may not be for several years. Also still lacking is evidence that memories can be found in dead tissue. But the company has found a way to test the market. Following the example of electric-vehicle maker Tesla, it is sizing up demand by inviting prospective customers to join a waiting list for a deposit of $10,000, fully refundable if you change your mind.

But would-be brain emulators don’t let such details deter them. Instead, they predict, as a 2018 study did, that “eventually the reading of memories…will become the daily routine of connectomics.” Those wiring diagrams, including in preserved brains, will “capture functionally relevant features of brain circuits from which mind and cognitive functions emerge”—possibly by 2075 to 2100—neuroengineer Randal Koene told the 2017 SharpBrains summit. But if brain emulations built from connectomes come to pass, is the emulation you? Or is it “just” a copy?

That and related questions echo those that I explored in my very first in April 2013: Is there is a mind separate from brain? Is mind “only” what the brain does? In the unlikely event that neuroscience learns everything there is to know about the latter, will it have explained every ineffable mystery about the former? If someone does emulate a brain in silicon, will the silicon version of you sleep and dream, and if it doesn’t, will that degrade its information content? If the brain upload is in the cloud, does it have consciousness? If consciousness is an “emergent property” of brain activity (essentially a happy accident), then it might. Will it suffer something like the mental and sensory deprivation of solitary confinement? Will it wonder where it is and how it got there, tormented by existential despair? It boggles the mind!

This story has a grisly twist, though. For Nectome’s procedure to work, it’s essential that the brain be fresh. The company says its plan is to connect people with terminal illnesses to a heart-lung machine in order to pump its mix of scientific embalming chemicals into the big carotid arteries in their necks while they are still alive (though anesthetized).