Are You Dying To Upload Your Brain?

Cryonics — freezing humans for later revival — has been a staple of science fiction for ages. Maybe you want to be cured of something presently incurable or you just want to see the future. Of course, ignoring the problem of why anyone wants to thaw out a 500-year-old person, no one has a proven technology for thawing out one of these corpsicles. You are essentially betting that science will figure that out sometime before your freezer breaks down. A new startup called Nectome funded by Y Combinator wants to change your thinking about preservation. Instead of freezing they will pump you full of preservatives that preserve your brain including fine structures that scientists currently believe contain your memories.

Nectome’s strategy isn’t to have you revived like in conventional cryonics. They think the technology to do high definition scans of your preserved brain will exist soon. Those scans might allow future scientists to recreate your brain in a simulation. That isn’t really the same as coming back to life, though. At least we don’t imagine it is.

The company bills their process as archiving your brain, although since the process kills you, you are going to need to be legally eligible for euthanasia to take advantage of the process. There is a belief that structures known as connectomes hold your memories and these are preserved using this process. You can watch a TED talk about that subject, below.

Like all of these preservation strategies, there are a lot of unknowns. We aren’t sure that everything necessary persists because we don’t totally understand how the brain works. We also don’t know if anyone will ever figure out how to use these brains to simulate you back into existence. Then there’s the perennial problem of waking up to find yourself enslaved by an evil overlord or that your body is a warship in the service of a totalitarian regime.

For example, there is mounting evidence that your brain could really be a quantum computer. That would explain a lot, but even if it is wrong, there’s no way to know there isn’t something else totally not understood going on in there.

So how about it? Would you let them kill you to preserve your brain? Will anyone bother to boot up a copy of you in the future? If so, why? After all, according to all the smart people, you’ll just wake up to serve our robot overlords. If you just want to stimulate your brain, try DARPA.



63 thoughts on “Are You Dying To Upload Your Brain?

    1. You could just use a transporter instead. Same basic outcome. Here’s a decent quality video illustrating this.

      Let’s not even get started on the math behind the actual preservation of quantum states of every single subatomic particle in an average brain. Or the fact that you seemingly cannot actually read it all without destroying it to begin with.

      1. Yes, I was about to bring this up… since our Brains are constantly in operation and deteriorate quickly upon death the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is going to be a rather large problem to overcome.

        1. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle has nothing to do with quantum states. It states that you cannot know a particle’s exact position and exact momentum at the same time, nothing more. It’s a simple matter of measurement: in order to determine momentum (by measuring velocity), you need to measure the change in position over a period of time, and the precision with which you can measure this increases with the period over which the measurement is made. But since the particle is moving, the longer the window of time through which you observe it, the more blurred its position is. And vice-versa – to get a precise measurement of position, you have to observe for the shortest time possible, and this reduces the precision of the velocity measurement.

          Also, long term memories don’t depend on electrical charges – they depend on synaptic connections, which are physical. So when revived, you may not have any idea what happened the previous day or two (before the recording procedure), but everything else would be there. In theory. However, electron microscopy is already capable of discriminating voltages, so it may also be possible to capture the electrochemical state of the brain (to the extent that is biologically significant), including short-term memory. The tough part has always been the problem of keeping the state of the brain from changing during the scan, though, so recording the electrochemical state may be forever out of reach.

  1. If a 500 year old brain could be thawed out and the “mind” is still intact…
    I would ask it about what he/she experienced in life 500 years ago, as “history is written by the victors” this “could” give insight to what really happened then (at least a different point of view).

    1. Who knows? Once the process is sufficiently developed, maybe it can work with brains that, due to whatever conditions existed at their deaths, are structurally intact. That is, it may be possible in some cases without any special actions taken at the time of death.

  2. I feel like we don’t have nearly a complete enough understanding of how the brain works to be making these assertions, but we have to start somewhere and I hope they get plenty of willing subjects to study. We aren’t going to get the source code to our monkey operating system without getting real weird with it in the process. How exciting!

  3. Yes, the biggest question is: Why would anyone ever want to revive a person that has been dead for a long, long time? Personal reasons aside: What would be the legal status of that person (answer: We do not know and nobody can know since all belongings of that person have been moved elsewhere).
    If you think about: The ONLY reasons to come up with are very, very bad reasons. You need human intellect to drive killing machines. You need only A PART of a revived intellect to do very nasty things that nobody else wants to do. Human kind has almost extinguished itself and needs samples to fill up genetic gaps.
    There just is no plausible “good” reason to revive anyone who has died and who does not provide an overwhelming advantage to the (then living) population. Former fame and fortunate are not “plausible” reasons.

    Back to topic: I do believe that memories make almost everything we consider a “personality” and by that “a human being”. IF preserving memories is possible, reproducing the complex happenings that we consider a “consciousness” might need a lot of testing material Good luck you are not amongst that. I am not sure that “living in the cloud” (aka “in a computer”) as it has been topic of SF for at least 60-70 years, if not longer (there are some newcomer authors who think they have BRAND NEW ideas about that, but they don’t) wouldn’t drive a human being mad. I do believe that our limitations are part “of the construct”.

    Anyway: The whole idea is intriguing from its technical perspective. It is not, I think, from its sociological side.

    1. > Why would anyone ever want to revive a person that has been dead for a long, long time?

      Why does everyone keep asking this? They’ll do it because that is what you’ve payed them to do.

      And yes, there are scammers out there, but that’s a different question.

  4. Who pays to store your brain, who pays to eventually scan it, and then who would pay to keep it online once “simulated”?

    The reality of our capitalist societies are such that until we start creating a trust funds locked up and accessible only once we’re digitally revived there is no way to know what you could be used for, or if anyone will bother to revive you.

    The other possibility–if your simulated brain is without monetary resources, rights, or advocacy–is that you, or rather your simulated mind, become a product to be sold or otherwise used as someone else sees fit… ala Robocop. Yikes.

    The last thing I want is to “wake up” in a digital nightmare where I’m forced to do the bidding of whoever is in control… maybe we’re loaded into games and other world-simulations where having life-like NPCs that the actual living will be interface with is considered more fun? Or maybe we’ll be forced to come up with tweets to make fun of the 85th POTUS in order to be given CPU cycles and stay alive? Or maybe we’re loaded into life-like bodies, but with no rights and forced to act as slaves.

    …until we have posthumous rights granted to our simulated minds, and well funded advocacy groups, I’d rather just turn to dust.

    1. Well, you say that, but who’s to know what people would be willing to do, given the chance to continue living. For millennia, people have chosen to live as slaves rather than kill themselves. “Live free or die” is easy to say, not so easy to do.

      1. It’s a good point you make–we have a biological drive to live, even under horrible conditions. In theory that would survive digitization I suppose as long as the simulation included simulations of all the various chemicals that get squirted around in our heads.

        Personally I would rather die than live as a digital slave–as in, someone who has no free will, but may in some ways understand what they have become yet be powerless to stop it. I can make that decision now as a living person, but I assume once I’m a digital slave I probably would lose the ability to recognize the situation I am in, and therefor couldn’t make the choice.

        I suppose it’s similar in some ways to what a coma patient or some with a TBI would go through — they lose the ability to choose and possibly even the ability to recognize their situation.

        So perhaps it’s only from the perspective of being alive that we might decide that the reality of digital life after body death is terrible.

        1. >”Personally I would rather die than live as a digital slave”

          It wouldn’t be you, as in, the you who’s reading this text here.

          Suppose, you would exist simultaneously with your digital copy. Which existence do -you- experience? Then look at any other person around you, and consider why you are you and they are them.

          Even if there exists an identical copy of you, -you- don’t magically jump from one body to the next. That’s not an experience you can have. Each of you continue as their own separate existence, and the copy might just as well be a stranger to you. When you die, you die, and the stranger continues living.

          1. Luke: this would be similar to forking a process in Unix: each resulting process “believes” it is the original, since it has complete uninterrupted memory of its existence. The only way a process can tell if it’s the “original” or the “copy” is by comparing its process ID with the one it had before the fork operation.

            The corresponding test for a transporter, or for a brain scan/replication, is that the copy might be able to tell that it’s in a different place or time, but assuming that the subject is not conscious during the scanning process, both the original and the copy (or copies) experience a discontinuity, making self-identification problematic.

            If the system works like a transporter, where the original gets destroyed in the act of scanning for transmission, there’s no problem because there is never more than one self – there’s no conflict when assigning the rights and properties of the original to the copy. The problems only come up when the act of scanning doesn’t destroy the original. In the case of a non-destructive “transporter”, it’s clear which is the original and which is the copy, just by where they are located, but it would be a philosophical, or at least legal problem to determine the rights of the copy.

          2. In essence, the copy of you is a reincarnation of you. Same goes for Spartacus.

            This is btw. the point that Buddhism makes about reincarnation. The naive folk version is that there’s a spirit which jumps from body to body accumulating karma on the way through innumerable life cycles, sometimes being a dog or an insect, sometimes elevating up to gods and devas. Instead, the real teaching is that there is karma that is jumping from spirit to spirit, where “spirit” is the experience of self of a sentient being, arising solely out of their material existence.

            Karma is the willful action of the sentient being, which is the cause for the conditions of other sentient beings in the present and in the future, for their basis of their actions or karma in turn, therefore continuing to re-incarnate through countless individuals, each individual being nothing if taken out of this context of their material existence and therefore not individually definable as “self”. What exists is the doing, which is transient in the body, and the thought of “I” as this particular person is an illusion.

            When a sentient being reaches enlightenment, they stop transmitting karma to other beings – they stop reincarnating. They become a Pratyekabuddha and dissapear from the world in due time as there is no longer anything that would keep propagating. Another possibility is that you overshoot the mark and become a Boddhisatva, and the karma you start to propagate leads others onto the path to liberation. If you undershoot and don’t quite get it, you become an arhat – a perfect being that nevertheless keeps on clinging to the world by a thread, and when they pass away the next thing is either a buddha or falls back to the wheel of samsara.

          3. >”The problems only come up when the act of scanning doesn’t destroy the original.”

            Whether you do or don’t, doesn’t make a difference. The copy, being separated by space from the original, or additionally by time from the original, is not the original. The experience of being one doesn’t magically jump to the other – one stops, another begins.

            Do you experience being you yesterday?

          4. I experience gaps in my awareness almost every day. If someone moved me while I was asleep, I might be disoriented for a while, but I wouldn’t think I was a different person.

  5. so you can wake up into a digital hell, or they make you a slave, no thanks :) by the way, last night i have a strange dream, the point was that people around you causing all the sickness, like cancer, to you, simply because they think about you in this way, so the solution to a long happy life was to separate yourself from all the people…

  6. The overarching assumption seems to be that there is only hardware. If this were correct then perhaps preserving the physical bits and bobs would equal a person. If a person is better described as a program running in volatile memory then it may be a little more interesting trying to get them re-booted in the bright and shining future.

    1. I agree. My theory of what defines an individual consciousness is that, to use computer analogies, it’s a program launched from and drawing data from the hard drive, but running in RAM. That volatile process is your consciousness. That program is launched at some point in fetal development as your brain forms. If that program is killed, by the brain completely shutting down for whatever reason, then you’re dead, your consciousness ends. You can detect this as a flat EEG. You may be able to launch another instance of that program but it would be a different consciousness (this is what the Star Trek transporter does, and what the proposed service hopes to do). There are people who have lived through a flat EEG, I would expect that they have a different consciousness, just like a person who has been through the hypothetical Star Trek transporter.

      So if you bring someone back from just “hardware,” yes that person would be indistinguishable from the original person to any observer…but that original person, from their point of view, would’ve died and would still be dead.

    1. It is. Consider this, the silicon valley freak show of super billionaires lack only one thing – immortality. If they think this BS tech can give them that, they’ll pay any price.

      It’s not for the rest of us. Nor should it be because it’s the stuff of nightmares.

  7. > Evidence of quantum brain

    Christ, not that bullshit again.

    The only problems here are whether you’re okay with the Transporter Problem (or the Continuity Problem) and whether their fixing process wrecks the fine connections. Historically, the fixatives used to preserve tissue are hell on anything at the scale of synapses – the brain dehydrates and the delicate web gets pulled completely apart. Not much use at that point. There have been some interesting advances there lately, but I doubt these guys really have it licked.

    1. Well, the brain can’t be a classical “turing machine” either – with a caveat.
      >”The work draws from the field of algorithmic information theory (AIT), which deals with the connections between computer science and information theory. One important result of AIT is the coding theorem. According to this theorem, when a universal Turing machine (an abstract computing device that can compute any function) is given a random input, simple outputs have an exponentially higher probability of being generated than complex outputs.”

      What it means, if the brain is a classical deterministic algorithm, it shouldn’t be intelligent. If it’s just a classical input-output system, it doesn’t have agency and it’s exceedingly unlikely that it does anything interesting at all, except by a stray cosmic particle striking a neuron and making a lucky accident.

      The caveat is that we may accept this idea, and say indeed, people are what’s known as philosophical zombies: beings that are nothing but simple non-intelligent automatons that keep repeating “I think therefore I am” just as programmed by nature. In this view, we are not the authors of our own behaviour, and it’s meaningless to speak of human experiences because we’re nothing more than elaborate answering machines.

      Or, we may deny this and say, people are not just automata, we’re intelligent, we have agency, which leads to the conclusion that if this is so, then we cannot be just classical deterministic puppets and algorithms running in a biological turing machine. In order to have agency, we must have the capacity to act without strict causal relationship, which means we must be on some level indeterminate; quantum mechanical in nature.

      1. The Turing Machine thing is a dead end. We might not be Turing machines – that’s not the only computational archetecture. It’s just the most universal. We’re also not random-input machines! We’re machines carefully selected for maximal success by a billion years of evolution. Your link doesn’t even mention brains, so… I assume this is your own interpretation?

        Anyway, the idea that we’re NOT deterministic machines is absurd. Evolution has given us this amazing progression from simple on-off yes-no neural circuits to amazing, complex brains with each step clearly building on the last. There is NOTHING that makes us special in this. Any attempt to talk about a mind that is separate from our mechanistic brains is magical thinking, because reality makes you uncomfortable.

        And beyond ALL of this:

        1. Was that a deterministic result of whatever you gots in your head, or was that meant to actually mean something? I can’t say you are wrong, but you sure don’t sound like you believe it. The presumption of meaning certainly does not seem to be warranted by the language of your statement. Not tryin’ to pick a fight or anything, it’s just that a reductionist definition of people is useless if is made by a people.

          1. I have no idea why you’d say any of that.

            I’m a neuroscientist, so… yeah, I accept the deterministic view. Hard to do science and NOT accept it. And by the same ticket, you’re going to have problems doing science if you reject reductionist views.

          2. Reductionism is saying that an apple is atoms, and therefore an apple does not exist.

            It’s missing the forest for the trees. That’s not to say reductionism is wrong – forests do consist of trees – but they’re also forests. Can you reduce, how many trees make a forest?

        2. >”We might not be Turing machines – that’s not the only computational archetecture.”

          A Turing machine IS the ideal computer. Given any computer algorithm, a Turing machine capable of simulating that algorithm’s logic can be constructed. The ticker tape system is just a through experiment of how such a machine might be constructed.


          Agency means that something originates from this thing, and not causally from some other thing. Agency is the ability to do the uncaused. A thing that happens without cause is random, therefore randomness IS agency.

          However, there are two definitions of randomness: that which is deteriministic but unpredictable, and that which is non-deterministic and therefore unpredictable. Quantum mechanics is of the second kind, and agency must by definition be of the second kind as well.

      2. But the brain isn’t given random input making the comparison a failure from the start. One can argue that the universe was created as random but when the first brain evolved (on earth or elsewhere) things were already ordered and following the laws of nature. If the random laws didn’t allow a brain to be created we wouldn’t be here and writing this on (mostly) deterministic machines we call computers.

        The philosophical zombie is maybe of interest in philosophical discussions (don’t think so myself) but not for real world applications. I function as I am an individual and have what we commonly describe as thoughts and drive. But do I actually exist? If so do anything else exist outside my imagination?

        What does it matter? Why should we assume things aren’t as they seem to be even if that wouldn’t change anything?

        1. >”But the brain isn’t given random input making the comparison a failure from the start.”

          Don’t get stuck on the word “random”. It simply means “arbitrary input”.

          The main point is that such a deterministic system does not produce anything new. It’s not the author of its own thoughts. If Descartes was a Turing Machine, it would be like the wind, through some elaborate causal process, carving the words “Cogito ergo sum” on the side of a mountain. Now, it is plainly obvious that the mountain did not think those words, and the wind did not think those words, they simply appear out of necessity as the “algorithm” runs.

    2. I think Al didn’t even read the contents of the page he linked. There is no mention of any evidence in there. It’s just a hypothesis. Even his tests did not reveal any results.

      “Experimental testing is precisely what Fisher is now trying to do. He just spent a sabbatical at Stanford University working with researchers there to replicate the 1986 study with pregnant rats. He acknowledged the preliminary results were disappointing, in that the data didn’t provide much information”

    3. While the microtubule explanation is no longer considered credible by most people, there is still evidence that there’s something going on at this level. Read the linked article about it. Besides, my real point is that there are stranger things in your brain then dreamed of by your philosophy.

      1. The strongest evidence I remeber reading is when they took quantum vs. classical probability to predict the outcome of choices that people make.

        One version assumes that the preferences that result in the choice is pre-existing in the brain, leading to a certain probability distribution of the outcome.

        The other version assumes no pre-existing preference, like how measuring a pair of entagled particles makes one particle be one thing and the other the other. This leads to another kind of probability distribution.

        Turns out the quantum probability distribution is closer at predicting human response than the classical probability distribution.

  8. The problem of making a brain analog out of circuitry or software is that the analog is never the real thing.

    Consider the Ship of Theseus – you can replace every wooden plank with a wooden plank, and even if you may argue whether it’s the same ship anymore, you can’t deny that it’s the same kind of ship. Wood is wood.

    Now, if you replace the wooden planks with some plastic imitation, eventually the wooden ship turns into a plastic ship, and even though it looks identical it no longer behaves the same. For starters, it won’t rot; it won’t get waterlogged or shrink when dry. It’s analogous to the original ship, but it’s clearly not the original ship.

    So in the same way, “uploading” your brain to a close emulation of a brain, software or hardware, is not going to create another you. It’s going to create another thing very similiar to you, but with a different future trajectory. It’s not going to rot like you, forget like you, get new ideas like you – it’s a different person. No matter how closely they make it resemble you, they can’t react perfection without actually replicating you atom-by-atom, and so the copy-you will deviate.

  9. “…A new startup called Nectome funded by Y Combinator wants to change your thinking about preservation…”

    No, they just want to take people’s money and get rich before everybody realises it is total and utter rubbish.

    Actually, maybe they could get it to work if they incorporate a blockchain framework, and then supplement the quantum drive with graphene nano quarks.

  10. I was always under the impression that brains storage was somewhat like dynamic RAM; it isn’t the physical structure that is the storage, it is the constantly refreshing charges being swapped by the neurons. Without that constant refreshing of the charges that comes from being alive, receiving oxygen, etc. the brain’s memories dissipate.
    So I doubt very much that this would achieve anything at all.

  11. i think it’s rather funny that people still believe a couple centuries from now, in an even more severely overpopulated world somebody will actually say “hey, let’s thaw a couple more”.

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