The Immortality Project: Delusions of the Impossible?

Reading another of those sprightly articles from the BBC The immortalist: Uploading the Mind to a Computer on the recent work of Dmitry Itskov who promises to make us all immortal within the next 30 years:  “Within the next 30 years,” promises Dmitry Itskov, “I am going to make sure that we can all live forever. … The ultimate goal of my plan is to transfer someone’s personality into a completely new body.” Impossible? Delusionary? Another crank whose convinced the scientific community that he’s on to something? As Tristan Quinn whose documentary Horizon: The Immortalist seems to be playing in Britain’s BBC at the moment says: “The scientific director of Itskov’s 2045 Initiative, Dr Randal Koene – a neuroscientist who worked as a research professor at Boston University’s Center for Memory and Brain – laughs off any suggestion Itskov might have lost touch with reality.”

Some of us will remember the Takeshi Kovacs Novels by Richard K. Morgan where his protagonist dies and is resleeved (as they call being reformatted and pattern matched to a new cloned body) ready to go for his next mission. A sort of mission impossible agent for hire who will always come back for more even if you kill him. But of course that begs the question: Who is coming back? Which copy of me is me? Of course we could all go back to Plato and scratch our heads like he did about the bad choices of following this path down the rabbit hole. For Plato, a purist of the Idea, a realist who believed our world a tissue of delusions, while the real world was elsewhere – a realm of pure Ideas of which ours was a feint copy. For him the notion that we could imitate life, pattern it and copy it from one form to another was in itself sheer madness.

In the Republic, Plato says that art imitates the objects and events of ordinary life. In other words, a work of art is a copy of a copy of a Form. It is even more of an illusion than is ordinary experience. On this theory, works of art are at best entertainment, and at worst a dangerous delusion. Some of our current trends in the neurosciences lead us to believe we are our brains, that whatever we are is something that can be reduced to the three-pound glob of neuronal meat and soup caged in our skull. Of course many believe we are deluded to think we’ll be able to ever understand the complexity of all these tentative processes, while others are hard at work trying to reverse engineer the brain and decompose it into all its complex bits of data that they hope will allow us to reconstruct and understand the very truth of what we are as conscious beings.

As one article  Reverse-Engineer the Brain puts it: “Discovering those secrets by reverse-engineering the brain promises enormous opportunities for reproducing intelligence the way assembly lines spit out cars or computers.” With new imaging technologies scientists are beginning to unlock some of the secrets that we’ve been blind too, and this is opening up an avenue of study that governments both in the EU and U.S.A. are investing billions in to map the brains basic processes. As the article suggests these modern noninvasive methods for simultaneously measuring the activity of many brain cells have provided a major boost in that direction, but details of the brain’s secret communication code remain to be deciphered. Nerve cells communicate by firing electrical pulses that release small molecules called neurotransmitters, chemical messengers that hop from one nerve cell to a neighbor, inducing the neighbor to fire a signal of its own (or, in some cases, inhibiting the neighbor from sending signals). Because each nerve cell receives messages from tens of thousands of others, and circuits of nerve cells link up in complex networks, it is extremely difficult to completely trace the signaling pathways.

As Wired magazine reports it the key to reverse-engineering the human brain lies in decoding and simulating the cerebral cortex — the seat of cognition. The human cortex has about 22 billion neurons and 220 trillion synapses. They go on to say:

A supercomputer capable of running a software simulation of the human brain doesn’t exist yet. Researchers would require a machine with a computational capacity of at least 36.8 petaflops and a memory capacity of 3.2 petabytes — a scale that supercomputer technology isn’t expected to hit for at least three years, according to IBM researcher Dharmendra Modha. Modha leads the cognitive computing project at IBM‘s Almaden Research Center.

Ray Kurzweil who seems to pop up everywhere in connection to these various initiatives says in the same article: “Reverse-engineering the brain is being pursued in different ways. The objective is not necessarily to build a grand simulation — the real objective is to understand the principle of operation of the brain.”

At M.I.T. scientist Sebastian Seung describes the audacious plan to find the connectome–a map of every single neuron in the brain. Here, he says, is the secret of human identity. In his new book, Connectome , he argues that technology has now reached a point where it is conceivable to start mapping at least portions of the connectome. It’s a daunting task, he says, but without it, neuroscience will be stuck. He answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.

As he tells Cook:

Most people are familiar with the regional approach to neuroscience:  divide the brain into regions such as the “left brain” and “frontal lobe,” and figure out what each region does.  This approach has helped physicians interpret the symptoms of brain injuries, but at the same time has frustrating limitations.  How do regions carry out their functions? Why do they malfunction in mental disorders? What happens to regions when we learn? We can never obtain satisfying answers to these questions if we consider regions as the elementary, indivisible units of the brain.

An obvious solution is to understand a region by subdividing it into neurons, and figure out how the neurons work together to perform the region’s function.  This neuronal approach has the potential to answer the big questions above, but so far has not succeeded.  In fact, those who study regions sometimes criticize those who study neurons as too focused on minutiae.

Asked what a Connectome is Seung replies, saying, “A connectome is a map of a neural network. It is like one of those route maps you find in the back of airline magazines. Just replace each city with a neuron, and each route between cities by a connection between neurons. Keep in mind, though, that your brain contains about 100 billion neurons, so your connectome would never fit in the pages of a magazine.”

When asked what he implies by a person having a unique identity in terms of the brain Seung answers, saying, “You are your connectome.”  We are the product of our genetic inheritance and our lifetime experiences.  Genes have influenced your connectome in many ways–for example, by guiding how your neurons wired together during the development of your brain.  Experiences have also modified your connectome, because connections are altered by the neural activity patterns that accompany experiences. To put it another way, your connectome is where nature meets nurture.

So that maybe the pattern recognition of this “connectome” is what will eventually be transposed or transferred to another medium or substrate or cloning process in the future? Yet, as Seung tells Cook this want be an easy process:

Indeed, mapping an entire human connectome is one of the greatest technological challenges of all time. Just imaging all of a human brain with electron microscopes would be difficult enough.  This would yield about one zettabyte of data, which roughly equals the world’s current volume of digital content.  Then analyzing the images to extract the connectome would be even more demanding. Yet I believe that we will eventually prevail. Success will not come with a sudden bang but rather through sustained growth over time. I imagine that the speed of mapping connectomes will double every year or two. If so, then it will become possible to map an entire human connectome within a few decades.  There are similar success stories for other technologies.  Computers have improved at this rate for the past half century.  DNA sequencing has advanced similarly for the past forty years, and accelerated even further over the past decade.

Seung even has a site for the public to help out named EyeWire, a place you can help map the connectome of the retina, the sheet of neural tissue at the back of the eye.  You don’t need specialized training to participate, because EyeWire is like a virtual coloring book with pages that are images of the retina.  (The images were taken with an electron microscope in the laboratory of our German collaborator, Winfried Denk.) Your task is to color in neurons, and you already know how to do this: just stay inside the boundaries. In this way, you will trace the “wires” of the retina, the branches of its neurons.  This is the most laborious task required for mapping a connectome.

Year by year new technologies accelerate the process of reverse engineering the brain. As Seung tells us using new methods of light microscopy, neurophysiologists are now able to image the signals of hundreds or even thousands of individual neurons at the same time, in the brains of living animals. (Compared to microscopy, MRI has the advantage of being applicable to living human brains but blurs 100,000 neurons into a single pixel.)   Such studies of neural activity can be followed by electron microscopy to map the connections of the same neurons.  Imagine knowing the activity and connectivity of all the neurons in a small chunk of brain. This capability is finally within reach, and is bound to revolutionize neuroscience.1

Paul Allen, the 59-year-old Microsoft cofounder who has plowed $500 million into the Allen Institute for Brain Science, a medical Manhattan Project that he hopes will dwarf his contribution as one of the founding fathers of software. The institute, scattered through three buildings in Seattle’s hip Fremont neighborhood, is primarily focused on creating tools, such as the mouse laser, which is technically a new type of microscope, that will allow scientists to understand how the soft, fleshy matter inside the human skull can give rise to the wondrous, mysterious creative power of the human mind.

As Allen tells Forbes Magazine’s Matthew Herper in Inside Paul Allen’s Quest To Reverse Engineer The Brain, “As an ex-programmer I’m still just curious about how the brain functions, how that flow of information really happens,” says Allen in a rare interview, in a conference room overlooking an active ship canal. “The thing you realize when you get into studying neuroscience, even a little bit, is that everything is connected to everything else. So it’s as if the brain is trying to use everything at its disposal–what it is seeing, what it is hearing, what is the temperature, past experience. It’s using all of this to try to compute what the animal should do next, whether that animal is a mouse or human being.”

Allen’s form of philanthropist hands-on approach seems to be putting one’s pocketbook to the test. His first $100 million investment in the Allen Institute resulted in a gigantic computer map of how genes work in the brains of mice, a tool that other scientists have used to pinpoint genes that may play a role in multiple sclerosis, memory and eating disorders in people. Another $100 million went to creating a similar map of the human brain, already resulting in new theories about how the brain works, as well as maps of the developing mouse brain and mouse spinal cord. These have become essential tools for neuroscientists everywhere.

Yet, skeptic that I am I wonder if this is all to the benefit of humankind? Why genetics and the brain specifically, and not cancer or some other research? Curiosity? Business interests? He’s worth billions, the 20th richest man in America, with an estimated net worth of $15 billion, has committed another $300 million for projects that will make his institute more than just a maker of tools for other scientists, hiring several of the top minds in neuroscience to spearhead them. One effort will try to understand the mouse visual cortex as a way to understand how nerve cells work in brains in general. Other projects aim to isolate all the kinds of cells in the brain and use stem cells to learn how they develop. Scientists think there may be 1,000 of these basic building blocks, but they don’t even know that. “In software,” Allen says, “we call it reverse engineering.”

His funding is more than most governments. We learn that much of this quest for reverse engineering the brain began in the 1990’s as Herper reports. Allen began thinking about a big neuro-science project in the late 1990s, while he was making a flurry of investments in Seattle biotechnology companies. One, an outfit called Rosetta Inpharmatics, was doing genetic work that could be seen as a precursor of the Institute’s Mouse Brain Atlas. Cancer researcher Stephen Friend, its chief executive, remembers long discussions about “a library of Alexandria for brain data.” He set up a meeting for Allen with James Watson, who won the Nobel Prize for codiscovering the structure of DNA.

What seems to have fascinated Allen was the Data aspect of this vast undertaking. As Allen says: “It appealed to me because it was something that hadn’t been done, something that could be scaled, something that created a database that could be accessible worldwide and would lift all boats in the area of neuroscience,” he says. As Allen discovered after several projects the data-driven approach led to “800 new ideas about how the brain may work that scientists can now test, leading to hope that computational methods can help decipher the computer in our heads”. Yet, he knows there is a great difference between computing and the brain itself, saying, “Moore’s Law-based technology is so much easier than neuroscience. The brain works in such a different way from the way a computer does. The computer is a very regular structure. It’s very uniform. It’s got a bunch of memory, and it’s got a little element that computes bits of memory and combines them with each other and puts them back somewhere. It’s a very simple thing.”

But the brain is nothing like a computer: “It’s hideously complex,” Allen says. And it’s going to take “decades and decades” of more research to understand. “We are talking about dozens and dozens of Nobel Prizes,” he says, “that have yet to be won to understand how the brain works.”

Asked if he thinks anything will come of it in his lifetime. Herper recounts:

“The proof will come a few years up the road, when we see the results of these new initiatives on which we are embarking now,” he says. His $300 million investment was made with a five-year time horizon, but Allen and his team don’t talk in five-year or even ten-year time–they’re looking ahead decades. Allen, who says he feels great and is cancer free, says he will contribute indefinitely as his scientists continue to deliver–and has even made plans to fund the institute after his death. “A big part of my own financial legacy,” he says, “is allocated to this kind of work for the future.”

Yet, Paul Allen is skeptical of such Singularity thesis as presented by Ray Kurzweil. Paul Allen points out that as we gain deeper knowledge of natural systems like human intelligence, our theories become increasingly complex. Moore’s Law notwithstanding, the Law of Accelerating Returns thus runs up against this “complexity brake.” Since the concept of artificial intelligence is central to The Singularity, the complexity brake may delay it, if not make it forever unobtainable.2

Allen may be thinking of Robin Hansen’s essay The Great Filter which implies that the fact that our universe seems basically dead suggests that it is very hard for advanced explosive lasting life to arise. That as we look out upon the universe and see so far that no greater civilization seems to register upon our SETI instruments among other things that this strongly suggests that no civilization in our past universe has reached such an “explosive” point, to become the source of a light speed expansion of thorough colonization. No alien civilizations have substantially colonized our solar system or systems nearby. Thus among the billion trillion stars in our past universe, none has reached the level of technology and growth that we may soon reach. This one data point implies that a Great Filter stands between ordinary dead matter and advanced exploding lasting life. And the big question is: How far along this filter are we?

Nick Land commenting of the Fermi Paradox implied by the notion of the Great Filter will in his usual black humor say, “The Great Filter does not merely hunt and harm, it exterminates. It is an absolute threat. The technical civilizations which it aborts, or later slays, are not badly wounded, but eradicated, or at least crippled so fundamentally that they are never heard of again. Whatever this utter ruin is, it happens every single time. The mute scream from the stars says that nothing has ever escaped it. Its kill performance is flawless. Tech-Civilization death sentence with probability.”

Maybe The Singularity is this Great Filter that will be applied to our species or our planet, a sort of malformed ancient curse that will wipe all intelligent life out on earth because of its hubris to overreach its natural bounds. But this would imply a sense of tragedy rather than farce. Maybe we should go back and take a look at the old legend of Daedalus and his son Icarus who flew too close to the Sun with his artificial wings and fell because of his hubris. Are we about to be scorched by our own hubris in seeking to become or create immortal machines?


  1. Gareth Cook on March 20, 2012. Scientific America. He edits Mind Matters, an online commentary blog at
  2. Sirius, R.U., Cornell, Ray. Transcendence: The Disinformation Encyclopedia of Transhumanism and the Singularity. Disinformation Books (January 1, 2015)

2 thoughts on “The Immortality Project: Delusions of the Impossible?

    • I liked it where he remonstrates those who call into question the Resistance:

      “In my country today there are people who are wondering if the Resistance had a real military impact on the course of the war. For my generation this question is irrelevant: we immediately understood the moral and psychological meaning of the Resistance. For us it was a point of pride to know that we Europeans did not wait passively for liberation. And for the young Americans who were paying with their blood for our restored freedom it meant something to know that behind the firing lines there were Europeans paying their own debt in advance.”


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