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Jumping into the void: Vitrifixation

Science fiction has imagined the possibility to upload one’s brain to a computer. Many have spoken on the impossibility to do such a thing. One start up is doing it… Image credit: Science Alert

In the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative we are looking at human augmentation technologies, including the ones that are at an early experimental stage but might become impactful in the coming decades. Among these we are looking at development in brain to computer interactions, digital twins, artificial intelligence and distributed / symbiotic artificial intelligence (i.e. partly in the brain(s) and partly in the cyberspace).

The idea of uploading a whole brain to the cyberspace, replicating it, has been considered but more in terms of fragments that eventually might be consolidated into a concrete possibility. There are indeed a number of such fragments but the consolidation is so far away to remain in the science fiction realm.

Yet, a company, Nectome, has taken the goal of uploading a brain to the cyberspace seriously and they believe it can be done in the near future (read next decade). Before getting too excited read the following.

Nectome is a spring off of MIT people involved in the Human Connectome project, an initiative aiming at creating a blueprint of our brain, which is way way more complex than the blueprint of our genes, the genome. A genome consists of about 3 billion “letters”, a connectome of 135 trillion synapses!

Nectome has found a way to identify these 135 trillion synapses and their mutual relations and can do this (will be able to do this in the next decade) for any brain. In order to do that it removes the brain from your skull (this is not nice and is going to significantly decrease your enthusiasm…) and perfuses it with a chemical (glutaraldehyde) that instantly stops all biological processes preserving the synapses status and connections as they are at that particular moment (that is why, I assume, the process is called Vitrifixation, it is like fixing everything in glass) and then the brain is frozen to -130°C halting any decay process. This vitrified brain can then be sliced and observed (automatically) use a new technique that picks up nanoscale structures to identify synapses and connections. As Sebastian Seung, the Connectome father, says: “we are our connectome, replicating your connectome is replicating you, what you know, how you feel, how you love” (see clip).

It is clear from the process they use that we are not talking about uploading your brain, rather we are creating a digital copy of your brain (with the side effect of destroying your real brain – but you can’t have it all, can you?). Such a procedure can be executed once you are close to die to preserve your “information set”… It is different from the cryonics where the idea is to place you into a suspended life state and “resurrect” you so what is bothering you now could be fixed decades from now once technology has progressed to the point of making that possible.

The cost today is staggering, identifying the 135 trillion synapses and their relations is beyond our current “affordability” both in a technology and economic sense. Nectome is showing a technology path to make this possible and it is betting, reasonably if we look at past experience, that it will become economically affordable in some decades from now.

However, leaving aside technology and economics there are some fundamental questions that need to be addressed:

  • The genome and the connectome share the same issue: they are both useless unless you understand how the strings of “letters”/”synapses” translates into meaning. We are just now starting to understand what is the relation between the genotype (the letters in a genome) and its phenotype (what is the result in terms of structures created and behaviours). We are still pretty far from a meaningful picture and very far from a complete picture. The translation of synapses and connections into “information” is even more daunting, personally I will not expect to see a solution in this century. Besides it is not like getting a piece of brain, looking at what’s in it and finding a face, a math formula or the skill of riding a bike.
  • Today we are starting to understand a few connection between the electrical activity going on and the intention expressed by the brain (move the hand, grab the glass ’cause I feel thirsty…). But we haven’t the foggiest idea on how to reverse engineer the synapses and their connections into an expression of electrical activity.
  • Even once we will reach that reverse engineering capability, assuming we will ever will, we will have to capture the status of the sodium and potassium molecules and their exact location (to derive the electrical potential of the cells membranes to evaluate the probability of excitation and therefore of resulting electrical activity). This is even more complex than the already mind-boggling task of mapping the synapses.
  • It is not enough. If you were given the six million parts making a jumbo jet (Boeing 747) would you understand how it behaves? Now multiply that number by 22,500,000 to scratch the complexity of synapses and add on the sodium and potassium molecules to dress it up… There is no hope to understand the information at atomic level.

There is another side of the story that is generating questions that are even more complex to answer, once you have solved all the difficult questions before -that are difficult but basically technologically difficult:

  • When a brain is frozen it contains information that has been frozen at that particular time. How do you tell what information is actually part of the perception and what is a ghost of a past long forgotten (that might be remembered again if proper stimuli are provided).
  • It is reasonable to assume that one would freeze a brain once that person is no longer at her best (i.e. is close to death). Now, in that stage, what is the information that is recorded? Hasn’t a good portion of the information been wiped away by the decaying health? Would the information present represents the person at her brightest state or will they be in synch with the spoiled health state?  It would seem more likely to be the latter, hence what would be the incentive to “copy” a state of unhappiness and preserve it for the future? (the alternative of extracting the brain from a person that is living a blissful moment does not seem to be appealing either…).
  • The processing that eventually results in perception of information, activity, feelings is initiated by some stimuli. Who is going to decide how to stimulate a Vitrifixated brain? Depending on the stimulus you are likely to see completely different thoughts and  information emerge …

As you might perceive, I am not sharing the idea that “I am my connectome”. Yes, I agree that what I perceive, feel, do is the result of the way my connectome is, but such connectome keeps changing and evolving. Taking a snapshot of it is not me. It would be like saying that looking at a frame from a movie is like seeing the movie….

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.