20-09-2010, 04:32 PM
By Ashwin Murali
Man has progressed by leaps and bounds in the field of technology these last few decades, so much so that conjectures that were laughed at in the past are being realized now. Ideas that made science fiction novels interesting, but which were thought to be far fetched and impossible to be implemented are now considered to be within the bounds of technology.
Isaac Asimov, a great thinker and writer of the 20th century has inspired many scientists and engineers from around the world through his novels. We still do not have the technology to implement most of his mind-boggling ideas. Mind Uploading is one of his awe-inspiring inventions. It was introduced in his short story, ‘The Last Question’, in 1956. After about half a century, it was finally put to test.
What is mind uploading? This technique, also called as Brain Emulation, Mind Transfer or Electronic Transcendence, scans and maps a brain and copies it into a computer system or any other computational device. Thus, we create a copy of the original mind – a simulated mind so similar to the original, that it is almost indistinguishable. Such a simulated mind could either be run remotely on a system or it could be attached to a working body, either biological or mechanical.
The emulation of something as complex as a human brain may be considered by skeptics as wishful thinking. But the fact is that mind uploading has already passed the preliminary stages of implementation with satisfactory results.
It was realized by a few scientists that with the technology available today and with the imminent progress expected in this field, it is not wholly impossible to realize mind transfer. Tasks like learning, memorizing etc. which we are capable of doing and consciousness itself are due to purely physical and electrochemical processes that occur in the brain. Provided we understand these processes and the laws governing them, we can perfectly emulate all the tasks the brain performs and thus, create a copy of the brain.
The uses and benefits of this technique are truly astounding! Immortality will soon be possible, at least in a figurative sense. A copy of our mind can be made to run on a computer even after our physical death. This simulated mind can be made to run in a robot or a humanoid too. Even though we may lose our biological body we can continue to live on in a mechanical or biomechanical body with all our thoughts, memories and our consciousness intact. Imagine if the mind of a genius like Albert Einstein had been uploaded. All the conundrums that baffle even the most accomplished scientists today might have been solved!
Another application of this technique is multiple or parallel existence. By creating multiple copies of a person’s mind, we can have a small scale multi-verse of our own. This means that theoretically, we can create parallel universes - that too in a lab. Each universe is a computer system running a copy of a person’s mind. Thus, each of these simulated minds may be tricked into believing that it is unique and exists singly, but in fact there may be a hundred copies of this mind running alongside, each unaware of the others. This can be used to find out in how many different ways a person might react when subjected to the same stimuli.
It is also possible to create a simulated universe with each simulated mind made to believe that it physically exists in a real world, when actually it does not. The sims may be made to run at a slow / fast rate. Thus, it is possible to have older and younger sims and these can be made to interact with each other. We may also pause, rerun, rewind these sims or put them in a loop without their knowledge. It gives a person the opportunity to play God by controlling the ‘lives’ of each of these sims.
There are many issues that might impede the development of this technique. First and foremost are the computational issues. The amount of storage and computational power required is difficult to predict. There are 100 billion neurons or nerve cells in our brain each with a complex structure. Each neuron signals the other through extensions called dendrites. On the release of neurotransmitters in the brain, the signals in the form of electrical impulses are passed between the synapses of two neurons. In order for the simulated mind to work like the original, such a complex structure must also be emulated in the computer. For this we need faster super computers, virtual reality and brain-computer interfaces. With the advent of quantum computers, this will soon be possible. But quantum computing is still in its R&D stage.
We need to consider moral and ethical issues as well. Many people might rebel against the idea saying it is not our place to meddle with God’s creation. Others may not be comfortable with having multiple instances of a person’s mind running at the same time. Legally too, there may some impediments. All the simulated minds can be considered as living persons, though they might not have a physical body to control. It then becomes legally binding to make sure that none of these minds are subjected to human right violations.
The ongoing research of this technique is heartening to see. The Blue Brain Project was started in May 2005 by IBM in collaboration with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. The aim of this project was to create a computer simulation of a mammalian cortical column down to the molecular level and to emulate the electrical behaviour of neurons. IBM’s Blue Gene supercomputer was used for this project. At the end of the project in 2007, an artificial neural network, almost half as complex as a mouse brain was simulated. A simulation time of 1 second took 10 seconds of computer time. The results, though not very accurate were quite satisfactory. It was seen that biologically consistent nerve impulses flowed through the virtual cortex. This project helped in understanding human cognition and psychological conditions like autism.
With breakthroughs in science, mind uploading will soon be perfected and shall no longer remain in the realm of fiction. It has the potential to revolutionize technology and change the way we look at life.