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The Neuroscientist Who Wants to Upload Humanity to a Computer

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The human brain Chris Parsons/Getty Images

Randal Koene is recruiting top neuroscientists to help him make humans live forever

For Popular ScienceAdam Piore writes: Everything felt possible at Transhuman Visions 2014, a conference in February billed as a forum for visionaries to "describe our fast-approaching, brilliant, and bizarre future." Inside an old waterfront military depot in San Francisco's Fort Mason Center, young entrepreneurs hawked experimental smart drugs and coffee made with a special kind of butter they said provided cognitive enhancements. A woman offered online therapy sessions, and a middle-aged conventioneer wore an electrode array that displayed his brain waves on a monitor as multicolor patterns.

By mapping the brain, reducing its activity to computations, and reproducing those computations in code, humans could live indefinitely...

On stage, a speaker with a shaved head and a thick, black beard held forth on DIY sensory augmentation. A group called Science for the Masses, he said, was developing a pill that would soon allow humans to perceive the near-infrared spectrum. He personally had implanted tiny magnets into his outer ears so that he could listen to music converted into vibrations by a magnetic coil attached to his phone.

The concept of brain emulation has a long, colorful history in science fiction, but it’s also deeply rooted in computer science.

None of this seemed particularly ambitious, however, compared with the claim soon to follow. In the back of the audience, carefully reviewing his notes, sat Randal Koene, a bespectacled neuroscientist wearing black cargo pants, a black T-shirt showing a brain on a laptop screen, and a pair of black, shiny boots. Koene had come to explain to the assembled crowd how to live forever. ''As a species, we really only inhabit a small sliver of time and space,''Koene said when he took the stage. ''We want a species that can be effective and influential and creative in a much larger sphere.'' Koene's solution was straightforward: He planned to upload his brain to a computer.

By mapping the brain, reducing its activity to computations, and reproducing those computations in code, Koene argued, humans could live indefinitely, emulated by silicon. ”When I say emulation, you should think of it, for example, in the same sense as emulating a Macintosh on a PC,” he said. ”It’s kind of like platform-independent code.”

Koene’s solution was straightforward: He planned to upload his brain to a computer. By mapping the brain, reducing its activity to computations, and reproducing those computations in code, Koene argued, humans could live indefinitely, emulated by silicon. “When I say emulation, you should think of it, for example, in the same sense as emulating a Macintosh on a PC,” he said. “It’s kind of like platform-independent code.”

The audience sat silent, possibly awed, possibly confused, as Koene led them through a complex tour of recent advances in neuroscience supplemented with charts and graphs. Koene has always had a complicated relationship with transhumanists, who likewise believe in elevating humanity to another plane. A Dutch-born neuroscientist and neuro-engineer, he has spent decades collecting the credentials necessary to bring his fringe ideas in line with mainstream science. Now, that science is coming to him. Researchers around the globe have made deciphering the brain a central objective. In 2013, both the U.S. and the EU announced initiatives that promise to accelerate brain science in much the same way that the Human Genome Project advanced genomics. The minutiae may have been lost on the crowd, but as Koene departed the stage, the significance of what they just witnessed was not: The knowledge necessary to achieve what Koene calls “substrate independent minds” seems tantalizingly within reach.

The concept of brain emulation has a long, colorful history in science fiction, but it’s also deeply rooted in computer science. An entire subfield known as neural networking is based on the physical architecture and biological rules that underpin neuroscience…(read more)

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