AFTER SEVERAL RESCHEDULING MISSIONS, A SHOCKING INABILITY TO CALCULATE TIME ZONE DIFFERENCES, FAILED EXPERIMENTS WITH VIDEO CALLS, AND A WINDOWS UPDATE THAT JUST WOULDN’T QUIT, NEUROSCIENTIST RANDAL KOENE AND MOTHERLAND EDITOR RAVINA RAWAL FINALLY ‘SIT ACROSS’ EACH OTHER AT 3 A.M. IST TO DISCUSS WHOLE BRAIN EMULATION, SUBSTRATE-INDEPENDENT MINDS, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, AND POTENTIALLY PSYCHOTIC FRUIT FLIES.
‘UPLOADING THE HUMAN MIND TO A COMPUTER…’ RIGHT. ARE YOU HAVING AN EXISTENTIAL CRISIS, OR HAVE YOU FOUND THE ANSWER TO LIFE, THE UNIVERSE AND EVERYTHING?
Well, I wasn’t having an existential crisis until Windows hijacked my laptop. That changed everything because I suddenly realised I have no control over my own technology. I’m not used to it — I come from a background in Linux where you always have control over everything… Wait, you’re seriously asking me if I had an existential crisis and if that has something to do with the whole plan for Substrate-Independent Minds? [Laughs]
[Laughs] Uh huh. Okay… The people who are interested in pursuing those kinds of questions really enjoy the journey — they’re looking to keep working on [them], they don’t necessarily believe they will have one single answer [to life] someday. And I think that does actually correspond to my perceptive; I really do enjoy that journey. That’s one of the reasons I got into this — this notion of exploring, discovering and doing things, being able to create stuff, and the sort of hurdles that we come across in that journey. Our limitations, and how to overcome them — be it physical or mental — so you have the chance to continue further on that route of exploration.
Some people think it’s a good idea to research stem cells and see if stem cells can help you rejuvenate and live longer; others think it’s a good idea to invest in… I don’t know… cryonic preservation in the hope that someday someone will be able to bring you back out of stasis, repair whatever damage there is, and let you continue living. Some people think that it’s about building Artificial Intelligence (AI) and hoping that the AI will give you answers or, you know, figure out the stuff we can’t right now.
The fact that I care about what’s going on in the universe is all because of these mental processes, the way I experience the universe — my feelings, my thoughts, my memories, all of that takes places in my mind, just like it takes place in your mind. The things that I don’t have any perception of — the things I’m not experiencing, basically — don’t exist for me, they’re not part of my universe. So the whole exploration aspect is about what can you experience, what’s going on in your mind, and the target becomes about overcoming limitations of the mind.
I’m basing things on my belief that you can describe almost anything in nature in terms of mathematics.
Again, there are lots of different ways of approaching that: some believe the best way is to meditate, some believe it’s to build brain machine interfaces. Mine is similar to the brain machine interface approach, it’s just a little bit more extreme. I believe that ultimately the way to go about it is to have complete access to everything going on in the mind, so that you can see what’s happening there — you can record it, monitor it, change, modify and build on it; you can understand the functions and extend them. For instance, you might be able to give yourself actual, real memory… so you’re not just recreating events that seem plausible from the past, but actually able to recall what happened. Similarly, you might be able to enhance the speed at which you think, so you can keep pace with the information rate at which it’s being produced… things like that.
So how are you going to do that? Eventually, no matter what, biology has certain limitations; for instance, your neurons can only fire so fast. You have to be able to take [everything that’s] there, and run it on a different platform that doesn’t have those limitations, or at least have complete access to the information that’s there. And that’s where this search for what we’re calling Substrate-Independent Minds achieved through a process such as, for example, Whole Brain Emulation comes in.
I’VE READ SOMEWHERE (EVERYWHERE) THAT ONE OF THE MAIN THINGS THAT NUDGED YOU DOWN THIS PATH WAS ARTHUR C. CLARKE’S CITY OF STARS. IT’S A CUTE STORY, BUT I’M NOT CONVINCED. I MEAN, WE ALL READ BOOKS AND THERE ARE THINGS WE ARE FORCED TO THINK ABOUT, AND EVEN BE MOTIVATED TO FURTHER EXPLORE, BUT WAS THERE ANY OTHER TRIGGER? OR DID YOU FINISH THE BOOK AND SAY “HEY, I’M GOING TO EMULATE THE HUMAN BRAIN AND BLOW EVERYONE’S MINDS BY UPLOADING THEM TO A COMPUTER?”
[Laughs] Every time I do an interview, people seem to love the idea that somebody is 13 years old, and reading a book and that inspires them to go off and change their entire lives about it. People love that story for some reason; I mean, it’s true, I did read that story, I did like it, and it happened to fit into things I was already thinking about but let’s be real… It’s not that simple. My dad is a particle physicist — he always talks about the universe as all these processes that are going on, and how it’s about understanding them and seeing yourself as part of that, so we’re not really that different from anything else in the universe… This was the sort of thinking that I was being brought up with from the earliest age. Eventually, you start to think in those directions and yes, then you add some inspiration to that — the Arthur C. Clarke story was good inspiration because it confirmed my own thinking about how you could treat not just physical things like the body and cities, but also mental processes as something that could be described and represented.
I UNDERSTAND THAT WHAT YOU’RE DOING IS A LOT MORE COMPLEX, BUT THERE ARE ALREADY ARTIFICIAL NEURAL NETWORKS THAT EXIST, WHICH ARE BASED ON PREVIOUS BEHAVIOUR/PATTERNS (PREDICTIVE TEXT AND ATMS, FOR INSTANCE). HOW DIFFERENTLY WILL A SIM BEHAVE? ALSO: ARE YOU SAYING THE BRAIN IS NOTHING BUT A BUNCH OF COMPUTATIONS, AND BASING EVERYTHING ON THAT?
I’m basing things on my belief that you can describe almost anything in nature in terms of mathematics. And if you put mathematics into a computer, it can use that to make predictions for what is supposed to happen next, and then you’ve got computation. So making computational models is just the logical outcome of applying the scientific method to things in the world. And I do think that it is a good method, a good way of looking at things, so yeah.
BREAK DOWN SUBSTRATE-INDEPENDENT MINDS (SIM) FOR US?
I should start just by saying what it means. ‘Substrate-Independent Mind’ is a name that I came up with to describe the goal. As I mentioned before, the goal is to be able to access what’s going on in the mind at the level that we care about it, the level of our experience. For instance, I am not, in my experience, aware of which synapse I’m using somewhere, I’m not aware of which neuron is processing something, or which neurotransmitter is being used somewhere. But I am aware of perceptions, of emotions, of thoughts. We’re trying to get access to that, and then we want to be able to work with it not just in biology, but also on other platforms, find other ways of processing the same information — because that’s where you get all the gains, the ability to do things differently, faster, better.
Some people use sci-fi terminology like “mind uploading” and I’m not against that because it’s very evocative, but it’s also very vague. It confuses people because you think it’s just about storing information somewhere, or that it’s a disembodied zero-substrate mind, which is not what I mean at all. The SIM is still a mind, it’s just not dependent on the single (biological) substrate that we have right now. It lets you take data and work with it elsewhere. But how do you do that?
There are a lot of different ways you might approach that problem. But because I look at this from the perspective of making representations as we do in the scientific method all the time, I’m trying to get to that abstraction level where we still have what we care about, that which creates all of our cognitive functions and everything that we are, but is not dependent on a lower level biological aspect… we’re trying to avoid the biophysics, and have a system that is more dependent on what we can do with it.
We want to be able to capture just the part that we care about, and that’s a process that we already know in other areas. For example, in computing, if you have program that you can run on your Mac but you’d like to be able to run it on a different computer, maybe a Windows computer if it’s not updating at that moment — [Laughs] yes, that’s still bothering me! — then what you need is a Mac-emulator. A little program that runs on the Windows computer, pretending it’s a Mac, so you can run the same program on it, and get the same result. Let’s just imagine, as an analogy, that that’s your mind, and you want to produce the same result. You want to have the same feelings and perceptions, so you need an emulator that can run the same system but on some different platform/ hardware. That’s why we’re calling this process ‘Whole Brain Emulation’ (WBE).
The name seems to have stuck well enough that now other scientists and the neurosciences are using it also, though they often leave out the “Whole” bit of it, and just talk about brain emulation. And it’s a nice piece of terminology because it distinguishes it somewhat from what you were talking about earlier, these other neural network models, which I like to call simulations — and I’d like to make that difference here: an emulation is when you want the program to produce the same result, you want it to work the way you expect that program to work; a simulation is more general, it’s when you’re trying to show what a typical program might look like[…]
The neural networks they’ve built at the Human Brain Project, for instance, were constructed using statistical data about the brains of many different animals (many different rats, many different mice… multiple species, and multiple animals in every species). They deduced information about what a typical [cortical] minicolumn and the cortex looks like and then they set up something that looks like it could be the minicolumn in one of those animals. Which means you might come across something like that somewhere, but it’s not a representation of a specific piece of neural circuit from any one of the animals, it’s just a simulation of something that looks architecturally plausible.
‘Mind-uploading’ is very evocative, but it’s also vague. You think it’s just about storing all your information somewhere, or that it’s a disembodied zerosubstrate mind, which is not what I mean at all.
SO I SUPPOSE YOU’RE COMPLETELY DISMISSING THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE MIND AND DUALISM, WHERE SENSORY INPUTS ARE BELIEVED TO BE PROCESSED THROUGH THE BRAIN AND THEN THE IMMATERIAL SPIRIT…
I’m personally not a dualist. I haven’t seen any evidence of anything that indicates something that was connected with my brain in an epiphenomenal way. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
Of course it’s impossible to prove a negative, so I cannot prove that there isn’t an immaterial soul that is somehow connected with the brain in a way that science has not yet been able to show in any way whatsoever; and that we just cannot observe or detect it — that’s totally possible. But I’m also not assuming that there is one, because why would I? You try to use Occam’s Razor — the simplest possible explanation for a phenomenon [is most often correct] — rather than a more complicated one that adds extra factors that you have no evidence for.
But that said, assume for a moment that dualism were right; assume there is a spirit, what would that spirit be connected with? The spirit would be connected with your biological brain in some way, right? Now, if your biological brain moves to some other substrate and that’s where those processes are running, wouldn’t that also be the most likely place that your spirit would connect with (rather than, say, not connect with)? So who’s to say that it wouldn’t work in the case of dualism? You can’t prove that either.
YOU SAID IT’S NOT GOING TO BE DISEMBODIED… HELP ME IMAGINE A WORLD IN WHICH SIMS ARE ALL OVER THE PLACE. AND DO WE STILL HAVE THINGS LIKE AN EMOTIONAL RADAR?
There’s another way of approaching this that makes it way easier to imagine, and it’s also the much more likely first method in which Whole Brain Emulation will be achieved. I’m not going to use the term WBE for the moment, let me instead talk about neuroprosthesis. Just like a prosthetic arm, for instance, is an artificial arm connected to your body, if you have neuroprosthesis, it means that some part of your brain has been replaced. This is something that is [already] happening — not just externally (as in cochlear and retinal implants) but there are also ongoing projects for neuroprosthesis in parts that are much deeper in the brain, like the hippocampal prosthesis that now several labs are working on. These trials — on rodents and primates — are now moving gradually into human patients. That is a demonstration, first of all, that you can actually treat the brain like a machine that processes information; it’s nice to know that that’s possible.
Now let’s look at what we were talking about before — Whole Brain Emulation — as a matter of neuroprosthesis. If you can build a prosthetic replacement part for one piece of the brain, there’s nothing to stop you from being able to do it for much larger regions. If you were to replace pieces one at a time, and you just keep on living while these bits and pieces are all being replaced, ultimately your entire brain would be artificial, a prosthetic brain… but it would still be your brain. So this is kind of what you can imagine as a simplest version, the one that requires the least imagination — of something being totally different, but the one that is also the closest to the actual development path towards WBE, the work that is really going on right now.
BUT IF YOU’RE EMULATING MY ENTIRE BRAIN, THEN IS THAT STILL REALLY ME? SURE, IT’S STILL HUMAN, BUT IS THAT STILL WHO I WAS/AM/WOULD BE IF IT WERE MY BIOLOGICAL BRAIN? WOULD I CONTINUE TO HAVE THE SAME EXPERIENCE AFTER WBE? FOR INSTANCE, IF WE EMULATED BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN’S BRAIN AND THEN HE DIED, WOULD “HE” OR HIS MUSIC CONTINUE TO EVOLVE, AND HAVE THAT ARC OR WOULD IT BE RESTRICTED TO THE KIND OF STUFF HE’S ALREADY DONE?
Those are really two different questions that you’re asking. One: is it still going to be you? Yes. That’s entirely the goal. So the whole point of me talking about emulation instead of simulation is that we are trying to make sure it is so detailed that the replacement parts we’re talking about here replace how you would be processing information, emotion, or thought — and that’s exactly how the hippocampal prosthetic that [neuroscientist and biomedical engineer] Theodore Berger’s team was working on works as well. It analyses the original circuitry: it does something called System Identification to figure out how the original circuitry is processing input and turning it into output. What are the actual things going on in there? And once it figures out enough about that, it can predict the sort of ways in which that same circuitry would process new information. And this is the basic idea for all of the rest of parts of the brain.
So yes, the idea is to make something that would be like you.
Now, the second part of that question — which way would Bruce Springsteen have evolved say, for instance, in biology versus in WBE… that’s a very good question. But it’s also a question that makes you wonder about biology itself. See, the problem with biology is that it’s full of chaotic processes[…] The brain can predict its own functions, the different regions of the brain can talk to each other, and there are a lot of systems in there that try to make sure of this — like the oscillations in the brain try to keep patterns happening at a specific time so one region can talk to the next and deliver information there. You use many neurons instead of one so that you have redundancies — so even if one neuron is unreliable the whole group together is reliable. Stuff like that going on in the brain to make it more predictable.
We are already X-Men
At the same time, it’s not going to be 100% predictable. You can never make a system that will work exactly like another one when that system is analogue, when it has things that are not digitally predefined, and that is true even in biology itself. If you took the biological Springsteen and you allowed him to think for a second, observed his brain state, then wound the clock back to that same moment where you started and ran it again, it would produce a different outcome — so even the biological brain would produce something that makes sense, is expected, something that would be a human, but it wouldn’t be exactly the same.
So just like the biology cannot reproduce itself, the emulation can’t reproduce exactly what the biology would have become either. Nothing is completely predictable, if you want to get down to fine atomic precision of these things. There’s always some uncertainty.
SO ONCE THE WBE HAS HAPPENED, THE EXPERIENCE AFTER AND THE EXPERIENCES PAST — DOES IT REMAIN ONE CONTINUOUS JOURNEY, OR IS THERE SOME SORT OF PAUSE/RESET INVOLVED? BECAUSE YOUR PAST EXPERIENCES SERVE AS REMINDERS TO HELP BETTER NAVIGATE YOUR FUTURE EXPERIENCES — SO I GUESS… WELL, IS IT THE SAME THING, OR IS MY QUESTION COMPLETELY INSANE?
It’s not insane, it’s a very good question. A question that I would ask in return, though, is how much do you feel that your memories and your past is an unbroken sort of continuum versus something that informs you through cues? When you think back to yourself five years ago, how much do you feel like you’re the same person? If you met yourself on the street, could that be a stranger just as well, because you’ve developed so much in the interim? In some sense, every moment is a new you.
Once you have that ability, then where your mind is operating or being processed, will have very little to do with where you are physically interacting with the world.
WHAT I MEAN IS THAT YOU’RE A SUM OF YOUR EXPERIENCES. MY FUTURE BEHAVIOURS DEPEND ON WHAT I’VE EXPERIENCED IN THE PAST — NOT TO GET BURNT BY HOT COFFEE, TRUST, THINGS LIKE THAT. THERE’S SOME SORT OF USEFUL INFORMATION EMBEDDED IN MY SUBCONSCIOUS — A COPING MECHANISM, IF YOU LIKE, THAT HELPS ME DEAL BETTER WITH THINGS NOW THAN BEFORE. NO?
That would be the same, yeah. There’s no reason why that would be any different. You have memories, and what you’re calling subconscious aspects of that is actually also memories. Memory isn’t just this thing where you can recognise a face somewhere; memory is everything including how you play the piano, how you walk or move, or how you feel things… all of those are connected with memories, of different learned behaviours, so all of that affects you now. In the same way, if you took all of that and you were running that same set of memories, but just using artificial neurons instead of biological neurons, there’s no reason why that would suddenly change. You would still be acting in accordance with your past experiences, with your characteristics, your personality, or how you’ve developed throughout the years — everything that has happened to you is still present in the emulated brain, so it would be an unbroken continuation.
SO WHAT GOES INTO ACTUALLY EMULATING THE BRAIN? DO YOU HAVE TO FULLY UNDERSTAND EACH BRAIN SEPARATELY, OR CAN YOU BUILD A CHUNK OF IT FOLLOWING A FORMULA, AND THEN JUST CUSTOMISE BITS…? WHAT’S THE PROCESS?
How would you eventually do the upload to an emulation or a SIM? Well, you could do it in a number of different ways, two of which I’ve already mentioned — one is the bit by bit replacement sort of neural prosthetic approach, and the other is the one where you scan a brain and you create a ‘scanning copy’. But that’s not where we are right now, we’re still trying to get there. In trying to get there, you could do a whole bunch of different things — one is yes, you can explore how brains work in general to try to get an idea of the system and its parts that helps you predict a lot about it, and everyone in neuroscience is doing very useful things in that direction.
Then there are specific things that you could do to work theoretically on WBE — one is working with very small brains that are more manageable right now. So if we are talking, for instance, about insects like the fruit fly — a favourite animal to work with because it’s small, it only has a few tens of thousands of neurons, and its brain is something that people can handle on the current microscopes and recording technology. It looks like we will be able to get all the structural and functional data from a brain like that within a few years. That’ll give us at least the connectivity of everything and what neurons are where, so we’ll have an example of how to build the technology to be able to get all that structure and functional data, and then to make this mapping from what you’ve measured to something that actually works to an emulation — that’s kind of the next step. When you can do that for a small brain, then in principle you have what you need to do it with a larger brain. Because even though it’s an insect, the way neurons and synapses work is very similar between animals all the way up to humans, so it’s mostly a matter of scale.
The neuroprosthetic approach — building small replacement parts for pieces of the brain and then working your way up by expanding into other parts of the brain, and figuring out how to work with those… that’s another very good way to move forward.
But you can see that this is something that not just one person or one lab somewhere does in isolation — this is really a huge network of people working together using different approaches, learning from each other, gaining from what the other side has achieved, and being able to use that in their approach so that hopefully, ultimately you get to a process that is reliable and that you have already tested in many other cases (such as parts of brains, and animals), so it’s not like you’re just suddenly trying something on humans.
SO WHAT PART OF ALL THIS ARE YOU INVOLVED WITH PERSONALLY?
There are a few different levels at which I work. The one that I’ve been associated with for the longest, and that I still carry out, is kind of an overarching integrated approach. I told you how there’s this big network of different labs — I’m trying to make sure that all of this is moving forward towards WBE. So I’m in touch with many of these labs, I work with their projects in one way or another, and make sure that the right collaborations happen. So it’s a more top level thing. I guess I like calling it “architecting”, which is a term someone from The New York
Times came up with for the kind of activity I do — I thought it was a nice title.
Then there’s my collaboration with the 2045 initiative, but the thing that I’m most personally interested in and working on, is actually this neuroprosthetic approach. I could go into more detail maybe in six months, but right now we’re in the confidential phase where I’m not supposed to be talking about that.
OK. LET’S GO BACK TO HELPING ME IMAGINE A WHOLE BRAIN EMULATED WORLD. FREE OF OUR BIOLOGICAL CONSTRAINTS — WHICH IS REALLY ALL THAT’S HOLDING US BACK — I IMAGINE WE’D BE ABLE TO EXPLORE THE UNIVERSE MORE FULLY. WE COULD SURVIVE GLOBAL DISASTERS, GO CLOSE UP TO THE SUN, AND SO ON. IN THAT SENSE, YOU ARE ABSTRACTING THE BRAIN FROM THE BIOLOGICAL BODY, ARE YOU NOT? WHAT’S IT GOING TO LOOK LIKE TO SOMEONE WHO JUST WALKED INTO THE ROOM?
Honestly, I think this is an area where sci-fi authors will have more luck speculating and imagining than I will. I spend so much of my time with my nose in the technological problems that I don’t actually spend a lot of time imagining all the other possibilities. What I do imagine is the reasons why we do it… to overcome our limitations, what are the challenges we can handle as a species… It’s really important to me to make us adaptable so we are not stuck in this particular niche.
But okay, going from there… once you have that ability, well, one thing you could imagine is, for instance, that where your mind is operating physically, where it’s physically being processed, will have very little to do with where you are physically interacting with the world. Your brain, or your mind, could be in a cloud, just like programs today can be [stored] in the cloud… which means they’re running from some system somewhere, and you don’t even need to know where it is, as long as it has enough back up processes that you know it’s not going to crash, and you can keep backing it up, then you’re fine.
But the ways you’re interacting with the universe could also change — because you could have all types of different bodies with different kinds of senses and things like that. So what this really means, if you’re thinking about it, is that there’s gonna be a lot of diversity, a lot of divergence. People will try out all sorts of things. You may be one thing one day and another thing the next day. One day you need to be out there in space somewhere, so you need to be in a robot body that can handle that vacuum. The next day you could be in cyberspace exploring something with your family, and the day after that, you’re underwater and trying to experience what it’s like to breathe water through your gills or something. I see more directions of exploration, and that’s really what adaptability is about, that diversity. So that’s really the goal, and if it gets there, we’ve achieved what I think this whole thing is about.
SO YOU’RE MESSING WITH EVOLUTION, BASICALLY.
[Laughs] So now let me turn that around. What happens if you don’t mess with evolution?
Blurb: “You could have all types of bodies with different kinds of senses. There’s going to be a lot of diversity, a lot of divergence. People will try out all sorts of things. You may be one thing one day and another thing the next day.”
WE GET WIPED OFF THE EARTH AND SENT TO PLAY WITH DINOSAURS.
Right. We all die. That’s what happens whenever a species no longer fits into the age that it happens to be in today. In 100, 1,000 or a million years… at some point, the human species is not going to be optimally suited for whatever’s going on. And then the way that natural selection works is, you get selected out! So either that happens, or we adapt ourselves, we do self-directed evolution.
I have a feeling that if there are other intelligent species in the universe — if there are species that have survived, not just for a few million years like our species has so far, but longer… or that have even had gone beyond their own planet into larger areas of space — if they’re out there somewhere, then I’m pretty sure that they’re a species that has found a way to overcome the limited niche that they’re adapted to, whatever method they’re using. There’s an [existential] problem with only being adapted to one specific suitable set of challenges and environments.
HEY. THAT’S PROBABLY WHY WE HAVEN’T FOUND ALIEN LIFE — BECAUSE WE DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT WE’RE LOOKING FOR…
Exactly! If there’s so much diversity and you can be so many different things, how do you know what you’re looking for? You could be looking for an oxygen signature to see where there are oxygen-breathing life forms, but how do you know that that even matters?
HOLLYWOOD HAS RUINED MY BRAIN SO ALL I’M THINKING OF NOW THAT I HAVE A PICTURE IN MY HEAD ARE THINGS LIKE MALWARE, MACHINES TAKING OVER THE WORLD, DYSTOPIAN CHAOS. IS THERE A WAY TO PREVENT ANY OF THAT?
Yeah, we can’t really prevent everything that’s going to be possible, and people use technology to all sorts of means. There are always those that will try and use it to the benefit of everyone and those who try to use it to the benefit of the few, and this misapplication can lead to some really bad outcomes from time to time. If you look at it so far, it seems to have appealed to the better aspects of our nature, we seem to have skirted the worst of it, but it’s always going to be risky.
There are some things that you can do to improve the chances of a good outcome, and a really important one is access. A dystopian scenario to me begins with only a few having access to a new technology. I think making sure that we see this as something that should be for the benefit of all, that’s always at the forefront of my mind. This is not supposed to be something that only the rich or those in positions of power have access to, and that’s something that can be looked at even now, when we still don’t really understand all possible outcomes. Researchers can make sure their data is available to all, and also invite external reviews. Others can see what works and what doesn’t, and flag that with a warning. For instance, “It seems like what you’re doing here is causing some sort of psychosis in these little fruit fly brains that you’re emulating, I think you’re doing something wrong.” The idea is that many eyes will catch problems in a way that you wouldn’t get in an enclosed system.
That, to me, is an important thing that we can already look at to try and make the future better instead of worse, but beyond that there are really so many things to watch out for that to me it seems often like we are walking into this sort of fog where I can only see just up to the extent of my arm. The best we can do there is maybe not walk off a cliff. It’s also difficult to predict things here because they are too many other things that are also interacting and having an effect on one another. There’s no way that WBE is going to develop in a vacuum — you’re also going to have AI moving along, you’ll have improvements in things like gene technology, and stuff that has nothing to do with technology, such as political and social developments. Those things are very, very important, because they have an impact on what we consider priorities, and what receives our attention and resources. So those things are going to determine a lot about what actually gets developed and how it’s used, in a way that technology doesn’t even have a direct hand in. I think what it really means is that as a researcher on this you can’t just be a researcher, or a scientist who puts their nose in the book and works on that and doesn’t care about anything else. You still have to be a human being who’s part of society and paying attention to things like “Who am I getting money from, and why? What is their motivation?” or “What else is going on in the country right now, what are the social things happening around us?”
As for malware and viruses, well, there’s a chance that something could be changed in the data that you’re collecting. There’s a chance that there’s something like a virus or malware that could be put in place either by accident or malicious intent, of course, and again, that’s something we have to be careful about. But there are real technical solutions to some of the problems – for example, making multiple copies, and being able to check if something changed in one of the copies, identifying where the change is, what happened there; redundancies like that are useful. There’s also encryption and having privacy keys and stuff like that that can help with some of these simpler problems. But I think there are deeper, more challenging potential problems that we can’t even think of right now, so it’s hard to say in advance what you’d do to prevent it.
WHAT HAPPENS TO SEX AND REPRODUCTION?
Well, between biological humans it probably works the same way as right now. [Laughs] But if you don’t have a biological body anymore, and you want to reproduce, then of course there are some other choices to make. Someone who’s Whole Brain Emulated, but wants to reproduce a biological offspring with another WBE…. well, that would be another interesting thing to consider. But if you want to stay within WBE, you could look at, for instance, features of the brains of the two parents or three parents or four — however many parents you want to have — and play around with that to build something… I can’t even imagine all the possibilities… you could take an adult brain and merge parts of that, or you could just take the brain from the person who is now WBE’d and do an inverse fertilisation and still go back to a biological person. I mean, why not? There is already work being done on having an external womb, so a womb in which you could grow a baby that’s not in a person… I don’t think there’s a shortage of ways of coming up with how to have new people… from traditional biological reproduction to something really bizarre and weird that you could do… again, it looks like diversity of exploration.
SO THIS IS NOT TRANSHUMANIST, OR ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE…?
It’s a kind of transhumanism. When people approach me about this, I have to be a little careful. There are two kinds of transhumanists. There’s the transhumanist movement, where it’s a group of people persuading others that this [extending life] is something that they should care about a lot. That’s not entirely my main priority. I think length of life is important, yes, but it’s only one way of many in which we are limited, why shouldn’t we care about those other limitations? And then there are transhumanists who care about that as well. So in the sense that you care about these problems, or think technology can help us address them, I most definitely am a transhumanist. But [my focus] is not necessarily wanting to convince other people one way or another, and I think that’s largely because I think that’s superseded by bigger movements that have been with us since the 1700s. It’s the scientific revolution. Scientific insight and engineering has changed our world, and who we are, in a very rapid process over the past few 100 years — this is part of that. Transhumanists aren’t the first ones to say we should use technology to improve the human condition — that’s been there for a long time.
At some point, the human species is not going to be optimally suited for whatever’s going on. And then the way that natural selection works is, you get selected out! So either that happens, or we adapt ourselves, we do self-directed evolution.
SO EVENTUALLY WE’LL ALL BE X-MEN?
We are already X-Men, that’s the thing, it’s not new. The fact that we can read and write is something completely different from cave people. The fact that we can transmit information from one generation to a much more distant one without that information being just completely garbled or lost along the way is because we have invented reading and writing, which has changed our brain and how we think… that is a kind of superpower. And this is only one example. We have many superpowers compared to previous versions of ourselves, so it’s not an entirely new phenomenon, it’s just at a different level.
OKAY, SO HOW FAR ARE WE FROM THE FIRST SIM, REALLY?
Predictions are all fun even if they end up being wrong, who cares, right? It’s fun to do. [Laughs]
I’m happy to predict this for the fruit fly because I know how far along we are [in that work]. I think it’s reasonable to say we could get all of the data for a specific fruit fly brain in the next eight years, and we could transform that into a working model and get to Version 2 of that emulation model in… maybe 15 years or so? And, as I mentioned before, that’s really just a few scaling factors away from doing the same with other brains. With all that’s happening in neuroprothesis, in maybe 15 years we will have covered all of the necessary basic science and technology developments that are needed for a project like WBE at the level that we’re interested in. From there, how fast it goes depends on a lot of other things, besides science and technology — it’s also available resources, interest, what kind of a priority it gets, whether it’s an open approach or closed. So from there on, the predictions get really difficult so many of those things are not really in my domain… but wild guess? I would say it’s extremely likely within this century. I would be surprised if we didn’t have fully functioning WBE at the end of this century. Then I’d be really disappointed in our progress, that’s ridiculous. Several decades before that? Sure, yeah, if we put in some real effort. But there will also be other approaches to biological life extension in play in this time, so hopefully it’s still true that if you’re alive in 2060, you don’t need to die.
ANY PREDICTIONS FOR SINGULARITY?
I don’t really understand it… what’s going on there? Is it a point where we simply can’t keep up [with machines] and can’t understand what’s happening? That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m trying to prevent – the idea is for us to be able to adapt and handle things, to make sure that we can handle this change, that we’re not going to be just the species that’s left behind while AI does all of the cool stuff.