Do you want to be a time traveller (technically, at least)? Have you ever thought about living forever? Does the whole “death” thing sound a bit passé to you? Well, you’re in luck, because according to research from a new California startup, you can upload your brain to the cloud, meaning that some version of you can, in fact, live forever.
There’s just one catch: You have to — here’s the thing, you sort of… have to… well, die. The product is “100 percent fatal,” Robert McIntyre, the founder of Nectome told MIT Technology Review last month.
“Nectome is a preserve-your-brain-and-upload-it company,” writes Antonio Regaldo for the MIT Technology Review. “Its chemical solution can keep a body intact for hundreds of years, maybe thousands, as a statue of frozen glass. The idea is that someday in the future scientists will scan your bricked brain and turn it into a computer simulation. That way, someone a lot like you, though not exactly you, will smell the flowers again in a data server somewhere.”
The process — according to the statement McIntyre sent us — is called vitrifixation (also known as Aldehyde-Stabilized Cryopreservation), and no, preparing corpses for reanimation isn’t its primary purpose. According to Nectome’s website, vitrifixation is a bit like temporarily preserving an organ in formaldehyde until it’s ready to be cryogenically frozen.
“We use the powerful chemical fixative glutaraldehyde to rapidly solidify synapses and prevent decay,” Nectome states on their website. “However, brains can still slowly degrade even when fixed with glutaraldehyde. To solve this problem, we use extreme cold (-122°C!) to extend storage times to hundreds of years.”
While McIntyre believes that vitrifixation is a powerful research tool that offers immense benefits to society, he stresses that the technology remains nascent. “The most important point is that the technology is still in the research phase as we work toward building a way to preserve memories,” McIntyre tells us. “There’s a lot of interest in what this technology will look like in the future, but regardless of the headlines, it’s important to know that we do not currently offer clinical brain preservation, nor do we plan to offer it in the near future.”
Which is somewhat of a buzzkill if you’re ready to ditch your flubbery body for some simulated wonderland where love handles and stretch marks don’t exist. But if embalming your brain sounds like something you might be interested in — y’know, in the future, when it maybe could be real — there’s another thing standing between you and immortality that has nothing to do with dying: It costs $10,000 just to get on the Nectome wait list, which according to the same MIT Technology Review article, already has 25 people on it.
Again, though, the reward is, essentially, immortality, your brain living forever in some data server where your thoughts — even the dumb ones — can live on to humor future generations. “If the brain is dead, it’s like your computer is off, but that doesn’t mean the information isn’t there,” Ken Hayworth, a neuroscientist told MIT Technology Review. And though currently there’s no way to map every single nerve connection in the brain (considering a single nerve is connected to 8,000 other nerves), Hayworth thinks that in 100 years or so, things could be different. “Speaking personally, if I were facing a terminal illness I would likely choose euthanasia by [this method],” says Hayworth.
At this point, it’s fair to think that this all sounds exactly like a real life Black Mirror episode. But keep in mind that the obsession with future technologies capable of turning your brain into a computer simulation is about as old as the male obsession with living forever.
Last year, my colleague John McDermott wrote about why it’s mostly men who are obsessed with the singularity, the theorized moment where a technological superintelligence becomes so advanced that it no longer needs human beings to function:
“The overwhelmingly male interest in the singularity is a function of the same social factors that simultaneously encourages men and discourages women from taking an interest in technology, according to Lydia Nicholas, researcher at Nesta, a British charitable organization that promotes the use of technology to address social issues. “It’s only men I know who are concerned about the singularity,” she says. “I know men like that. I’ve dated men like that. And it’s usually a typical type of man,” she added.
The appeal might seem limited to fans of bad Johnny Depp movies, but going by the amount of funding Nectome has raised, there’s clearly a customer base out there. Aside from receiving one million dollars in funding by Y Combinator (a company that provides seed funding for startups), Nectome is also being funded by none other than the bastion of spending your tax dollars on things you don’t really want: The U.S. government. “[The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health] supports this endeavour in the hope that it may lead to avenues in ‘brain preservation,’” reports News Medical.
If our virtual bodies end up feeling as real as our physical ones, a future where human beings ditch their flesh sacks and engage in immortal, interstellar travel via computer codes could be as mindblowing and liberating as the feeling senior citizens experience when they put on VR goggles. And the potential for new, currently impossible experiences is equally tantalizing: “We’ll be routinely able to change our bodies very quickly as well as our environments,” Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, told The Daily Mail in 2013. “If we had radical life extension only we would get profoundly bored and we would run out of thing to do and new ideas.”
Thinking beyond just your own immortality, McIntyre believes the potential for brain preservation could help current generations pass along their wisdom to future ones. “Right now, when a generation of people die, we lose all their collective wisdom,” McIntyre told MIT Technology Review. “You can transmit knowledge to the next generation, but it’s harder to transmit wisdom, which is learned. Your children have to learn from the same mistakes.”
But let’s think about this for one more second using your still functioning and not-embalmed brain. Do you really think that in some unforeseeable future, where the planet is on fire and the only thing left to eat is canned beans (because there’s always canned beans leftover), people are going to actually take the time to unbox some old brains and turn them back on?
One redditor certainly doesn’t think so:
Imagine 100 years into the future. Imagine future-world has the tech to recreate consciousness from these preserved brains.
A: “So, want to unfreeze a bunch of people from 100 years ago despite our ever dwindling resources?”
B: “…. to be honest, not really. Let’s go get a vat burger!”
Yeah, that sounds about right.