Dr Michio Kaku, City College of New York
Thanks to President Obama’s brain-mapping project, it looks as though we could become immortal by copying our brains and uploading them on to a computer, or even a robot. In this form, that “person” could hypothetically live forever. Michio Kaku is a theoretical physicist who’s been looking into the possibilities and thinks this might be achievable within a generation or two, as he explained to Georgia Mills...
Michio - Well, the digital era has made possible several scenarios. The simplest one is to create a library of souls, whereby, you take a person like Winston Churchill and calculate the sum total of their credit card transactions, their video tapes, interviews, everything. You construct a hologram which then gives you a reasonable facsimile of having a conversation with Winston Churchill. And as more digital information is compiled, you're simulation gets better and better. So the library becomes a library of souls. But the big money as you mentioned is this billion dollar initiative by the European Union and by President Barrack Obama to create a connectome or a map of all the neurons of the brain which in some sense will give us a duplicate of our dreams, our personality, our soul. Our soul reduced to information. So, in the future, we’re going to have two disks. The first disk will be the genome by which our genes can be reproduced forever, but the second will be the connectome with all the neural pathways of the human brain. And then when you die, your genome and your connectome live forever. And so, this is a form of digital immortality.
Georgia - We know how to map out someone’s genome. How would you map out their brain, their connectome?
Michio - Well, there are several ways to do it. First is the slice and dice approach which is very crude, very primitive, whereby you use a microscope and a razor blade and slice the brain. That’s been done with fruit flies for example but is very tedious. More recently is the optogenetics programme coming out of Stanford University whereby we can actually look at neural pathways for certain behaviours by lighting them up with a flashlight. This is amazing – using flashlights to basically work out the neural pathway to certain behaviours. And so, we think that it’s going to take many decades but we will have a connectome with all the neural pathways of the human brain. And then the question is, well, who wants to live inside a computer? Rather boring, right, living forever inside a computer?
Georgia - Yeah, no thank you.
Michio - But you see, we will create surrogates. Surrogates are robots without a mind. They have perfect bodies that can live on Mars, Jupiter and are handsome, beautiful, gorgeous, immortal, and then the connectome of the computer communicates with the surrogate. So, it’s as if you are inside the robot. And so, this could be the future of space exploration that our connectome will basically drive mechanical surrogates, will be superhuman, will be able to live on Jupiter and Mars, and different kinds of hostile environments. And we'll be able to explore the universe in this way, being immortal.
Georgia - So, once we’ve nailed this technique, we could just beam our brains anywhere in the galaxy I suppose.
Michio - Right. In fact, I see that even in the next century, consistent with laws of physics, because I'm a physicist, we’ll be able to put the connectome on a laser beam and shoot the laser beam into outer space. It would take us one second to go to the moon, about 20 minutes to go to Mars, riding on a light beam and on Mars and on the moon would be a surrogate. And so, you would basically live your life as a robot on the moon, Mars or wherever. And so, this is the cheapest, most effective way of space travel. Forget the booster rockets, forget weightlessness, forget cosmic rays. Think about riding consciousness on a light beam...
Georgia - I love this idea of becoming a superhuman robot that can fly around in space and everything. But firstly, would it still be me? Would it not just be a copy and secondly, what about all the things that make us human like having sex, eating? Would they just disappear?
Michio - No. you'll be able to have super sex, you'll be able to have different kinds of phenomenon in sensations that you can only dream of today, and you'll do it in robotic form. Now the question is, is that really you? Well, if you define you as basically the wetware of your brain and the software that governs the wetware, then of course, then when you die, that’s gone. That’s not going to come back. But this is a very reasonable facsimile of you with all your memories, all your personality quirks, everything being digitalised and becoming immortal.
Georgia - Has there any science been done yet that might imply that this could actually happen?
Michio - Yes, on a primitive scale. We are children. Children when it comes to being able to map the brain. But with optogenetics, we’ve been able to actually look at the neural pathways for certain kinds of behaviours. This was once considered far beyond anything we can do and we do it. We used genetic engineering to modify the neurons of a certain pathway so that when you turn on a flashlight, it fires. It fires and by firing, you can actually trace the pathway for certain kinds of behaviours. With a flashlight, you can make a mouse for example chase its tail or a fruit fly take off. And this has changed the entire scientific landscape. In fact, the Nobel Prize will go eventually to the inventor of this technique because it has been a game changer.