In Brief: Uploading Our Brains

By Norman Chan

The idea of the singularity is about to hit the mainstream.

The trailer for Wally Pfister's upcoming movie, Transcendence, worries me. It's not just because despite a prestigious cast of Christopher Nolan collaborators (Pfister was Nolan's cinematographer for years and this is directorial debut), the film looks pretty derivative. It's because of how the film portrays and sensationalizes the idea of artificial intelligence singularity, a concept popularized by current Google engineering director and A.I pioneer Ray Kurzweil. Since 2008, Kurzweil's notion of a computing singularity has been creeping into the public consciousness, with a high-profile Hollywood movie being a potential tipping point for awareness. It either becomes something the public starts to take seriously or brushes off as science-fiction fantasy. The former can be a slippery slope to controversy. But the concept of uploading our consciousness is not new at all, even in pop culture. Star Trek has explored the idea numerous times, notably in the original series episode The Ultimate Computer. The idea has its own TV Tropes page. In real life, neuroscientists are investigating the idea of a "Connectome"--a complete mapping of a single brain's synaptic connections. A snapshot of the brain, if you will. There's even a startup that wants to develop a non-invasive and cost-effective procedure to do it, lowering its cost to that of gene mapping. This Motherboard interview explores some of those concepts with Brain Backups' founder. One interesting assertion: mapping all the connections in a single brain would take between 1,000 and 10,000 terabytes of storage. Seems appropriate for the Petabyte age.