This Startup Wants to ‘Back Up Your Mind’ (But It Has to Kill You First)
The technique one day could mean scientists are able to simulate all the information held in your brain.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Suppose an entrepreneur came up to you and asserted their company could 'back up your mind', preserving your brain so future scientists one day could extract or even update its data? Pretty cool, yes? And what if they told you they could do so right down to the synapses level, to the extent that the brain data might even let you be, in a sense, reborn or, in another sense, immortalized? Still cool, right?
OK, great! Just sign on the line! You won't even feel it as the company--Nectome--offs you.
Nectome's co-founder, Robert McIntyre, is following precedent in that scientists have been preserving brains and other body parts for research and medicine for years. And he's like other professionals in that he compares the brain to a computer, having a vision of one day being able to upload and simulate the data it holds. But as Antonio Regalado summarizes in his article for MIT Technology Review, McIntyre veers from convention in that his new preservation process, aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation, pumps special embalming chemicals into the carotid arteries of the neck while you are still alive. The technique, which is done under anesthesia, means the brain can be kept intact for hundreds or even thousands of years. But it also kills you.
The very tiny target market
Now, just calm down a little.
McIntyre doesn't want just anybody to walk into his offices and get preserved. He's got a very specific niche market in mind: The idea is to present the service to terminally ill individuals who want to undergo doctor-assisted suicide. These individuals might feel empowered by being able to choose the time and method of their death. And like others who donate their bodies to science, they might take solace in knowing that, if they do have to die, researchers can learn from them and use the knowledge to advance the world.
And some very big hurdles
Critics of Nectome say that McIntyre (and anyone else who would start a similar company) is preying on people's natural fear of death. They assert that individuals like McIntyre know that people take some comfort in the idea of somehow living on after they pass away, and that businesses promise this to clients even though the techniques required for actually simulating brain data haven't even been invented yet. And scientists still don't yet know what the actual results of the simulation will look like. What's truly required to preserve memories, a state of consciousness or personality, for example? And wouldn't brain banks be an additional burden on future generations?
But the biggest hindrance to Nectome might be in law. Currently, physician-assisted suicide is legal in just six states and Washington, D.C. (The states include Oregon, Vermont, California, Montana, Colorado and Washington.) That means that, even if McIntyre's niche market responds well, many terminally ill patients won't have access to the service unless they are willing to move to a region that accepts the process. Whereas other companies can grow at a rate based on demand, McIntyre can grow only as fast as each state is willing to change its legislation, and legislation can be logistically slow to pass even with popular support.
But change with big ethical implications has happened before. The biggest most recent example might be within the cannabis industry. The legal status of marijuana is evolving rapidly, with nine states and Washington D.C. having passed legislation for recreational use since 2012. The legalization of same-sex marriage is another example of quickly-shifting viewpoints that has influenced many businesses. McIntyre might find that views on doctor-assisted suicide shift in a similar way, especially given that elements like increasing pollution and the growing size of the senior population might continue to increase the number of individuals diagnosed with terminal conditions.
Putting money behind the concept
And make no mistake. Investors and customers already are at McIntyre's door. At least 25 people have paid $10,000--fully refundable if they change their minds--to be put on Nectome's waiting list. The company has $1 million in funding so far and even has won a grant worth $960,000 from the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health for its technology. And next week, McIntyre, who believes we have a degree of obligation to preserve the collective wisdom of generations, plans to pitch the idea to investors at Y Combinator's demo days.
While I can't say what is "right" or "wrong" in this case, I do wonder how this might connect to future AI systems and affect the definition of what a "person" even is. McIntyre isn't the first entrepreneur to raise the "should we" question, and my bet is, he won't be the last, either. It's merely a question of where the next shock and debate will come from next.