I recently had the unusual experience of seeing three renowned scientists discuss whether it’s possible to remove a human brain from a body, put it in a tank, and give it a robotic body. This wasn’t some bizarre late-night bar discussion: The conversation was a serious talk conducted on stage at a conference at New York’s Lincoln Center. The University of Southern California’s Theodore Berger, Duke University’s Mikhail Lebedev, and Alexander Kaplan of Moscow University, all believe it’s possible for the brain to survive body-death inside a cybernetic shell.
In their panel at the Global Future 2045 conference, the trio discussed a future that sounds like a combination of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the recent mouse inception, and Krang, the brain-in-a-box villain of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The talk, which took place in a mixture of Russian and English, focused on making it possible in our lifetime to conduct brain transplants, harvesting human parts from the body for cybernetic integration, and making self-aware brains comfortable in their new robot homes. It was just another Saturday afternoon, in other words.
Notably absent from the conversation was what the quality of life would be for human brains harvested into robotic bodies. Although all three researchers come from impeccable neurology backgrounds, the talk centered on mostly whether it would be possible to make the technology work. Whether it would be wise, or what the experience would be like for both patients and loved ones, wasn’t discussed as much.
The three researchers believe brain transplants are possible because the human brain is the last organ in the body to cease function after death. Because the death process includes a short window where the brain functions without support from other organs, Berger, Kaplan, and Lebedev all believe there is precedent to have the human brain functioning indefinitely in a non-human carrier–as long as the appropriate support system is there for the brain. They also stress the fact that nerve cells age slowly compared to other organs.
This brain-in-a-robot would be supported by biological blood substitutes (with “the necessary hormonal-biochemical and energetic substrate”), multi-channel brain-computer interfaces with two-way information exchange, neural prostheses, artificially regrown human organs, and other biotech tools that we can’t even imagine. Because there is no precedent for the human brain surviving and functioning outside of a human body, degrees of consciousness, intelligence, comprehension, and a million other existential quandaries that would or wouldn’t exist in a robo-brain simply aren’t evaluated. The data points aren’t there for us to understand, even if it’s possible to transplant a human brain into a robot, what it’s like to be a human brain transplanted into a robot.
There are even interim holding facilities where living human brains could hypothetically be stored before transplantation.
— Simone Riccardi (@jsimonericcardi) June 15, 2013
While their roundtable discussion admittedly sounded like a master’s exercise in strange science, the kicker is that all three are engaged in preliminary efforts to make this happen. Last year, at the resolutely mainstream MIT Media Lab, I saw Dr. Berger speak about hacking the memories of rats. Berger’s lab at USC is actively working on prosthetic brain implants that both falsify memories and stimulate brain function in damaged neurons. The lab’s work recently received media attention when it successfully generated new memories in a rat that had its hippocampus chemically disabled. In literature, Berger emphasizes his technology’s potential for treating Alzheimer’s and dementia through the possibility of “building spare parts for the brain;” on-stage in New York, he said it could also lead in the future to full-on brain transplants.
This would work in tandem with Kaplan’s and Lebedev’s specialties. The two Russian scientists research brain-computer interfaces (BCIs)–plug-in interfaces which meld the human brain and nervous system to computer operating systems. While BCIs are most commonly found in toys that read brainwaves to detect stress or concentration, they have revolutionary potential to change the lives of stroke victims and the disabled.
When combined, brain prosthetics and brain-computer interfaces could lead to brain transplants decades from now. Would you want to spend decades or even a century living inside a robotic body at the mercy of a software interface to navigate the world? We’re just beginning to grasp the ethical, philosophical, and scientific implications. But with the right amount of funding, research, and cooperation, it’s entirely possible.