The brain. Famously said by Woody Allen to be his “second-favourite organ”. The brain. The key component used by Baron von Frankenstein to create his creature (too bad that he had to use the damaged brain of a criminal instead of a healthy brain- damn that clumsy Igor!).
Whereas organ transplants are common these days, there has been no known attempt to effect a human brain transplant. But advances in understanding that most complex part of our body are being made.
A 65 year old European woman donated her brain to science five years ago. Over the next half a decade, the brain was sliced into extremely thin strips and then studied and copied into a computer programme known as “BigBrain”. The brain can be viewed at virtually cellular level- zooming in to a resolution of just 20 microns across (a millimetre is 1000 microns). The information is being shared; reserachers worldwide are able to download digital slices of the computerised BigBrain to assist their own research projects.
Prof. Katrin Amunts at Dusseldorf’s Heinrich Heine University said:
“It is impossible to understand the function of the brain without knowing its anatomy, and its microstructure in particular. Brain structure and function go hand-in-hand.”
The donated brain was immersed in paraffin and transported to the University in Germany. A custom built bacon-slicer was used to cut the brain into nearly 7,500 separate slices, each the thickness of plastic food wrap. The slices were then stained, mounted on slides, and then scanned onto a computer. At McGill University in Canada, computer scientists then used this to create a 3D model, BigBrain, taking up a terabyte of computer memory. The project is ongoing; the next step is to use the BigBrain to simulate the entire workings of the brain.
At what point might BigBrain comes self-aware within the computer? We are told that that is not possible…
It’s been talked about often over the past years, but as advances in artificial intelligence, understanding how our brains work, and computers become faster and smarter, means that it could be decades rather than centuries before we will be able to upload the complete contents of our brain to a computer. We’d be storing memories, personality, abilities and knowledge.
But then we die. Even with all the advances in medical sciences there is a limit to how long life can be prolonged unless a cure for random cell mutation is found. Yep, cancer is likely to get us all in the end- it’s the ultimate backstop to stop us living forever.
But if you have all your brain’s content stored on a computer, the possibilities of how one can retrieve them after death become intriguing. If your body was cryogenically suspended just before you succumbed to an incurable disease, it could be revived in the future when a cure had been discovered. In that way you could back in your old skin with your noddle intact and resuming your life where you left off. Or, if your body is no longer available (someone switched off the freeze control in the cryogen suspension chambers dammit) then future computers may be able to actually use the information on them from your brain to give you an existence within the computer. That may sound like Tron on a bad day, or a permanent dream-like state for the mind without a body, but at least you’d have consciousness of your existence. Communication with the outside world would be as simple as how a computer now communicates with us today- text, images, sound, you name it. There are even likely to be sophisticated programmes in existence whereby you can “see” yourself and interact with the real world (or a damn good copy of it). A virtual life programme for you. Not only that, you would still have all the computing power of your brain, but massively racked up with all the computing power of a future computer. You could learn, experience, expand… as near immortality without sterility as you could imagine.
Far-fetched? President Obama is spending a cool $1 billion to map the brain in its entirety, while the European Union announced it would fund a $1.3 billion effort to build a human brain in a silicon substrate. First we have to find out where our memories exist and how they are stored and accessed in the brain when required.
David Chalmers is one of the world’s leading philosophers of the mind. He has written some of the most influential papers on the nature of consciousness. He is director of the Centre for Consciousness at Australian National University and is also a visiting professor at New York University. He’s no slouch or frizzy-haired boffin on Cloud Nine.
Chalmers addressed a conference in New York called Singularity Summit, where computer scientists, neuroscientists and other researchers were offering their visions of the future of intelligence. Some speakers spoke of the possibility of a time when we would understand the human brain in its fine details, be able to build machines not just with artificial intelligence but with super intelligence and be able to merge our own minds with those machines.
The leap may be just as great as the one imagined in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein: Prometheus Unbound. Just as no-one knew whether life had been bestowed to the creature after being subjected to lightning, and what sort of life, and whether it would be grateful, we wouldn’t know whether an uploaded system of your brain into a machine, body or computer would be conscious, a zombie, or mad as hell!
Chalmers didn’t see why an uploaded brain couldn’t be conscious. He opined that there’s no difference in principle between neurons and silicon.
Watch this space, and don’t forget to leave a note where to find your memory stick…
If you’re into hard analysis of the edge of sciences such as noetics, the paranormal and such-like, then you should have heard of professor Richard Wiseman. Born in 1966 he is the Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in England. Interestingly, before he became an author and leading light on such subjects as the nature of luck, he was a magician!
He is probably best known for his decade-long study into luck. In his study he found that 12 percent of people in the general population identify themselves as lucky, 9 percent as unlucky and most people consider themselves neither lucky nor unlucky. In his epic study he chose equal numbers of lucky and unlucky subjects.
In an early experiment, he had everyone enter the National UK Lottery. The “lucky” people did no better in the lottery than the “unlucky” people. However he found that the people who considered themselves lucky often had a more positive outlook on life and therefore interpreted events in a more upbeat way, then those who considered themselves unlucky. For example, a lucky person whose plane developed engine trouble and who made a successful but bumpy landing at an unscheduled airport would say that they were lucky to have escaped with their life. The person who considered themselves unlucky would say that they were unlucky to have been on a plane that got diverted to a different airport, causing delay and inconvenience.
In one experiment, the doctor asked his subjects to count the number of photographs in a newspaper. Unlucky people averaged about two minutes to finish the task, lucky people just a few seconds. How come? Well on the second page of the paper was a message, in letters two-inches high, which said “Stop counting — there are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” Lucky people usually noticed it. Unlucky people tended to miss it, as well as second message halfway through the paper: “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win £250.” Wiseman speculated that this was because unlucky people tended to be more tense and less likely to notice the unexpected. Those that considered themselves lucky came across as more relaxed and able to see what is there, rather than what they are looking for.
This ability to recognize and capitalize on chance opportunities is important if you are going to make the best out of what life throws at you. So is creating the opportunities for luck to occur. The study indicated that this was something that lucky people seemed to do without even thinking. Lucky people more often than not wanted to break from routine and have variety in their lives. These new or random experiences introduced new opportunities that, in turn, lucky people recognized and acted upon. And the more opportunities a person encounters, the more likely it is that one or more of these opportunities would turn out to be surprisingly good.
So you don’t need to have the luck of the Irish, a four-leaf clover, a lucky horseshoe, or some gypsy heather. What you need is a dose of inquisitiveness, inventiveness, the willing to experiment, and to make sure you don’t get stuck in a groove. Good luck with your endeavours!
While many people will dismiss the idea that spells; castings by one or more people sometimes known as witches or warlocks, can make changes to material and non-material things and forces, many believe in them wholesale.
Even practising spell-casters will agree that Harry Potter style spells sit firmly in the realms of fiction and fantasy. As one occasional Caster put it to me:
“the only wand that ever worked was the one Sooty, the glove puppet, used to bash Harry his handler with on TV in the 1960s!”
He was making the point that it is very easy to trivialise and ridicule spells and magic. Indeed “magic” is a much maligned word that conjures up (apologies) images of Paul Daniels and Tommy Cooper. However spells creating magic is the manipulation of naturally occurring forces by the hand and will of an experienced and ethical practitioner, perhaps using materials and incantations in support.
Modern spellcasters agree that spells cast on yourself are the ones most likely to succeed. Yes, there’s ethics and a code of conduct among modern witches; you don’t case a spell on anyone who hasn’t agreed to it first.
Spells themselves fall into some basic categories.
– Spells for healing.
– Spells for prosperity (some covens and clans do not approve of these)
– Spells for peace of mind and mental calm.
– Spell for love, including love-making prowess,.
There is a surprising number of individuals “doing their own thing” out there in Spell Land. Like a recipe, many practitioners adjust the words or the ingredients/tools used in the spell to make it their own.
Turning to the question of whether spells work, the glib answer is “it depends on how you interpret the results”. Few spell-casters believe that a wealth-creating spell will magically cause £1000 to appear in your Current Account on the night of a Full Moon. But many will argue that a spell will create the vibes, the positivity, the good karma if you will, that will allow the chances of good things happening to you to increase (including resources becoming available to you). Consequently there’s a lot of crossover between the power of positive thought, will-power, and belief in yourself and spells. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most people on one side or the other reject this. Witches say that without the connection to an external god or power (be they Pagan, Wiccan or a Native American entity) the spell won’t work. Those who preach positive thought and believe in the Law of Attraction say that the power is generated within each individual and there’s no need of semi-religious mumbo-jumbo.
I would say that from my own observations, I have seen spells work, and seen spells fail. I have seen attempts to use positive thinking and self-will succeed, and also fail. There will never be a definitive answer to the question “Do spells work?” But it seems to me that one cannot just dismiss spell-casting as hokum, any more than you can dismiss the mental powers one can find within oneself to transform your emotions, drive and facilitate, for want of a better couple of words, good fortune.
Whatever path you take, keep at it, and record your successes for us all to see!
The people who usually start thinking about avoiding death through immortality tend to be in their sixties or older. But Russian Dmitry Itskov is only 31. And he plans to spend his way to immortality by 2045 by getting funding from his fellow billionaires.
Forget cryogenic suspension. Forget a wonder drug to stop the ageing process in the body. Mr Itskov plans to transfer his consciousness to a machine, thus preserving himself in mind and spirit, but not in body, for all time.
He wants to upload his brain’s consciousness, containing his personality and humanity into or perhaps onto a synthetic brain. He even has a road map to 2045 beginning with the creation of “android avatars” in the next three years. These will be robots who could work, for example, in extreme environments, perform rescue operations, defuse bombs, etc. He also hopes that this technology would allow people with disabilities to walk again or experience lost senses.
The next step on the way to immortality is 2025. This is merely the placing of a human brain, from a damaged (or perhaps newly deceased body) into a robot that can take the brain’s orders and execute them.
Then the biggy. Immortality through the entire contents of the brain being uploaded into an avatar. It’s still you, or at least all your thoughts and decisions are yours, it’s just that the housing isn’t your original flesh and blood body. Itskov sees this as not playing God, but eradicating a disease- the ageing and failing of the human body. He sees this as the next step in human evolution. And he even seems to have convinced the Dalai Lama!
Most scientists think the timetable is far too ambitious, even if the science is possible. We are making progress in understanding the processes of the brain, but to be able to dump the entire brain’s power into a machine in just over 30 years seems super-optimistic.
So, we’ll have to see if his call to the rich to fund his plans, and perhaps buy in to an avatar if they live to 2045, will be heeded. While the maths (and the Roubles) may not add up, at least for now, you have got to admit that it’s an exciting prospect. Imagine living forever in an iron-man type avatar, which, when it gets rusty you can transfer your brain to a fresh one.
But am I the only one thinking that the military would be the first ones to be interested if this science and technology looked like it might work? History is littered with inventions that have not been used for solely benign activities? In the meantime, let’s see if that first milestone is reached in 2015. If it is, then we may have to start thinking seriously about the morality and ethics involved. Oh, and yes, if you have a few billion Roubles to spare…