Self-described “outlandishly futuristic thinker” and post-doctoral scientist at Harvard Ken Hayworth believes that he can live forever. Described in the article ‘The Strange Neuroscience of Immortality’ by Evan R. Goldstein, Hayworth theorises that the day will come where his ‘consciousness’ will be “revived on computer” after death, and predicts that by 2110 mind uploading – the transfer of a biological brain to a silicon-based operating system – will “be as common as laser eye surgery is today”.
Science fiction it may appear, but according to the well-read and highly accomplished Hayworth – a veteran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and a graduate at the University of Southern California – the processes behind mind uploading are within reach. “The human race is on a beeline to mind uploading: We will preserve a brain, slice it up, simulate it on a computer, and hook it up to a robot body,” Goldstein recalls Hayworth saying. According to him, if a brain is to be preserved in resin instants before death, it may be possible in the years to come to map the brain’s neural circuitry, thereby being able to ‘resurrect’ consciousness.
The ideas broached appear not too dissimilar to the otherworldly-seeming Russia 2045 project being funded by Russian media billionaire Dmitry Itskov, which is driven by the ideological belief that immortality could be with us as soon as 2045. The ideas behind it, like those posited by Hayworth here, are to get to the stage in which a human personality can be successfully transferred and 'mapped' to a robot avatar with an artificial brain at the end of one's life, thereby “eliminating death”.
Having studied the brain for the large portion of his adult life, Hayworth now studies within the new branch of neuroscience known as 'connectomics'. As Goldstein describes, a connectome is “a complete map of a brain's neural circuitry”, and points out that “scientists believe that human connectomes will one day explain consciousness, memory, emotion, even dieseases like autism, schizophrenia and Alzheimer's.” Furthermore, he explains how advances in brain preservation, tissue imaging and computer simulations of neural networks have all accounted for Hayworth's belief there truly is a 'cure' for death.
"There are those who say that death is just part of the human condition, so we should embrace it. I'm not one of those people,” Hayworth tells Goldstein. Still, that same belief has often led him to be ridiculed by certain sects of the scientific community and sparked angers in others, who deem the pursuit of immortality far from 'serious science' – even blasphemous in how the very idea seems to break down core religious values, such as resurrection.
And yet, he remains resolute, labelling such breakthroughs as genomics and space flights “trvial” in comparison. Having already planned out some of the broadest details of his own brain preservation procedure – a process that involves toxic chemicals into his vascular system, fixing every protein and lipid in his brain into place, killing him instantly, and one where pure plastic resin replaces the water from the brain and spinal cord – and thereby protecting “every neuron and synapse in his central nervous system down to the nanometer level”, scientists will then go about cutting the plastic resin-treated brain into slices. Whereby they will proceed to image the slices under an electron microscope, building a “precise map of his connectome”. The hope is, for Hayworth at least, that a ton years down the line or so, scientists will be able to build a computer simulation of his mind and connect it to a robotic body, much like the ideas conjured in Russia 2045.
One thing's for certain, however implausible the idea of immortality sounds, there are some incredibly passionate and immensely intelligent people over-turning our engrained belief that death is just a part of the human condition, and that's that. As JK Rowling once wrote, “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” Fitting.