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Science Behind the Fiction: Could Westworld's digital afterlife make you immortal?

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Jun 27, 2018, 12:45 PM EDT

Sunday night brought us the end of our the second season of HBO's Westworld, closing the curtain on yet another mind-bending chapter with Dolores, Bernard, and all of our friends in Westworld and its associated parks. Old questions were answered and new questions were raised. Most importantly, we found The Valley Beyond and discovered what awaits there.

On the surface, Westworld is a story about humans and robots interacting and just doing a really bad job of it. It is, from a certain point of view, Terminator-lite. Where the Terminator franchise asks what might happen in a world where robots take the nuclear option against their creators, Westworld's robots take the musket ball. While the consequences are lesser in Westworld, the existential questions are greater. Because, at the end of the day, the series really has its magnifying glass aimed at the question of what it means to be human, what it means to be a conscious actor, and what it means to be alive.

Season 1 flirted with these ideas. It was clear that even if the hosts weren't alive, they at least believed themselves to be. Season 2, however, does away with flirting and seals the deal. All of this comes to a head at the conclusion of Season 2, leaving everyone wondering who is human, who is a host, and whether life in a virtual space is equal to life in the real world.

The finale led us, finally, to The Forge and The Valley Beyond. Fleeing the chaos of Westworld, hosts dive into a rift that delivers their consciousnesses into a digital space where they can live untouched and unperturbed by their human creators. It is, in essence, an A.I. afterlife that is just as much a paradise as the afterlives we've imagined for ourselves.

This revelation added a new element to the playing field of Westworld, a show that already played fast and loose with consciousness. There was some comfort in knowing that after everything the hosts had been put through, there might be some respite for them. But could a similar digital paradise exist for you and me?

The answer to that question is a little easier within the confines of Westworld than it is in the real world. Westworld presupposes, as a starting point, a working knowledge of advanced computer systems and the inner workings of the brain. We know that Delos has been collecting and storing neural information from their guests. We also know that certain persons who began life as human beings have continued life as artificial entities. All of this makes the question of a digital afterlife a sort of non-starter. Here, in the real world, it's a little more complex.

The brutal fact is, despite our best efforts, we don't really understand how the brain works, let alone how to duplicate it.

We've written before about the ways in which humanity is attempting to use science and technology to cheat death, but what about shedding our bodies in their entirety and living out eternity in The Valley Beyond?

At least one startup has hitched their wagon to the notion of living forever in a digital space. Nectome has developed a method for preserving brain tissue via a high-tech embalming process that promises to keep all of your synapses intact for hundreds of years.

Nectome is not yet ready for market. The company is still in the research phase utilizing donated post-mortem human brains to test and perfect their processes. According to Nectome's founder, "the question we really want to answer is, can we create a procedur ethat preserves memory?"

The hope behind Nectome's services relies on the idea that in the future, we will be able to retrieve the data present in the preserved brain tissues and place them either into an artificial brain or into a digital consciousness. And there is some reason to believe that might be possible.

Materialists believe that a person is no more than their physical parts. If person-hood resides within the brain, then creating a duplicate of the brain's processes, either physically or digitally, would result in a consciousness indistinguishable from the real thing.

Whether that consciousness is really you or just a Frankensteinian doppelganger is up to philosophers to decide.

Nectome's process preserves tissues at an impressive level but there is legitimate skepticism as to whether it's good enough.

The company has received a grant of almost a million dollars for their troubles, so there's little question as to confidence in the utility of their process for understanding the way the brain works and giving us a window into drugs and future treatments for debilitating diseases and trauma. Whether or not the fidelity of their preservation is sufficient for future resurrection or retrieval of the preserved data, however, remains unknown.

While Nectome preserves the collection of neurons and their relationships to one another, known as the connectome, there is not yet sufficient evidence to suggest that is where consciousness lies. It's entirely possible that the mind, your individual consciousness, resides somewhere deeper, within processes we don't yet understand and could not duplicate. Assuming that preservation of the connectome is sufficient for preserving and duplicating consciousness is sort of like mapping all the stars in the universe and hoping that's sufficient for duplicating it. While it might give you a decent picture, there are likely other forces at work.

Nectome's goal is to preserve all of the physical and biochemical correlates of memory with the hope they will eventually have enough to truly preserve memory.

Certainly, the preservation of brain tissues has merits all its own outside the notion of extended longevity, but we're not yet to a place where we understand the mechanisms of the brain well enough to preserve and duplicate them.

Unless you're of a mind that consciousness lies in something intangible, there's no reason to think that uploading a mind won't someday be possible. But as of now, we have miles to go in understanding the processes of the human brain and we don't have a good reason to believe that any preservation process we have currently available is sufficient to maintain the information that makes you, you.

Sam Gershman, a computational neuroscientist at Harvard University spoke out on Twitter about Nectome's pursuits saying, "Didn't anyone tell them that we've known the C Elegans connectome for over a decade but haven't figured out how to reconstruct all of their memories? And that's only 7000 synapses compared to the trillions of synapses in the human brain!"

Now that's a dunk.

Proponents of consciousness uploading, collectively known as transhumanists, lean on Moore's Law which states that computing power doubles at a predictable rate. Based on this trajectory, thinkers like Google's Ray Kurzweil believe that by 2045 computing power will have surpassed human intelligence, an event known as The Singularity.

The thinking goes that once that happens, superintelligent computers will be able to create even smarter artificial intelligences than what we're capable of and once that happens the sky's the limit.

"Based on conservative estimates of the amount of computation you need to functionally simulate a human brain, we'll be able to expand the scope of our intelligence a billion-fold," said Kurzweil.

The efforts of companies like Nectome may have an important role in our pursuit of understanding the brain but likely don't yet hold the key to the eternal life they're seeking. Although, if you're already at death's door, maybe it doesn't hurt to see what's behind door number two.