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A Brain Dies Young

Unique capacities of the human brain, how to live three hundred years and what to do inside an artificial body – these are the subjects of our conversation with Professor Alexander Yakovlevich Kaplan, PhD (Biology) and Head of the Neurophysiology and Neural interfaces lab at the Biology department of Russian State University (MGU).

2045: Alexander, what is your opinion about the forecasts of an impending creation of an artificial human body – a more operational and longlasting one?

Alexander Yakovlevich Kaplan: As a physiologist, I can see no problem with the idea of creating individual artificial organs, even as complex as a liver or a heart. A liver is complex in terms of its biochemistry, a heart – of its biomechanics. Yet, in principle nothing prevents us from recreating such organs out of other materials in a way that would to a larger or a lesser extent reproduce biological processes, forms and patterns.

But when it comes to an artificial brain… Certain functions of a brain are indeed reproducible. For example, a computer is more proficient than humans at calculations. Memory, too, can be reproduced. Visual perception can be made clearer, better, with a larger resolution than what we have now. Sooner or later, these things will be done. Still, there is one function of the brain that we cannot reproduce by technical means. It sounds very simple but is mysterious in what it entails, and it looks as if the brain actually evolved in view of this function. This function is the formation of a working model of the outside world, or maybe of our inner world of psychic images…

2045: Are you speaking of imagination?

A.Y.K.: It is more than imagination – I’m speaking of an entire world within us. Practically speaking, this is the world we live in. There’s no mysticism here. Look at it this way: the retina is the last screen that still reflects, on a physical level, the objects of the outside world. After that, this reflection is scattered across the million or so of fibers of the optical nerve and is spread, in a fan of nervous impulses, across the various structures of the brain. Where, then, do I actually look at the objects of the outside world? Well, apparently, the brain re-synthesizes these images anew, and these are the images that we have access to as conscious beings. The brain that creates a psychic image of the physical world is one of the most awesome inventions in nature. After all, a psychic image is not a mere photographic imprint but a living thing. Here, I close my eyes and I can already imagine you not as a portrait, but as a character in a show that’s unfolding before me: you were a student, you got married, you had children etc. Or I can imagine how I fly over the ocean and land in a country I’d never been to…

2045:...or imagine a new scientific theory.

A.Y.K.: Yes, quite. A fully functional model of the world allows human beings to play out different possible versions of reality, which includes hypotheses. For example, if you are anticipating a conversation with your boss, you can examine different scenarios of the conversation in advance – all it takes is closing your eyes. This is the advantage that human beings have as a consequence of having a brain equipped with a psychic imagery synthesis function. No other animal can compete with the human being capable of previewing possible scenarios of the future.

2045: How can we make an instrument that could create an inner world?

A.Y.K.: We don’t even know where to begin. The brain is an extremely complex mechanism; it contains a hundred billion constitutive parts. That’s a whole lot… Our most powerful processors can handle thirty million switchboard elements, soon enough the number will increase to fifty, to a hundred. But the brain already has a hundred billion! When we speak of a hundred billion nervous cells, this too is inadequate, because the operational unit of the brain is not the neuron, or a single brain cell. Every such cell has 5-10 thousand contacts with other cells. Every contact has 15-20 possible states. Multiply that hundred billion times a hundred thousand contacts (and each contact has as many free states as contacts) and you will end up with a number that is larger than the number of atoms in the Universe! That’s what the combinatorics of brain states is like.

Yes, computers have developed and will become more and more complex and powerful in the future. However, they will always only follow the rules invented by its creators. Sci-fi writers can be as imaginative as they want in their descriptions of computers waging wars on people, but this can never happen simply because to do that, computers would require an inner world – a will, feelings, goals and everything else that human beings acquire in the course of their individual development as social beings.

2045: So, neither psychology nor neurophysiology really has an idea of how to approach the creation of an artificial brain?

A.Y.K.: Both these sciences have enough ideas and to spare, but each has its own fish to fry. Neurophysiologists study how information is encoded, how nervous impulses are transmitted, and how they get to the synapses (a synapse is the point of contact between two neurons. – Editor’s note).

Neurophysiology, however, cannot study how an image is created, because an image is not a material substance. How can you study it? Only by asking the subject: “So, is there an image? If yes, what does it look like?” That’s not a job for a neurophysiologist. We have psychologists; it’s their job to work with images. They specialize in image patterns! Perception, memory, thought processes, other image operations – all these are the domain of psychology, and yet even psychologists pass by the question of how these images appear in the brain. How does an image come into being out of neuromediators and nervous impulses?

There’s a break here. In theory, this should be a question for psychophysiology – the borderline field between neurophysiology and psychology of science. However, neurophysiologists are also still very far from understanding the mechanism by which psychic images are born or their influence on our actual behavior. Indeed, what is the precise mechanism of, say, the influence of a melody on our behavior? And I mean melody, not just sound. What’s the difficulty here? Melody is immaterial. Melody is the psychic image.

2045: So would that imply that, as we evolve towards an increasing freedom of the body, we will have to preserve the brain in its present form?

A.Y.K.: This is a philosophical issue. The complex nature of the brain is needed for a full-fledged model of an outside world. And in this respect, our brain has been perfected by nature many thousand years ago. On the other hand, the brain may be much more complex, and have higher capacities that what the human body can allow for: only five senses, only two eyes, two hands, two legs etc. Human beings have, in a sense, escaped further evolution as soon as it became clear that survival can be ensured by mind alone. Who knows, maybe if the capacities of the body were increased – if, for example, we could add a couple of artificial manipulators in addition to our hands – the brain would be capable of handling these gadgets?

2045: But when we create an artificial body, we’ll still have to drag the brain over?

A.Y.K.: We’ll have to hold on to the brain to the end. But the thing is that the brain has the potential to outlive the rest of the body. The brain is the only organ that does not renew its cells, unlike a liver, blood, or muscles. Why? Well, the brain is an information processor that takes into account a lifetime of connections between its cells. Our entire inner world is dependent on this neuronal network! What will happen if part of these cells dies off, and is replaced by others? The new cells will get in the way, start to look for connections…

2045: Do you consider the combination “human brain + artificial body” a promising idea?

A.Y.K.: If we can come up with adequate ways to sustain neurons, the brain could survive at least two hundred years. Prolonging the brain’s life by a hundred years – that would transform the way we conceive of our personality! An individual will live knowing that his or her experience collected during the entire lifespan will not die with him. It will be a well that will deepen and amass experience for a long time. Just imagine if students today were taught by somebody born two hundred years ago!

People don’t have the time to achieve their full potential. The brain dies young. Sclerosis is caused by problems in blood vessels, not in the nervous system per se. Sixty odd years go by, and the person is dead, and the next one has to start again from square one. Of course, they will read, but that’s not the same as experience of one’s own.

2045: Are we then speaking of the brain as an organ that could be transplanted?

A.Y.K.: Not so much transplanted as given conditions that would provide for its survival. Placing a person’s brain into a container of an artificial body of some kind shouldn’t be such a big deal.

2045: And if a brain in a container is provided with an interface, it can probably have several bodies for different occasions…

A.Y.K.: A “brain to computer” interface or a neural interface would interpret the brain’s intentions and translate them into commands comprehensible for external devices. In theory, such an interface could give the brain an array of appendages, manipulators, sensors, a motor system etc. In this case, the brain could “move”, travel. Yes, some things would not be possible. But then, eighty-year-olds don’t mourn over the fact that they don’t have the physical abilities they used to have – the main thing is to be able to use your intellect fully. Up to a ripe old age, people would live as they do now, and then their brain could be transferred into an artificial body that would let them live for another hundred or two hundred years. Death would still happen, the brain is biological matter, and two hundred years is a lot, of course, but not an eternity.

By the time when sustaining a brain artificially becomes possible, bio-robots will have been perfected to the point of looking like a decent human body. Its “extremities” would be supplied with sensors, and the brain will therefore be able to “feel” its artificial body. Mind you, the future belongs not to metal machinery but to materials that can adapt and be flexible depending on the incoming impulses. Speaking of immediate future, our primary task would be an artificial hand wrist, and that’s not overly ambitious even now.


2045: Would you mind telling us more about interfaces? What kind of success have scientists had with them, in what directions is the research going? 

A.Y.K.: The idea itself is no great news. We figured out that humans can learn to channel the electric potential of the brain. From then on, it was a matter of decoding this potential and turning it into commands, for example, for the computer. First ideas and first attempts appeared about 15 years ago. We hoped that it would be possible for people to use the interfaces intuitively, but so far there’s a long way to go.

Our lab actually has one of the fastest neural interface typewriters in the world, but it is still limited by 12-15 letters a minute, which is very slow. Of course, when neural interfaces start being used in medicine, this will be an instrument, for example, for people with an impended motor system: they will be able to literally type “by mental power”. Similarly, a neural interface can be adapted to a wheelchair. 

Our second area of investigation is creating a new brain. We can grow nerve tissue cultures in a Petri dish and observe their electric activity. The problem is that cells grown in this way are no more than so much biomass without any purpose. Now, let’s give it a meaning in life! Let’s register these cells’ electric activity and use it as a signal to govern an outside device, for example a source of the nutrient solution. Then, this biomass will see a meaning for its activity and start learning to get more nutrients etc. Currently, a team of scientists headed by Victor Borisovich Kazantsev are working on this problem.

2045: How feasible would it be to create an artificial body similar to what they have in the “The Surrogates” movie? If so, what kind of time framework should we think in? What technologies exist already, and who does this kind of research?

A.Y.K.: If we stop working on the problem of gradual replacement of “unfunctional” human organs, and focus instead exclusively on creating a mobile robot with a “human-machine interface” connected directly to the brain, this could be possible to do within five years. Even now, there are dozens of laboratories, both in Russia and throughout the world, that study this problem in one way or another.

If it was possible to create a research center that would bring together specialists from different fields to work on the creation of an artificial body and neural interfaces, how should such a center be organized?

A.Y.K.: I think this should be a research and innovation center financed by private institutions. This center should have three project levels. The first one would be for the projects that do not require more than 2-3 years of research, with an aim to commercialization in medicine, industry etc. The second level would include fundamental problems such as research on new models of artificial human organs, systems of sustaining the brain and neural interfaces – these should be more long-term, 5-10 years. Finally, the third level would be for futuristic problems such as potential development of novel, alternative technologies of sustaining an organism competing with the evolutionally tested natural technologies, neural interface networks etc.

2045: Do you think this is possible, in theory?

A.Y.K.: It will become possible when the society starts thinking seriously about the necessity of preserving not so much human life as the human person.

Professor Alexander Y.
Ph.D. in Biology, Head of the Neurophysiology and Neural Interfaces Lab at the Russian State University Biology Department (MGU)

‘By the time sustaining a brain artificially becomes possible, bio-robots will have been perfected to the point of looking like a decent human body...’

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