Suppose an entrepreneur came to you and said his company could "back up your mind," preserving your brain so future scientists could extract or even update its data? Pretty cool, yes? And what if he said he could do so right down to the synapse level, so the brain data might let you be, in a sense, reborn or, in another sense, immortalized? Still cool, right?
OK, great! Just sign on the line! You won't even feel it as the company--Nectome--offs you.
Nectome's co-founder, Robert McIntyre, is in a certain way following precedent, since scientists have been preserving brains and other body parts for research for years. And he's not alone in comparing the brain to a computer, with a vision of one day being able to upload and simulate the data it holds. But as Antonio Regalado writes in his article for MIT Technology Review, McIntyre veers from convention in that his new preservation process, aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation, pumps special embalming chemicals into the carotid arteries of the neck while you are still alive. The technique, which is done under anesthesia, means the brain can be kept intact for hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of years. But it also kills you.
The very tiny target market.
Now, just calm down a little.
McIntyre doesn't want just anybody to walk into his offices and get preserved. He's got a very specific niche market in mind: The idea is to present the service to terminally ill individuals who want to undergo doctor-assisted suicide. These individuals might feel empowered by being able to choose the time and method of their death. And like others who donate their bodies to science, they might take solace in knowing that, if they do have to die, researchers can learn from them and use the knowledge to advance the world.
Some very big hurdles.
Critics of Nectome say McIntyre (and anyone else who would start a similar company) is preying on people's natural fear of death. They say individuals like McIntyre know that people take some comfort in the idea of somehow living on after they pass away, and that businesses promise this to clients even though the techniques required for actually simulating brain data haven't even been invented yet. And scientists still don't yet know what the actual results of the simulation will look like. What's truly required to preserve memories, a state of consciousness or personality, for example? And wouldn't brain banks be an additional burden on future generations?
But the biggest hindrance to Nectome might be in the law. Currently, physician-assisted suicide is legal in just six states and Washington, D.C. (The states are Oregon, Vermont, California, Montana, Colorado, and Washington.) That means even if McIntyre's niche market responds well, many terminally ill patients won't have access to the service unless they are willing to move to a region that accepts the process. Whereas other companies can grow at a rate based on demand, McIntyre can grow only as fast as each state is willing to change its legislation, which can be slow to pass even with popular support.
But change with big ethical implications has happened before. The biggest, most recent example might be within the cannabis industry. The legal status of marijuana is evolving rapidly, with nine states and Washington, D.C., having passed legislation for recreational use since 2012. The legalization of same-sex marriage is another example of quickly shifting viewpoints that have influenced many businesses. McIntyre might find that views on doctor-assisted suicide will shift in a similar way, especially given increasing pollution, and the growing size of the senior population might continue to increase the number of individuals found to have terminal conditions.
Putting money behind the concept.
Make no mistake--investors and customers already are at McIntyre's door. At least 25 people have paid $10,000--fully refundable if they change their minds--to be put on Nectome's waiting list. The company has $1 million in funding so far and even has won a grant worth $960,000 from the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health for its technology. And next week, McIntyre, who believes we have an obligation to preserve the collective wisdom of generations, plans to pitch the idea to investors at Y Combinator's demo days.
While I can't say what is right or wrong in this case, I do wonder how it might connect to future A.I. systems and affect the definition of what a person even is. McIntyre isn't the first entrepreneur to raise the "should we" question, and my bet is, he won't be the last. It's merely a question of where the next shock and debate will come from next.