The MIT Media Lab will sever ties with a brain-embalming company that promoted euthanasia to people hoping for digital immortality through “brain uploads.”
The startup, called Nectome, had raised more than $200,000 in deposits from people hoping to have their brains stored in an end-of-life procedure similar to physician-assisted suicide.
MIT’s connection to the company came into question after MIT Technology Review detailed Nectome’s promotion of its “100 percent fatal” technology.
Under a subcontract, MIT was receiving approximately $300,000 from a federal grant won by Nectome to develop methods of brain preservation and analysis.
According to an April 2 statement, MIT will terminate Nectome's research contract with Media Lab professor and neuroscientist Edward Boyden.
Boyden said he didn’t have a financial stake or other personal involvement with Nectome.
MIT’s connection to the company drew sharp criticism from some neuroscientists, who say brain uploading isn’t possible.
“Fundamentally, the company is based on a proposition that is just false. It is something that just can’t happen,” says Sten Linnarsson of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.
He adds that by collaborating with Nectome, MIT had lent credibility to the startup and increased the chance that “some people actually kill themselves to donate their brains.”
“It is so unethical—I can’t describe how unethical it is,” says Linnarsson. “That is just not something we do in medical research.”
Nectome is working on how to embalm people’s brains in a way that preserves the connections between neurons. Such a “connectome,” some speculate, could retain information about a person’s memories.
Most neuroscientists think the ability to recapture memories from brain tissue and re-create a consciousness inside a computer is at best decades away and probably not possible at all.
Robert McIntyre, Nectome’s co-founder, did not immediately respond to an e-mail requesting comment about MIT’s decision. He had previously said the embalming process should be initiated in terminally ill people while they are still alive, to ensure that the brain is as fresh as possible.
[Update: In an email, McIntyre says "we appreciate the help MIT has given us, understand their choice, and wish them the best." He notes that Nectome does not currently offer clinical brain preservation as the technology remains in a research phase. He says those who've joined Nectome's waiting list can get their deposits back.]
In its statement, the Media Lab said it was canceling the contract “upon consideration of the scientific premises underlying the company’s commercial plans, as well as certain public statements that the company has made.”
Despite backing out of the contract, the Media Lab doesn’t seem to have rejected the concept of brain uploading. Its statement, which reflects Boyden’s thinking on the question, includes a discussion of why recapturing “memories and other information related to the mind” from dead tissue is a “very interesting basic science question.”
Here’s the complete statement:
Statement regarding the relationship between the MIT Media Lab and Nectome
April 2, 2018
In response to questions being raised about the relationships of Professor Ed Boyden and MIT with the company Nectome, the MIT Media Lab is releasing the following statement. MIT is party to a subcontract under an NIMH small business grant awarded to Nectome, with the Boyden group working on an academic research project to combine aspects of Nectome’s chemistry with the Boyden group’s invention, expansion microscopy, to better visualize mouse brain circuits for basic science and research purposes. Such a novel chemistry could, if achieved, facilitate brain disorder drug discovery, boost basic neuroscience circuit mapping, and facilitate brain banking for future research into health and disease states. Professor Boyden has no personal affiliation—financial, operational, or contractual—with the company Nectome.
Upon consideration of the scientific premises underlying the company’s commercial plans, as well as certain public statements that the company has made, MIT has informed Nectome of its intent to terminate the subcontract between MIT and Nectome in accordance with the terms of their agreement.
Neuroscience has not sufficiently advanced to the point where we know whether any brain preservation method is powerful enough to preserve all the different kinds of biomolecules related to memory and the mind. It is also not known whether it is possible to recreate a person’s consciousness. In more detail:
Regarding the first point, it is not known what the exact kinds of biomolecules are that must be preserved, to preserve memories and other information related to the mind. Given that we do not know the exact set of molecules required, we cannot say whether a given brain preservation technique is sufficient to preserve all the biomolecular detail required to preserve memories and other information related to the mind. This is a very interesting basic science question, and one that we hope that we at MIT can contribute to, but ultimately, much more science is needed. If, someday, we can measure the location and identity of enough biomolecule types throughout a neural circuit, and then discover that simulating those things in concert is sufficient to recapitulate a brain’s function, that would be extremely interesting and exciting, to be sure. But this has not been done yet, and like any fundamental science question, there is no guarantee that it is possible at all.
Regarding the second point: currently, we cannot directly measure or create consciousness. Given that limitation, how can one say if, for example, a computer or a simulation is conscious? It’s possible that someday we will be able to simulate, in a computer, neural circuits with great accuracy, based on detailed enough biomolecular maps. But currently we do not know how to determine what such a simulation, even if scaled up to the size of the human brain, would “feel” like. To understand this will require new science that represents a nonlinear jump from the neuroscience occurring today, and some people regard this as an unsolvable problem (aka the “hard problem” of consciousness).