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February, 14 2017

They say that wisdom accumulates, that perhaps it is not subject to the same ticktock corrosion that renders bones frail and hair thin. They say it is our one real treasure, this thing to be passed on, gener­ation to generation, to grant us a stay against a dark, dim future. And so we have Greek lectures transcribed by diligent pupils; sketches by Leonardo; a collection of Gertrude Stein’s writing; the fireside scratch of a chatty F.D.R.; a cinematic tour of Stephen Hawking’s universe; and now, at this great, late date, we have Timothy Leary charting his last days just a mouse-click away. But what we don’t have is the people themselves; we don’t have their consciousnesses, and that is the real loss. And, if you believe the believers, that is all about to change.

They’re calling it the Soul Catcher, a pet name really, as if the soul were something that could be caught like a fish. It’s the brainchild of Peter Cochrane of British Telecommunications: a micromemory, chip implanted in the human brain, implanted for the whole of a life­time, meant to record the whole of that lifetime.

The first step – integrating the chip with the body _ shows great promise. Already researchers at Stanford University have found ways of splicing nerves and, using a chip, getting them to grow back together. In a Georgia hospital, electrodes have been successfully embedded in the brain of a completely paralyzed man, translating thoughts into cursor movement. (See Page 63.) Unlike the rest of the body, which tends to reject foreign implants, the nervous system is incorporative — meaning that the act of placing a chunk of metal into the brain is more like rewiring a light switch than reinventing the wheel.

By using variations of existing technologies – the silicon retina, artificial cochlea, artificial tongue — scientists have managed to document the activity of each of the five senses. Each time we have a sensory experience, a chemical reaction is triggered in the brain, which we interpret as emotion. The next goal — which Cochrane thinks could take about two years to achieve – is to measure and track these chemical reactions, and eventually create a record of a lifetime’s worth of experience and feeling.

Throughout the typical 70-year human life span, the brain pro­cesses something akin to 50 terabytes of memory, a data accumu­lation equivalent to millions of books. In about ten years, Coch­rane says, computers will be so advanced that they will be capable of reassembling millions of bits of recorded experience into a fac­simile of individual perspective. Think, for instance, of a chip that could record everything that a person ever ate – a lifetime of fast food and gourmet snacks and whatever else. Now add to that a record of the chemical reactions set in motion by eating these meals. A computer powerful enough to synthesize this data could end up with a pretty good idea of that person’s taste. Multiply this by all sensory experiences, and you have a machine capable of reproducing all experience.

But Cochrane’s idea is not simply to capture a life. He wants to make that life available to others after the person with the em­bedded chip dies. That requires a powerful playback device ­something akin to the virtual-reality goggles and gloves that have been promised for years. Cochrane proposes that within the fast blink of two decades, a living being will be able to experience mo­ments in the life of a dead one.

Cochrane takes a grand view of all this. He thinks in terms of preserving the wisdom of the ages, of the chance to interact with the future Einsteins, Sapphos and Beethovens after their deaths. But he also acknowledges the risks. “I’m sure there will be prob­lems,” says Cochrane. “I may turn out to be a little like the guy who invented television. When they asked him what he thought television would be used for, the only thing he could think of was education. Now all we have to watch is crap.”

How will we sort the potential Edisons from the basement tin­kerers? Will we all eventually have our lives recorded for pos­terity? And what of the unsettling possibilities? The wife who takes a peek into her husband’s life and finds that he was a thief; the husband who discovers his wife’s betrayal; and the thousands of other secrets we withhold from one another. There may be a dark side to our desire for ‘soul-to-soul union. Sometimes the very thing meant to bring us closer together can, in fact, drive us farther apart.