Human Brain in a Vat

Human Brain in a Vat

While Prince and the rest of the world anxiously counted down the final seconds of the millennium — when Y2K Godzilla would destroy Cobol and Fortran systems — Dallasite Mitch Maddox was about to take part in a bold experiment.  Beginning January 1, 2000 he would legally be known as DotComGuy.

This project — to the delight of geeks, nerds, and voyeurs alike — involved living and working exclusively from home.  No more traffic jam drudgery or cubicle farm shenanigans for Mitch.  No more TPS reports or water cooler gossip. And while telecommuting was hardly a new phenomenon, corporate sponsorship from the likes of 3Com, Travelocity, and UPS made him the envy of all those who had just read Cryptonomicon or LARPed as Neo.

After all, who would not want free money to goof around on the computer all day?  It was like taking candy from a baby.

This was also at the height of the dotcom bubble.  When ordering fresh food from Webvan was considered the New Normal and the DJIA was supposedly on its way up to 36,000.

However less than two years later, Mitch would legally be known as Mitch again and product placement gurus would have to find a new Ed Pekurny and Truman Burbank to spy on.

Small Steps Towards Cybernetic Fusion

A quadriplegic named S3 in medical literature (Simeral et al, 2011) was recently noted for having successfully been part of a medical project to test brain-computer interfaces (BCI).  For over 1,000 days, her brain has played host to a tiny set of electrodes that have enabled her to perform “point-and-click” tasks on the computer.

Granted, there is literally a world of difference and several orders of magnitude between moving a mouse as S3 has done and navigating and raiding in World of Warcraft but the precedent has been empirically shown.

And while it appears we are decades away from thawing and repairing cryonically suspended brains, let alone curing paralysis, S3′s seemingly marginal freedoms could quite possibly be a tour du force for a new spin on a Neuromancer-style world.

Peas in a Sci-Fi Pod

Lee Majors and Herb Wallerstein have more in common than the cult following of their respective television shows.  In the early-to-mid ’70s, Majors portrayed Steve Austin, a government pilot who is critically injured in a plane crash.  In a risky experiment, medical doctors implant six million dollars worth of bionic gadgetry that revive and enhance his life and various brain functions in particular.  His transformative operation also served as the inspiration for the show’s title, The Six Million Dollar Man.  Adjusted for inflation, this is equivalent to roughly $30 million today.

BCI
BCI

Several years earlier, Wallerstein served as a director for the original Star Trek series.  In the sixth episode of the final season, Commander Spock is kidnapped by a group of aliens.  Spock’s brain is removed and fused with a computing machine where it is used — among other things — to control the alien’s planetary life-support system.

The term Wallerstein brain is just one of many neologisms for the same idea of an isolated brain, ex body.  For instance, while Spock’s brain is placed inside the alien’s Eymorg Controller, Richard Nixon’s head is placed inside glass covered vat in Futurama.

Even the late Robert Nozick (1974) contributed to this corpus with his philosophical-cum-physical experience machine that used simulated artificial reality to study hedonism.

Synthesis

During the heyday of the space race, Werner von Braun, Arthur C. Clarke, and even former US vice-president Spiro Agnew thought that humans would begin colonizing Mars by the 1980s. Yet it has been nearly forty years since the last time any Terran-based complex life has touched down on the moon and in the prevailing decades only a couple hundred or so people have flown to an altitude beyond 100 kilometers.1

Nearly two years ago astrophysicist Paul Davies (2010) proposed that despite its dangers, a one-way trip to Mars could solve the problem of human deep space exploration.  He along with other commentators noted that for a fraction of a return trip, it was technologically possible to undertake and economically viable given the in situ materials of the planet.  And given the continued enthusiasm for sci-fi related entertainment, that there could plausibly be numerous, qualified volunteers.

Similarly, given the enthusiasm towards mind-uploading, brain-computer interfaces, intelligence amplification, and the technological singularity, would there be volunteers for a Wallerstein brain?2

Legalized Decapitation

Assuming that there would be volunteers for an irreversible brain-transplant, what would the financial costs be for developing the necessary machines to keep a healthy brain alive outside of the body? What would the legal ramifications and procedures be for what amounts to decapitation?

To answer these questions, there are several potential development paths that may unfold in the future.

The first of these involves seasteading.  Seasteading is a term independently created by Ken Neumeyer (1981) and Wayne Gramlich (1998).  It is a portmanteau of homesteading and “the sea,” and in most cases “the sea” is defined as the High Seas or international waters.  The specific reason for such distinction is that pursuant to most international law and international treaties, all activities that take place more than 200 nautical miles (nm) from a sovereign shore are considered immune to a sovereign’s jurisdiction.3  Or rather, there is no entity that currently holds de jure jurisdiction over territory outside the 200 nm.

Seasteading

In theory, if you anchor in the High Seas, you axiomatically begin to homestead the area as yours. In practice (de facto), many sea lanes and territorial waters are patrolled by friend and foe alike, irrespective of state affiliation.4  Current non-state entities include Blueseed, an IT startup anchored off the coast of San Francisco; Women on Waves, a non-profit organization that enables abortions near countries that prohibit them; and private radio stations such as those portrayed in The Boat That Rocked.5

Another potential disruptive development could be location arbitrage via charter cities.  Economist Paul Romer (1990) has spent the last decade developing their legal and theoretical framework and is close to implementing them in the real-world.6

In essence, Romer’s model is grafting the successful free-trade zone paradigm (e.g., Shenzhen, Incheon, East (Pudong) Shanghai) within a nation-state that is seeking to jump back into world trade — with a slight twist.  The twist is, although the zone would nominally be within an existing state, the rules, laws, and governance within the city would be developed by a third-party country (e.g., Canada, Switzerland).  It is within these zones that Romer and other developmental economists are hoping to attract world-class talents and skills to relatively stagnant states.  The first of these is already germinating in Honduras.7

A look at the field of cryonics could also be instructive in both legal and practical considerations.  Despite 35 years of existence, the industry is still relatively small in part because none of the companies have a real marketing department.  In fact, all told less than 300 patients are under managed care by the three leading providers combined.  The legal framework is one of the impediments, due to the fact that cryonic suspension is only legal after a patient is declared dead.  Attempts to bypass the law by use of voluntary suicide or physician-assisted suicide amounts to murder and, thus, are declared illegal by the courts.

As a consequence, the medical team involved in suspension is fighting a potential losing battle against brain decay and that is something that does not look good on marketing brochures.  And even if a cryonics operation is considered legal in one jurisdiction, permanent storage and maintenance of such cryonic chambers has been a political hot potato.  For instance, in 1993 Alcor moved their offices from one jurisdiction (California to Arizona) due to earthquake risks; however, upon transferring their patients, they had to receive legal approval under the revised Uniform Anatomical Gift Act.  And following a high-profile celebrity case in 2003, the Cryonics Institute in Michigan, received a cease-&-desist order prohibiting it to conduct medical operations for six months.8 The order was subsequently rescinded and the Institute was then regulated as a licensed cemetery.9

Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon

If brains could be successfully transplanted into computer systems via the Wallerstein method, the physical jurisdiction question is paramount for future survival — after all, you no longer have legs to move yourself and are thus dependent on third-parties.

Thus, in the event that an entrepreneur creates a company offering brain-in-a-jar services, where could such a company legally operate?  The answer, at least at this time, seems to be the aforementioned seasteads.

Bootstrapping to the Singularity

Why would anyone volunteer to undergo this risky operation?

The motivations could be numerous and while the nature of the physical isolation within a computer system may appear emotionally daunting, the selection pool of individuals could be broad. For example, anyone who uses a computer for both their work and leisure activity would conceivably have less difficulty adjusting to living in a rudimentary digitally synthesized world compared to a fireman, forest ranger, welder, plumber, or someone who manipulates and interacts with the physical environment on a continual basis.

Thus, potential candidates includes but are not limited to: programmers, engineers, scientists, mathematicians, computer-aided designers, digital artists, writers, lawyers, accountants, actuaries, architects, librarians, philosophers, psychologists, financial analysts, and economists.

How many of these individuals would be willing and able to volunteer for such an operation?

Perhaps a small subset of accountants and lawyers might find it attractive to start a round-the-clock billing firm as they would have non-stop access to digital libraries. Similarly, many scientists who conduct meta-research may find solace in their ability to focus without any circadian distractions.  Maybe a subculture of programmers and engineers wanting to permanently forgo trips to the bathroom. Or maybe even retirees, unwilling to try cryonics, but still wanting to bootstrap themselves to a pre-singularity event.

In fact, as both critics and proponents are quick to point out, a technological singularity is not necessarily a given.10 Something may prevent it from taking place, so what other viable options are capable of prolonging your life better than a Wallerstein brain?11

On the Seven Seas

At this time, the start-up capital necessary to build a vessel (e.g., a large barge) capable of safely storing and running electronic machinery at sea is prohibitive and in the reach of but an affluent few.12 However, given the incentives for profit (e.g., $100,000 one-time transplant fee), an entrepreneur could put together a business plan for potential venture capital.

In terms of geographical considerations, the equator may be an ideal location for a few reasons.  First, both storms and waves are relatively regular and predictable throughout the year.  Second, it is statistically one of the least cloudy regions on earth, thus creating ideal conditions for powering photovoltaic solar panels indefinitely.  While the added cost of paying for an underwater sea cable to an equatorial location may be relatively costly, the added savings of not having to continually transport and ship fossil fuels and maintain combustion engines may make up the difference.13

Source Code

The final piece is the digital synthesizing machine itself.  At this time, there are no publicly known cases of brain transplants.  In the event that they do occur and that it is possible to fuse the brain stem into a computer system, this would raise a number of questions.  How would an operator handle biological maintenance? What about potential intelligence amplification (e.g., increasing brain storage capacity or instant recall)?14

As there are both mechanical and digital prosthetics for nearly every human sense, are there any inherent technical limitations for permanently tapping into the five senses and artificially synthesizing a digitized real-world experience?15 Could it be done for $30 million — the current inflation adjusted cost for Lee Majors — or would it require Apollo-sized budgets?

Or will all of this remain relegated to campy science-fiction television shows and Hollywood green screens?  If Source Code is any indication of the near-future, perhaps we may already know some unwitting volunteers trapped in a Vingean Cookie Monster.16

Synthesis

Each year, millions of people throughout the world already vote with their feet and their pocket books by moving across jurisdictions.  And due to continued financial and political uncertainties at the macro level, skilled workers may soon have the option of living in a variety of micro-states, including seasteads and charter cities.

Similarly, over the past decade, numerous physically handicapped volunteers have rediscovered human sensations, including sight and sound.  Quadriplegics are now able to communicate to the rest of the world vis-à -vis brain-computer interfaces (BCI).  Through continued medical and technological progress, volunteers might also have the option of fixing or even improving upon physical limitations, including the permanent removal of sleeping, bodily functions, and even caloric intake.  Thus, given the continued development of BCI and other digital prosthetics, skilled workers, driven by financial and political uncertainty, may volunteer and become Wallerstein brains; and perhaps brainstead the Seven Seas.

[An earlier version of this article was originally presented on August 17, 2011 at the Shanghai Rationalist Society.]

Bibliography

Davies, Paul. 2010. “One way ticket to Mars.Cosmos Vol 31.

De Grey, Aubrey. 2007. Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs that Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime. St. Martin’s Press.

Ettinger, Robert. 1962. “The Prospect of Immortality.” Retrieved July 2, 2011.

Gramlich, Wayne. 1998. “Seasteading — Homesteading on the High Seas.” Retrieved July 2, 2011.

Kurzweil, Raymond. 2005. The Singularity is Near. Viking Publishing.

Neumeyer, Ken. 1981. Sailing the Farm: A Survival Guide to Homesteading.

Nozick, R. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Basic Books, New York, 1974, pp. 42–45.

The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil

Romer, Paul. 1990. “Endogenous Technological Change.” Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 98, No. 5, Part 2: The Problem of Development: A Conference on the Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise Systems. (Oct. 1990), pp. S71–102.

Simeral, J.D., Kim, S.P., Black, M.J., Donoghue, J.P., Hochberg, L.R. 2011. “Neural control of cursor trajectory and click by a human with tetraplegia 1000 days after implant of an intracortical microelectrode array.” Journal of Neural Engineering. 8 025027 doi:10.1088/1741-2560/8/2/025027

Vinge, Vernor. 1993.  The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era. VISION-21 Symposium.


  1. According to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), only 514 people have reached orbit; the sole requirement being the flight must have reached over 100 kilometers in altitude. 

  2. Mathematician and scince fiction author Vernor Vinge (1993) and inventor Ray Kurzweil (2005), among many others, have suggested that ceteris paribus, at some point in our own technological advancement we will reach a wall, a point, a technological singularity in which development continues to accelerate in a positive feedback loop much akin to a logarithmic curve. 

  3. More specifically this includes a sovereign’s Exclusive Economic Zone

  4. The South China Sea is a contentious region as several nation-states have competing claims on numerous islands.  These include: Vietnam, mainland China (PRC), Taiwan (ROC), and the Philippines.  In addition, over the past five years the east coast of Africa, specifically the regions adjacent Yemen, Somalia, and Kenya have had substantial increases in piracy and ransom activity. 

  5. The Seasteading Institute was founded in 2008 to develop the legal and engineering concept at a theoretical level. Blueseed is a commercial spin-off founded by several members of the Institute. 

  6. For a detailed look at what this entails see “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Ending Poverty” from The Atlantic.  See also the Charter Cities FAQ

  7. See also “Honduras’s Experiment with Free-Market Cities” from the Wall Street Journal.  Note: Patri Friedman, who founded the Seasteading Institute, is now also working on the Honduras Charter Cities project. 

  8. The case involved hall-of-fame baseball player Ted Williams.  For more information, see “Williams Children Agree to Keep Their Father Frozen” from The New York Times.  The outcome of the Michigan cease-&-desist is discussed in a public statement from the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. 

  9. For more details surrounding its new status as a cemetery, see the official press release.  This topic was also handled in the season 1  episode of Boston Legal entitled “Let Sales Ring.” 

  10. While the technological singularity plays a central role in many of his books and essays, Vernor Vinge, and others like Charles Stross, has also talked about what the alternatives are if the singularity does not happen. 

  11. Negligible senescence, or anti-aging, is a nascent field of biomedical science considered to be a theoretical alternative to cryonics or a Wallerstein brain.  Among others, it has been spearheaded by Aubrey de Grey (2007) of the Methuselah Foundation.  See also: “John Sperling Wants You to Live Forever” from Wired

  12. Based on past histories, potential angel investors could include Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com; Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal; Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla Motors; and John Sperling, co-founder of the University of Phoenix system. 

  13. An alternative possibility includes a satellite link-up, depending on which part of the ocean the equator is on. Other sustainable, relatively inexpensive resources are wind generators or tidal wave generators which could be used as potential backups placed on nearby barges. 

  14. For more on intelligence amplification see the discussion notes “Species of Mind” from Vernor Vinge. 

  15. Examples include the cochlear implant for the ear. There are more than a dozen different types of bionic eyes developed by various medical companies.  Over the past year Dean Kamen has been working on a software-based, digital hand prosthetic called the Luke Arm

  16. “The Cookie Monster” is the name of a 2004 novella written by Vernor Vinge; it can be found in the The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Second Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois. 

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About the Author

Tim Swanson

Tim Swanson is a graduate of Texas A&M University. He has worked in East Asia for more than 5 years and currently lives in China. He is the author of Great Wall of Numbers: Business Opportunities & Challenges in China

{ 1 comment… add one }

  • Alec May 26, 2013 @ 2:14 pm | Link

    I would volunteer

    Reply

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