Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Reading Memories

In the trade, the legitimate trade - I've never done porno - we call the raw product dry dreams. Dry dreams are neural output from levels of consciousness that most people can only access in sleep. But artists, the kind I work with at the Autonomic Pilot, are able to break the surface tension, dive down deep, down and out, out into Jung's sea, and bring back - well, dreams. Keep it simple. I guess some artists have always done that, in whatever medium, but neuroelectronics lets us access the experience, and the net gets it all out on the wire, so we can package it, sell it, watch how it moves in the market.
- William Gibson "The Winter Market" (1986)
In science fiction it's not uncommon for memories to be uploaded into computers, either to create a facsimile of a living person, or to create marketable "experience" downloads. Gibson wasn't the first - Dick's "We can remember it for you wholesale" (the inspiration for Total Recall) described implanted memories for sale back in 1966. While it's a seemingly easy process in fiction, the fact is that we are only just starting to understand how the brain organizes and stores memories.

The July issue of Scientific American (available as a free pdf) takes a look at the how memories are stored in mice. The article is written by Boston University professor Joe Tsien, whose claim to fame is the generation of a mouse strain that could learn faster and remember longer, which he aptly named Doogie*. His recent research has been to understand how memories form in mice. It appears that memories are stored in groups of neurons that relate to different aspects of the recorded event:
The brain relies on memory-coding cliques [of neurons] to record and extract different features of the same event, and it essentially arranges the information relating to a given event into a pyramid whose levels are arranged hierarchically, from the most general, abstract features to the most specific aspects. We believe, as well, that each such pyramid can be thought of as a component of a polyhedron that represents all events falling into a shared category, such as "all startling events."
Each specific memory involves a unique set of these "neuronal cliques," which makes up what Tsien calls the "memory code." A stored memory could be read, at least in theory, by determining which of the groups of neurons are associated with it. Such information could be uploaded into computers that are designed along the same hierarchical principals, although Tsien doesn't anticipate us having that ability any time soon.
If all our memories, emotions, knowledge and imagination can be translated into 1s and 0s, who knows what that would mean for who we are and how well we will operate in the future. Could it be that 5,0000 years from now, we will be able to download our minds onto computers, travel to distant worlds and live forever in the network?
For more on the current state of the art in brain scanning, check out the ABC (Australian, not American) radio called "All in the Mind" that looks at the use brain scans in the courtroom (via Mind Hacks).

If you are interested in offloading some your own memories, the Braintec web site claims to have developed a way to perform "human uploads." You can even donate your extra computer processing cycles to their distributed analysis system (a la SETI@Home) to process the uploaded memories. Install the .exe file at your own risk**.

* For young readers (or those who didn't watch TV in the late 80s), "Doogie" is a reference to Doogie Howser, M.D.

** Just to be clear, SETI@Home is a legitimate project which you can install on your home computer to help the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Similarly Folding@Home uses your computer to work on protein folding problems. In contrast, the Braintec program is an unknown quantity.

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