This Start Up Wants To Upload Your Brain To The Cloud — But There’s A Super Creepy Catch

by James Hale
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Ever think about how much you want to save a little extra space in your brain, and upload those excess memories to the cloud? Sounds a little Eternal Sunshine, but there's a startup trying to make that a reality. It's developing a process that will let you upload your consciousness into the cloud to be digitally preserved forever. Of course, there's a downside: According to the company's cofounder Robert McIntyre, the uploading process is "100 percent fatal," he told MIT Technology Review. If you're thinking that's a smidge bonkers, you're probably not alone. But the company, Nectome, is working with experts in areas like neuroscience and cryobiology, and will be presenting its brain-preservation technology in detail during startup incubator Y Combinator's upcoming demo days, Mar. 19-21.

This is normally the place where a Black Mirror joke would go, but in this case, it's not a joke. Nectome's technology is straight out of the season three episode "San Junipero," where two women whose consciousnesses are uploaded into a digital afterlife fall in love. And Black Mirror isn't the only media to explore the possibilities of technological afterlife — the video game Soma introduces players to the concept of humanity surviving a planetwide extinction event by uploading ourselves into a server bank "ark" to be sent out into space.

Whether Black Mirror or Soma realities will come to fruition thanks to a futuristic version of Nectome's technology is impossible to know. But the startup's current technology is already forging new ground in neuroscience. According to MIT Technology Review, Nectome, just received an $80,000 science prize "for preserving a pig's brain so well that every synapse inside it could be seen with an electron microscope."

This perfect preservation of a brain is essential to Nectome's uploading process, because a successful upload requires a fresh brain, the company told MIT Technology Review. Its preservation method, which is called aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation and takes about six hours, "can keep a body intact for hundreds of years, maybe thousands, as a statue of frozen glass," according to MIT Technology Review. Preservation, however, is where the whole "100 percent fatal" part comes in. To preserve your brain and the memories it contains perfectly, Nectome would have to pump its embalming chemicals into you while you're still alive — under general anesthesia, of course.

"The company says its plan is to connect people with terminal illnesses to a heart-lung machine in order to pump its mix of scientific embalming chemicals into the big carotid arteries in their necks," Antonio Regalado writing for MIT Technology Review says. People who are preserved before upload technology is available will be kept on ice, so to say, until the tech is ready. According to Nectome's website, it plans to present a "fully characterized and simulated" biological neural network in 2024.

McIntyre and his Nectome cofounder Michael McCanna, along with a pathologist they'd hired, did a trial run of their procedure in January 2018 with a recently deceased person who had donated their body to science. McIntyre told the MIT Technology Review that the brain is "one of the best-preserved ever," and that it's going to be imaged with an electron microscope to provide Nectome with further information about its process.

That process is not currently available, but McIntyre and McCanna have been consulting with lawyers to delve into the regulations surrounding doctor-assisted suicide for terminal patients, and think aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation will be legal, according to MIT Technology Review.

Nectome has already begun evaluating its market size by opening a waiting list for people interested in uploading. Saving a slot will cost you a cool $10,000, which Nectome says is "fully refundable" if you decide the digital afterlife isn't for you. The wait list currently has 25 members.

Ken Hayworth, a neuroscientist who is president of the Brain Preservation Foundation, addressed the possible ethical quandaries surrounding Nectome, telling MIT Technology Review that, "If you are like me, and think that mind uploading is going to happen, it’s not that controversial. But it could look like you are enticing someone to commit suicide to preserve their brain."

While the ability to completely upload all the minuscule threads of our spider web minds into a digital world that feels real is currently relegated to science fiction, Nectome's research and aspirations make a technological afterlife seem close at hand. And though "upload your brain" is still pretty bananas to say, it's hard not to wonder what might be possible if Nectome's vision becomes reality.