Photo: Reuters
JOHANNESBURG -  Hopefully all serious computer users have properly backed up their desktop and laptop computers before they leave for the Christmas holiday. If you have not, now is the time to do it! A break-in or loss of a computer could be a very disastrous start to 2020.

Would it not be great if we could also backup our brain and memories just in case something happens to us over the festive season? You never know what may happen on the busy and often dangerous roads or due to all the festive overindulgence.

Well, I have good news. It seems as if we are one step closer to be able to download the precious content of our brains. I have written in the BR of 25 October about the ultra-high efficiency of perovskites - a compound material with a crystal structure - in photovoltaic cells that make solar energy more viable. Now it seems that perovskites may in future enable us to download our brains.

Researchers from Purdue University (a public research university in West Lafayette, Indiana, USA) and the Argonne National Laboratory at the University of Chicago Argonne (in Lemont, Illinois just outside Chicago, USA), earlier this year published an article in Nature Communications with the title “Perovskite nickelates as bio-electronic interfaces.” 

According to the researchers they have engineered a new synthetic quantum material based on Perovskite nickelates (SmNiO3) that can “speak” or rather “interpret” the brain’s language and thus act as a bio-electronic interface between electronics and the brain. For a long time researchers have been searching for a material that could “think” like the brain does and that could detect early signs of its own neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s. 

Until now the major obstacle in mimicking the human brain in “thinking” machines were the semi-conductors we used, since they work through conduction of electrons, whereas the brain uses currents of ions. 

But since it is a quantum material, the perovskite nickelate has electronic properties that cannot be explained by classical physics and that gives it a major edge over other materials normally used in electronics, such as the semi-conductor silicon. The goal is of course to bridge the gap between how electronics think (via electrons), and how the brain thinks (via ions). The perovskite nickelate helped the researchers to find a potential bridge or interface between the brain and electronics. 

Researchers are nowhere near a material that can think like the brain, but the Purdue University and Argonne National Laboratory researchers have engineered a material that can at least “listen” to the brain by grabbing atoms, which the brain naturally uses to communicate. The brain performs certain reactions such as sending a signal to breathe through an ionic current. Thus detecting ions entails as a bonus also the detection of the concentration of a molecule, which serves as an indicator of the brain’s health. This quantum material can thus help the brain to detect its own diseases.

The researchers tested the quantum material, a “nickelate lattice”, on two molecules: Glucose, a sugar that is vital for energy production in humans, and dopamine, an organic neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) that regulates movement, emotional responses and memory. Since people with neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease and also possibly schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), have very low dopamine levels in the brain, detecting this chemical has been extremely difficult. 

This low concentration prevents the early detection of neurological diseases and effective pharmacological therapies. 

But, in the published article the researchers explain the amazing ability of the quantum material, perovskite nickelate, where strong “correlated” electrons make the material extra sensitive and extra tuneable to ionic currents in the brain. In fact, the perovskite nickelate is about nine times more sensitive to dopamine than any other current method.

The researchers found that when the perovskite nickelate came in contact with glucose or dopamine molecules, the oxide spontaneously grab hydrogen from the molecules via an enzyme. The strong affinity to hydrogen, allowed the material to extract atoms spontaneously – without any external energy input. Since the perovskite nickelate did not need any power to take the hydrogen in, it allowed very low-power electronics with high sensitivity. 

The “nickelate lattice” is thus able to directly translate the brain’s electrochemical signals into electrical activity, which could then be interpreted by a computer. According to the researchers the quantum material could sense the atoms of a range of molecules, beyond just glucose and dopamine. Their main aim is to create a way for the quantum material to “talk back” to the brain. 

This translation of the communication between brain and computer would mean that with further research perovskite nickelate might even assist in the “downloading” of memories of the human brain on a computing device. If successful this would enable the implantation of an electronic device in the brain, so that when natural brain functions start deteriorating due to neurological diseases or old age, people would still be able to retrieve memories from the device.

This very innovative research of creating a functional interface between electronics and biological matter invokes ideas of uploading the content of our brains and our precious memories directly to the cloud and using computer technology to track deep neurological health metrics. 

However, the brain of a human is very complex with about 100 billion neurons and trillions of connections that are finely tuned over time by our life experiences. Researchers have over the years endeavoured to precisely scan and map the brain to be eventually able to copy it. But until now the whole brain of a human has not yet been scanned – not even nearly. 

In 2014 researchers scanned the brain of a roundworm and made a simulation that they installed into a robot. The simulated brain moved the robot freely without any human direction. Other scientists created complex algorithms for large-scale human brain simulations.

One of the largest brain scanning projects are taking place at the Allen Institute in Seattle, USA. They have succeeded in scanning and reconstructing a cubic millimetre of a mouse brain. Until now this is the largest road map of a mammalian brain. This piece of brain the size of a single grain of sand contained 100 000 neurons and over a billion synapses. To be scanned it had to be sectioned 25 000 times with each slice only 40 nanometres (about one fifth of a human hair) thick. Then millions of images were taken of these slices. 

There is no doubt that it would be a mammoth task to scan the entire human brain. Mapping a human brain a million times larger would take a fleet of electron microscopes decades to image. Technology has to change dramatically to make this happen. Currently we just do not have powerful enough technology available to map the entire human brain. 

And if we could, there is always the important question it would it also copy our consciousness? Most neuroscientists say yes, it would exactly be the same person. But we are not totally sure if there are other issues involved. For instance, has the capturing being done at a high enough resolution to fully capture who the human person is?

Memories are indeed data and we should be able to copy that data to a computer. And you would effectively be you. But what kind of you would you be? Would you be a mere simulation, except when installed into a robot? Some scientists believe it would merely feel like coming out of surgery. 

Mind uploading is very long term. We can only scan and simulate a very small portion at the moment. But technology is constantly improving. Despite the important progress made by researches, we are still some time away form downloading our memories to a computer or intelligent device, or mapping the human brain. It would therefore perhaps be prudent to write down or record precious memories in the old-fashioned way to ensure that it is not lost in case of any unfortunate event or before the brain decays because of age and the memories are lost forever. Then you can enjoy the festive season to its fullest.

Of course uploading of our brains to a computer or robot brings the possibility of immortality in future, religiously pursued by brain preservationists and transhumanists. This, however, would create a plethora of ethical and other questions that still need to be answered.

Prof Louis C H Fourie  is a Futurist and a Technology Strategist.