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Startup wants to upload your brain to the cloud, but has to kill you to do it

A US startup is promising to upload customers’ brains to the cloud using a pioneering technique it has trialled on rabbits.

The only catch, according to the company’s cofounder? The process is “100% fatal”.

Nectome, founded in 2016 by a pair of MIT AI researchers, hopes to offer a commercial application of a novel process for preserving brains, called “aldehyde-stabilised cryopreservation”. The process, which results in the brain being “vitrifixed” – the startup’s self-named term for essentially turning it into glass – is promising enough that it has won two prizes from the Brain Preservation Foundation, for preserving a rabbit’s brain in 2016 and a pig’s brain in 2018.

Influential startup accelerator Y Combinator has taken Nectome in, with the organisation’s chief executive, Sam Altman, becoming one of the 25 people to pay a $10,000 deposit to join its waiting list. “I assume my brain will be uploaded to the cloud,” Altman told MIT Technology Review.

But there is one pretty large downside. In order for the vitrification process to preserve a brain well enough to leave hope of accurate upload or revival, it has to be carried out at the moment of death. Or, more precisely, it has to be the cause of death: the subject/customer/victim has the blood flow to their brain replaced with the embalming chemicals that preserve the neuronal structure, even as they kill the patient.

Nectome believes that its service is legal in certain US states with robust euthanasia laws, including California, where “death with dignity” statutes have been in place for two years. Even then, however, it doesn’t predict actual use of its services until around 2021.

The other downside of Nectome is that, in common with most cryopreservation businesses, the company doesn’t have any actual method for reviving or uploading the brains it stores. It hopes to demonstrate a fully uploaded simulation of “a biological neural network” sometime around 2024, according to its website. There is no timescale for providing an uploaded brain with anything approaching the ability to interact with the outside world.

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