Dreaming of Electric Brains

By Jon Sung | Earthdate 01.01.1970

By Jon Sung

Grab your tools everyone! We might be on our way to building an android brain!

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Scientists at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology’s MicroNano Research Facility have built what they call an “electronic multi-state memory cell,” a tiny device that essentially mimics the functions of a human brain cell. Our neurons have the curious property of being able to both process information and store it at the same time, something we as a species were always going to have to figure out if we wanted to build an android brain — and now, it seems, we’ve taken the first steps down that path.

Given that we’re still struggling to create a humanoid robot that can get out of a car without falling over, the idea of one day building an actual android seems almost absurd, but this breakthrough in artificial neuron research is promising. Even with all the progress we’ve made in anatomy and neuroscience, we’re still not actually sure how the brain — that fatty lump of weird meat inside our skulls — works to create a living, thinking, feeling person. One way to try unraveling that mystery might just be to build a physical copy of a brain out of something other than biological neurons — like electronic multi-state memory cells, or perhaps in the parlance of the 24th century, a “positronic matrix.” If you could build something like that and fire it up, what might you create? Would you have a functioning android on your hands?

Lacking any evidence to the contrary, I’m going to say, “yes.” Let’s face it: nobody in or out of Starfleet has ever actually explained in truly concrete terms what positronic technology actually is. What we do know is that it’s incredibly hard to build, so hard that Dr. Noonien Soong was essentially the only person to ever get it right, which implies a problem of serious depth and complexity; we also know that it’s the key to making android brains. A very strong case could be made that positronic technology has something to do with accurately recreating the structure and function of biological neurons using inorganic materials and signaling. If the Soong-type androids are any guide, solving this problem means opening up a world of possibilities.

For starters, you can create a truly sentient artificial person with their own thoughts, memories, and preferences — even desires.

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Of course, that also means you might not get an innately good artificial person.

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But there’s more: a positronic brain so closely mimics the structure and function of a human one that you can actually upload a human neural signaling pattern into a brand-new artificial brain and preserve every last bit of that person’s personality.

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In fact, an android brain does the job of a biological one so well that the person you’ve uploaded would not realize the difference if you didn’t tell them.

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Unfortunately, this also means that you can transfer your consciousness into a positronic brain that already has a personality in it, although Dr. Ira Graves discovered that the process has some serious drawbacks for the mentally unprepared.

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But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves: in the here and now, the RMIT researchers think we might one day be able use this technology to treat degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, presumably by replacing damaged or malfunctioning neurons with artificial ones. Perhaps unsurprisingly, something like that was attempted by Dr. Julian Bashir around stardate 48498.4 in the course of treating a mortally-wounded Vedek Bareil.

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In need of only a few days’ time to complete critical negotiations with the Cardassians, Bareil insisted the doctor try an experimental procedure that replaced damaged parts of his brain with a positronic implant. It didn’t work out so well, but that may have been unavoidable; Starfleet never got the knack of producing a positronic matrix as good as Data’s. Might we? As Data himself might say, the possibility cannot be mathematically ruled out.


 

Jon Sung is a contributing writer for XPRIZE and copywriting gun-for-hire to startups and ventures all over the San Francisco Bay area. When not wrangling words for business or pleasure, he serves as the captain of the USS Loma Prieta, the hardest-partying Star Trek fan club in San Francisco.

XPRIZE is an innovation engine. We design and operate prize competitions to address global crises and market failures, and incentivize teams around the world to solve them. Currently, we are operating numerous prizes, including the $30M Google Lunar XPRIZE, challenging privately funded teams to successfully land a robot on the Moon’s surface, and the $10M Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, challenging teams around the world to create a portable, wireless, Star Trek-inspired medical device that allows you to monitor your health and medical conditions anywhere, anytime. The result? Radical innovation that will help us all live long and prosper.