By Daniel Steele
In Frictional Games' 2015 survival-horror game "Soma," the protagonist Simon Jarrett suffers a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. He loses his wife in the crash and finds that his injury is terminal. Jarrett has nothing to lose except for his mind, and in a way, he does. Yet he's left with the exact brain he starts with.
In a last-ditch effort to save his own life, Jarrett agrees to an experimental program, created by a Dr. Munshi, which copies his brain one-for-one into a simulation. This simulation allows for Munshi to target and freely experiment on the deteriorating part of Jarrett's brain to find solutions to the ailment. After all, it's just a simulation. But it is a perfect simulation, and it is here where Jarrett's existential nightmare begins. In a theoretical world, where the brain has an exact copy, are there now two Simon Jarretts?
"Soma" weaves this idea throughout its plot and plays with ideas about consciousness and self, asking what these things truly mean. Its premise relies on the theoretical idea of mind uploading, also called brain uploading or whole brain simulation. The theory suggests that if a perfect scan of a brain with all of its data is transferred to a computer, then so is the person's consciousness.
The premise is clearly science fiction for the distant future. Many sci-fi novels and films have riffed on this idea, but "Soma" is a highly compelling take on it. At one point in the plot, the game lets its player make a decision. From the start of "Soma," the player controls the copied version of the original Jarrett. Later on, the player must copy the original's copy, but at that point the player still thinks the first copy is the original one.
The player can choose to pull the cord on the first copy they had initial control of, effectively ending Jarrett's life. But the player lives on through the second copy. Is this murder? The second Jarrett still experiences pain and all the other human aspects of the physical one, but it's simulated. Whether the player pulls the cord or not depends on whether they think of Jarrett's copy as a human being. A consciousness with value. And if the player doesn't value the copy, what does that make them, a copy of a copy?
Although "Soma's" sci-fi is far-flung, actual neuroscientists and collaborators from several universities and the National Institutes of Health are currently working on the Human Connectome Project. The project aims to build a comprehensive map of the human brain, called connectomics, to better understand its complex anatomical nest of neural connections.
The project is highly ambitious and lengthy. There is so much information to process from a human brain that mapping a single one will likely take decades and many more millions of dollars.
In a video for Boston University, Dr. Bobby Kasthuri, neuroscience researcher at Argonne National Laboratory, said "the entire (human) genome can fit on one or two thumb drives."
Kasthuri then said just a cubic millimeter of a mouse brain would fit on 400,000 thumb drives.
The project's ultimate goal is to use its data to research brain disorders such as dyslexia, autism and Alzheimers, to name a few. But some futurists postulate that connectomic's natural and ultimate conclusion is transfer of consciousness.
This transfer, or mind uploading, seen in "Soma" assumes that all consciousness resides in the brain. Some philosophers disagree.
"I don't think consciousness can ever be reduced to any physical brain activity," said philosophy professor Daniel Kern. "So that means the most you can do with a computer is transfer information from the brain to information in a computer."
Kern said a crucial aspect of consciousness is lost in this information transfer, since not all of it is physical. He agrees with David Chalmers, a well-known Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist who specializes in philosophy of the mind. Chalmers says there are aspects of consciousness not reducible to objective physical structure, called qualia.
Kern gave an example of qualia with the color red. He said there is no redness in the brain. It doesn't see red, but fires neurons which a person attributes to the color. A color-blind person may not see the color red at all. Therefore, colors like red are a subjective experience in relation to each person's consciousness.
Kern's and Chalmer's positions on consciousness make them non-physicalists, but many neuroscientists are. Whether "Soma's" chilling premise of brain uploading becomes a reality depends on which view is the truth. It will also take time and the incredible collective effort of humanity to push the limits of our understanding of consciousness.