“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

New Yorker's Talk of the Town Goes Sci-Fi

Dept. of Neurotechnology


Undermin(d)ing Mortality


"Most people's first response," Michael Maytree tells me over lunch, "is, you know, of course I want to live forever." The topic of our conversation surprises me, as Maytree's fame hinges not on his longevity—as remarkable as his ninety-seven years makes him—but on his current status as record-holder for greatest proportion of manmade brain in any human. Maytree says according to his doctors his brain is around seventy percent prosthetic. (Most people with prosthetic brain parts bristle at the term "artificial," but Maytree enjoys the running joke of his wife's about any extraordinary aspect of his thinking apparatus being necessarily unreal.)

He goes on, "But then you have to ask yourself: Do I really want to live through the pain of grieving for people again and again? Is there enough to look forward to to make going on—and on and on—worthwhile?" He stops to take a long sip of his coffee while quickly scanning our fellow patrons in the diner on West 103rd. Only when his age is kept in mind does there seem anything unsettling about his sharp-eyed attunement. Within the spectrum of aging, Maytree could easily pass for a younger guy with poor skin resiliency.

"The question I find most troubling though is, will I, as I get really, really old, be able to experience things, particularly relationships, as…"—he rolls his right hand, still holding a forkful of couscous, as he searches for the mot juste—"as profoundly—or fulfillingly—as I did when I was younger." He smirks and adds, "Like when I was still in my eighties."

When we first sat down in the diner, I asked Maytree if he'd received much attention from anyone other than techies and fellow implantees. Aside from the never-ending cascade of questions posted on the MindFX website he helps run (www.mindfx.gov), which serves as something of a support group listserv for people with brain prostheses and their families, and the requisite visits to research labs, including the one he receives medical care from, he gets noticed very little. The question about his brain he finds most interesting, he says, comes up frequently at the labs.

"I'd thought about it before I got the last implant," he said. "It struck me when Dr. Branson"—Maytree's chief neurosurgeon—"told me when it was done I'd have something like seventy percent brain replacement. Well, if my brain is already mostly mechanical, it shouldn't be that much of a stretch to transfer the part that isn't into some sort of durable medium—and, viola, my mind would become immortal."

It turned out the laboratory where Branson performed the surgery, the latest ("probably not the last," Maytree says) in a series of replacements and augmentations that began with a treatment for an injury he sustained in combat while serving in Iran and continued as he purchased shares in several biotech and neural implant businesses and watched their value soar, already had a division devoted to work on this very prospect. Though the work is being kept secret, it seems Maytree would be a likely subject if experimental procedures are in the offing. Hence my follow-up question: "Would you do it?"

"Think of a friend you've made recently," he enjoins me now, putting down his fork so he can gesticulate freely. "Now, is that friendship comparable—I mean emotion-wise—with friendships you began as a child? Sometimes I think there's no comparison; relationships in childhood are much deeper. Is it the same with every experience?" He rests his right elbow on the table next to his plate and leans in. "Or is the difference just a trick of memory? I honestly don't know."

(Another favorite question of Maytree's: Are you conscious? He says people usually add, or at least imply, "I mean, like me," to clarify. "I always ask then, 'Are you conscious—I mean like you were five years ago?' Naturally they can't remember.")

Finally, he leans back again, looks off into space shaking his head. "It's hard to think about without getting lost in the philosophical…" He trails off a moment before continuing dreamily, with downcast eyes and absent expression. "But it's important because you kind of need to know if the new experiences are going to be worth the passing on of the old ones." And that's the crux of the problem.

"Of course," he says turning back to me with a fraught grin, "it all boils down to what's going on in the brain anyway."

Dennis Junk

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