Death, Connectomes, and the Future of User Interface Design

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A remarkable article in The New York Times ties together human tragedy and technological fantasy. Kim Suozzi, the subject of “A Dying Young Woman’s Hope in Cryonics and a Future,” was a brain cancer victim who chose to have her brain frozen in the hope of future technical salvation.

The article alternates between the practical challenges of facing death and post-death preservation and the challenges of hypothetical connectomes—digital mappings of all of the brain’s connections following death. Theoretically, a connectome of an individual’s brain would replicate all of the content learned by, and potentially even the consciousness of, that individual. But there are many technical challenges to achieve this. For example it’s estimated that a single person’s connectome would encompass more than a billion terabytes (a terabyte is a thousand gigabytes) of information storage.

The concept of a connectome inspires a range of provocative ideas, not the least of which is eternal consciousness. And while the article doesn’t broach the subject, connectomes raise some interesting implications and questions for user interface design. For example, brains typically endure some damage during the freezing process. Creating a functional connectome could require that particular areas “might be replaced with off-the-shelf spare parts. . .and broken ones might be digitally pieced back together.” We’ll need to design the tools that enable restoring a person’s mind back, but will this be a purely algorithmic interaction, or will it require an intimate understanding of the individual? Might the process elicit input from family, friends and even recordings of the deceased to get the best match?

The larger question is of course the user experience of interacting with a connectome. Certainly technology, including user interfaces, will have advanced substantially by the time we are able to actually capture a comprehensive map of the mind—the 40-year estimate mentioned in the article is highly optimistic, to put it mildly. I’d guess the timeframe is actually a century or more. At that point our interactions with technology will likely be very naturalistic—artificial intelligence, virtual reality and robotics will be commonplace. We might also imagine biological systems that can support interactions with technology, such as organic computers and cyborgs. That is why it may become a matter of preference, or even ethics, as to how we interact with the connectomes of deceased loves ones—if “deceased” is still even an applicable term in the future.

Illustration by Morgan Knepper

The author

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Rob Tannen

Senior Director of UX Teams