Disclaimer: this is not an analysis of the plot, cinematography, execution or characters of Replicas but solely a review of the technology, with the plot supplied for your understanding.
A brief plot summary of Replicas
William Foster (Keanu Reeves), a leading expert in neural mapping and transfer, and Ed Whittle (Thomas Middleditch), an expert at cloning fully-formed bodies, both work at Bionyne Corporation, a biomedical company secretly trying to create robot soldiers for the US Army. Foster and his team are attempting to upload the brain of a fallen soldier into a robot, Subject 345, something they have failed to do to date. When William’s entire family dies in a car crash he, with the help of Ed, secretly clones them and uploads their neural data into the clones. To do this Ed sneaks out some cloning pods and Foster attempts to crack the brain-uploading problem in the short weeks he has until his family’s clones are ready. Just in time, William realises he needs a neural translator to convince the brain it is in its own body. This works and his family is cloned without major problems.
To interface with the neurological data of his patients, Foster needs to use a ‘head-mounted display helmet’. This is coupled with gesture tracking and some sort of operating software, not unlike a scene out of the Iron Man films. Thankfully for the realism of the movie, setups like this are possible to create, with head-mounted displays currently being used by multiple different fighter pilots. Though there have been few cases where a glass head-mounted display is used with gesture controls, it wouldn’t be so difficult of a task to create one.
In Replicas, the key technology is the ability to scan someone’s brain and store that information. This technology, an elusive end-goal of transhumanism, is shown in the movie to be done with a probe that enters through the eyeball. The process isn’t terminal on live patients and is shown to not even be that damaging, however, it is not very accurate. Replicas even suggests this method would work on dead patients with only partial brain integrity. Whilst a cognitive scan would definitely be invasive, it would certainly require more than just one probe. As suggested in Neuralink’s presentation, the best method would be to have many tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of microscopic electrodes that listen to the neural activity and use AI to translate it. Even this method is flawed, depending on how often neurons fire in certain ways. For some memories there may be many years where something isn’t thought of until one day, out of nowhere, for some reason it is. All in all, the method in Replicas of a single probe is very unrealistic.
Whatever method finally is used to scan someone’s brain, once that data has been gathered, it should be a far simpler affair to upload it. Where Replicas differs from the normal concept of brain uploading is that it suggests it should be possible to upload into both robots and living humans. This is where stuff gets difficult. Uploading to a robot should just be as simple as translating the data to something readable for a computer but the same cannot be said for uploading into a human clone.
The logic behind uploading into the clones is that the clones haven’t yet used their brains so are essentially ‘blank slates’. This is, however, frankly bollocks as newly born babies who also have had comparatively no experiences form with neurons arranged differently from any other baby. The idea that you could electrically turn an already formed brain into a preexisting one is so impractical it may as well be impossible. Despite this, somewhat ironically, the movie already had a mechanism for brain similarity: cloning a fully formed adult. If we take the perspective that brains are an arrangement of chemicals and nothing else, which they are, the film could have just used that explanation and then the whole upload and transfer would be far less important. Ultimately, computers can be ‘blank slates’ but animals are not. Trying to digitally transfer neural data from one brain into another living brain may as well be impossible.
Now, Hollywood being Hollywood, there was also another complication: every robot upload, no matter how well the procedure went, would always reject its robotic body. In the movie, Foster fears the same would happen with his family so tries to fix this problem. Eventually, he creates an algorithm to trick the uploaded brain into thinking it was in its original body. This idea is actually a plausible one. Our brains are trained to operate our muscles, not robotic arms. If we upload our brain into something that doesn’t have muscles it would be like having the wrong file type on a computer; the data is there but it makes no sense on the software you are using. What we would need is some way of translating the brain’s intentions into motion. For example, if you wanted to close your fist, you would need a program to detect what muscles the brain wants to move and have that close a robotic fist instead. Having said all that, the algorithm may not be entirely necessary given that brain-machine interfaces can already successfully operate remote robotic limbs without some complicated translator.
The last major piece of technology in the film is the cloning pods. The idea behind these is that biological data from one organism can be taken and then replicated by a machine. All the machine needs is the building materials of all organic matter: amino acids, sugars, minerals, water and all the other vital resources. This device is distinct from real-life cloning as it produces fully-formed organisms at the age of the original organism, i.e. Foster’s wife is cloned as an adult woman and not a baby.
This could be proposed one of two ways: DNA scanning or full-body scanning. In the case of DNA, the results would be inaccurate at best. Over time, our physical environment changes our bodily appearance and makeup enough that there is a noticeable difference. This effect is seen when identical twins separated at birth grow up to look clearly different. On the other hand, with a full body scan, this problem goes away but introduces its won problems. In order to have an accurate template you would need to scan every tissue in the body, which would require the body being effectively ripped to shreds. Given that Foster’s family had already been dead for some time this method wouldn’t even work, only outputting another dead body. Overall, the cloning process is either impossible or possible but highly inaccurate, something which would ruin the narrative and purpose for many people.
In total, Replicas raises some very serious issues that come from the loose regulation of brain-uploading and cloning technology. The film is successful in presenting these conundrums in a plausible enough manor and is a lot more technologically accurate than other films of this subject area. That said, some aspects of the technology are still absurd and unlikely to ever be real, though these don’t detract from the message of the film that a lack of guidelines around new technology allows for extreme moral ambiguity and potential for catastrophic failure.