And the 1 Reason It Will Definitely Succeed
Now before we get into the topic of mind uploading, we have to confess, we have some terrible news for you.
Your music collection is doomed. Your DVDs and CDs? They are slowly falling apart. They will soon become unreadable. In fact, many early CDs no longer work at all.
This is actually all completely true. It's called disc rot (or deterioration) and it's a real thing.
Now maybe you're young enough that you will just laugh at that. Your reply is that you've never bought a CD in your life. Everything's always been MP3's, iTunes, Spotify.
Or maybe you say, “I have nothing to worry about! I backed up my CD collection years ago. Everything is on the cloud. What difference does it make if the original CD falls apart? I couldn't care less.”
Do you see where I'm going with this yet?
You're not worried what happens to your physical CDs because you've got the music stored in a way that guarantees you'll never lose it.
But what if we applied this thinking to our own minds?
Like our CD collection, or anything that exists in a purely physical form, our bodies, our minds, and our selves will ultimately cease to be. Once our bodies stop working, our consciousness will go to… wherever it goes after we die.
But what if we could “back up” our consciousness to another form?
What if we could turn our brains into information, and stay alive by becoming part of the cloud, or a massive database? We could still make decisions, we could still hang out with our friends. We'd probably even have time to watch all those shows on our Netflix list.
Maybe we'd hang out in some matrix-like program, constantly evolving in the confines of an artificial world. Or maybe we could be removed, dusted off, and transferred back into a physical body.
Mind uploading. It's the idea that just because we lose our bodies doesn't mean we have to lose our lives.
But is this something that could ever be possible? Or is it just a lot of rot?
The Benefits of Mind Uploading
Although instinct may initially tell us that this would have only negative consequences, could there be any sort of advantage to mind uploading? Either on the individual or small scale?
There's no doubt that mind uploading would radically change our notions of being human. That would happen the instant someone made the first successful transfer.
What if mind uploading became an option for people in the larger scheme?
It would almost certainly create an even further imbalance in society, as it would be prohibitively expensive. The only people who would be able to afford such a costly procedure would be the super-rich, who would use the technology to consolidate their power further.
The moral implications of mind uploading are generally negative. Fans of Philip K Dick's Altered Carbon will know what we're talking about here. Just as the technology would have a lasting effect on society, so would the ways in which that technology would likely be abused.
But what good could come of it?
We Could Use a Lot Fewer Resources
There are good reasons for wanting to find a way to upload our consciousness onto a computer.
For one thing, what if we were able to exist in a scenario where we weren't constantly requiring food, water, and other physical necessities?
What if the planet could avoid having to use 94 billion barrels of oil every day? What if we could stop cutting down 15 billion trees a year? If we were free of needing to use up natural resources at this rate?
Certainly, there is no such thing as “zero impact.” The initial costs of mind uploading would be significant, as would energy costs of storing a consciousness on a computer.
But when you consider that the technology would undoubtedly get smaller and more efficient as time went on, it may not be as much as one would think. Especially when compared to the long-term burden of having billions of people on the planet.
We Could Exist In Multiple Places at Once
Who hasn't wished for this at some point?
Either you wish you had more hours in the day, or you could be more places. If only you could split yourself into multiple versions so you could get more things checked off your to-do list…
Mind uploading would allow for people to exist in multiple places at the same time, no longer confining a person or a consciousness to a single physical location
We Could Learn Things Way Faster
If you remember the first Matrix movie, you remember the scene where Neo (Keanu Reeves) plugs into a program that uploads information directly into his brain. His eyes pop open and in astonishment he says “…I know Kung Fu.”
Getting your advanced degree may be as easy as this. Just fire up the right program and zap a bunch of information right into your mind.
In this case, it's mind uploading in the other direction.
But one imagines that if it came possible to do mind uploading, it would also quickly become common practice to make enhancements on the computerized version.
At this level, access to knowledge would no longer be a barrier for the majority of people… what would matter would be the application of that knowledge.
We Could Explore the Stars
As fun as sci-fi shows can be, there's a lot they usually get wrong about deep space exploration.
It often goes like this.
A bunch of people leave the solar system in search of other habitable planets. They are on a big, fancy spaceship that looks like a cross between a futuristic submarine and a Caribbean cruise ship.
The ship inevitably discovers something incredibly cool and possibly supernatural (we're not saying it's aliens, but…)
Then one of the humans does something selfish and stupid, messing it up for everybody. Laser guns, fight scenes, dramatic and noise action.
It will come as no surprise that real space exploration wouldn't be like this at all. Because in space… there's just a lot of nothing.
The distance between other planets and Earth is almost inconceivably vast. And if a bunch of humans wanted to make that trick, their bodies would be subject to all sorts of radiation, biological stress, and probably other elements we haven't even thought of.
But a computer could go for years on another planet, calmly doing its job. Just look at NASA's Opportunity Mars rover, which spent fifteen years quietly photographing and analyzing the unforgiving Martian surface, long after it was expected to stop working.
We Would Basically Be Immortal
So technically immortality is probably impossible. There's no way of knowing if the universe will last forever, and scientists seem to be pretty sure that there is a “heat death of the universe”, at which the whole show will come to an end.
But in the meantime, people could live many lives at once. Or simply make sure that they would not cease to exist if their physical body broke down. It may not be immortality in the perfect sense, but it's the closest thing there is.
But There Are Still Many, Many Problems
Of course, this raises many moral questions.
The issues raised here are interesting, but they will probably not be ones we have to solve any time soon. At least not in the next few decades, and possibly not for another century.
In order to understand why, we need to take a look at the way the brain works.
The Supercomputer Already in Your Head
The major problem lies right between our ears.
The brain we already have. It's something we still don't know very much about.
If the brain is a machine, it's an incredibly complicated one. Far more complicated than even the most advanced computers we currently have developed.
Sure, humans may not be able to perform mathematical calculations as quickly or accurately as computers can. And chess computer programs can beat humans now, too… even champions like Gary Kasparov.
But these computers, while fast, are also often fairly uncomplicated. They way they operate is very structured and logical.
But the way people make decisions? Not so much. Or if we do operate logically, we have not been able to crack the puzzle of how… yet.
What we do know is where in the brain certain things happen. For instance, we know that the part of the brain responsible for processing vision isn't very near the eyes. It's actually in the back of the brain, in the Occipital Lobe.
And the part of the brain that is near the eyes is the part we use to focus and to make decisions. That's the Frontal Lobe, and some people think that's where our sense of right and wrong exists (many psychopaths have damage or unusual activity in this region).
But when it comes to wiring a complicated device, knowing the “general area” isn't nearly exact enough. For a real chance of success, we need to understand it on a minute scale.
That's where the study known as “neural networking” comes in.
You Gotta Learn to Network
“Neural Networking” is a specialized scientific field that involves the study of the brain's physical architecture and biology.
It's no small task… the human brain has about 85 billion neurons. Each one would need to be mapped and understood.
Not only would scientists need to do this; they would also need to map and understand the connections between neurons. Because each neuron is connected to up to 10,000 other neurons.
In very basic terms, the process is like this. If you want to copy a road map, you have to get all the details.
The neurons are the cities or towns. The connections between the neurons are the roads themselves. Without having both thoroughly accounted for, you don't have an accurate map. Not one that gets you anywhere.
Essentially, the challenges of mind uploading would be as follows:
First, we'd need to figure out a way to map the brain.
Next, we'd need to make sure to do this in such a way that we could transfer the person's consciousness to some sort of storage device.
Obviously, we'd also need to build some sort of mechanism capable of storing a consciousness.
We would need to be able to make this transfer safely, so that the consciousness was not harmed in the process.
And finally, we'd need to have a device that could not only store the information indefinitely, but would allow it to actively function in real time.
As it so happens, some people are already working toward doing just this…
The Great Emulator
That's a lot of steps, but people have been thinking about this for a while. One particular neuroscientist named Randal Koene has given it more attention than almost anybody else.
Randal Koene is a Dutch-born neuroscientist who believes that humanity should be able to transfer consciousness from a biological brain to some sort of computer mechanism.
Koene describes it using the term “emulator.”
One could think of it the same way that one can run a Mac program on an IBM, or vice versa. They are different machines, but with the help of an emulator, it's possible for one machine to run programs that were originally written for a different operating system.
Koene is a fascinating person… just check out this interview with him here:
But what would Koene's emulator look like? And what would be necessary to unlock the mystery of making it work?
Some scientists believe that you need to start with a large-scale understanding of the brain, in order to understand how to build it from the top down.
Others think that understanding the brain in this way may be impossible, and that you should start by learning and copying all of the physical components, so that you can replicate the brain. If you were able to do this exactly, you wouldn't need to worry about the big picture and the many theoretical elements that come along with it.
This brain map must be somehow derived from the brain itself. And it might be difficult to do that without taking the physical body into account. That's because the brain isn't designed only to think, but also to move a physical body.
So for a whole brain simulation to work, this network map would also need to pretend that the mind was being transferred to a human body (even if that wasn't the case).
One possible method might be a technique called serial sectioning.
Brain scientists have used this technique for a long time in order to gain a better understanding of how things work. When a person donates their body to science, one of the things that can happen is to take very thin cross-sections in order to see how all of the pieces fit together.
It's a laborious process. Preserving a brain requires freezing it but carefully, so as not to damage the sample by allowing water crystals to form in the organ and damage the physical structure.
Then, these cross-sections are studied under an electron microscope. Researcher record how everything fits together in meticulous detail.
The hope is that making a perfect copy would result in a perfectly functioning brain. However, the technology to make these kinds of measurements is still years away, and there is also the possibility of failure. Even if a copy is made, would it still work like it is supposed to?
Somewhere Over the Brainbow
Researchers at Harvard, Columbia, MIT and many others are tackling the question of how to construct an accurate map. Part of the challenge is that it's not enough to see the pieces of a frozen brain that comes from a dead animal or person… scientists need ways of studying a brain while it is actually working.
So far, one of the methods developed is nicknamed a “brainbow.”
This map allows scientists to look at individual neurons in a live mouse.
They invented the brainbow by taking bioluminescent proteins from jellyfish. Then they colored these proteins differently, so that they would be easier to differentiate when they showed up on scans.
The result is that each neuron reacts with the proteins to form an individual color of its own. Eventually, it may be possible to learn how to copy a human brain with the knowledge gained from these studies.
But of course, this all supposes that everything we are, all of our identity, can be expressed simply as a result of the physical structure of our brains. Is there anything more? What if there's another element; something that can't be copied?
Artificial Human Intelligence
The other option is to try to create a model for Artificial Intelligence. Ideally, this would be an accurate model of how a human brain works. Then the AI could simply be adapted to the individual that is undergoing the mind uploading process.
There are a few challenges with this.
Computers are currently learning to do things that are mind-boggling. One of the things that has recently made headlines is facial recognition; a robotic AI with a camera attached, using the right software, can learn to see a face and remember who it belongs to.
But even with the most advanced AI, nothing we have created can come close to emulating how human beings make decisions.
Would You Be Willing to Transfer?
Mind uploading is also known as “mind transfer” (or a “brain transfer”). But whatever we wind up calling it, the idea is the same.
Let's assume for a moment that scientists figure out how to copy and make an exact replica of a brain. The time comes to transfer consciousness… but then what?
When you make a copy of a file on your computer, one of them will read as “copy.” But only until you relabel it.
After the copy is made, you have two files. So which is the real one?
The Three Reasons It Won't Work
The philosophical issues raised by mind uploading are not necessarily comfortable. And there's a lot of disagreement about how far off we are from being able to do this.
Many scientists believe that we are at least a hundred years away from being able to do anything like this. Howeve,r Ray Kurzweil, the lead engineer at Google, believes that we will be able to upload our minds to a machine as soon as 2045.
So what's likely to happen?
Reason #1: We'll Destroy Ourselves First
Okay, so this is not directly related to the actual study of mind uploading, but it's entirely possible. If the science is as difficult as many people are predicting, it's possible that humanity just won't be able to get the research for a long time.
In the upcoming century, something like a war or a large-scale socio-economic collapse could set the research back even further.
This is not an entirely happy scenario, so let's hope it doesn't turn out this way!
Reason #2: Artificial Intelligence Will Replace Us First
In all the rush to create machines that will help us out with mind uploading, what if we are ultimately replaced by Artificial Intelligence?
It might not even be a Skynet or Terminator scenario. It could simply be that AI becomes so good at solving problems that the question of mind uploading becomes less pressing. Humanity could slowly and non-violently simply be replaced as being obsolete.
Honestly, a robot uprising sounds preferable to this. At least it'd look cool.
Reason #3: We'll Do a Partial Merge
Another reason it won't happen: we won't be able to solve the problem of mind uploading, but we will be able to make small augmentations.
Augmentation is the use of technology to assist the brain. If that creeps you out… do you wear glasses? Contacts? Do you (or anyone you know) use a hearing aid? How about a pacemaker?
Augmentation technology has been fairly rudimentary to far, but as it continues to develop, it could be that humans don't seek to upload for a long time.
Instead, the breakthrough might be that people start to increase the longevity of their physical bodies through the use of nanotechnology (to keep cells young) and augmentation (to improve performance).
Would this be preferable to mind uploading? Or would it simply be a stepping stone?
Of course, there is one reason that this may ultimately happen anyway; something that we haven't considered…
Why It Just Might Work: Artificial Intelligence Will Decide We're Worth Saving
The whole notion of mind uploading assumes that humans will be the ones who are deciding to make the transfer from a biological brain to a mechanical brain.
But what if that's not the case? What if AI is the one who fills in the gap and makes that decision for us?
It could be that we can't solve all of the complex computational problems necessary to conduct a successful mind transfer.
We may not be able to build an AI that is human enough to count as being “alive.”
But what if AI gets just good enough at making calculations that it draws up the first real, accurate map of a brain? And then figures out how to upload us from place to place?
It's probably a good idea to make sure that whatever AI we create is more “Baymax” and less “Terminator.”