Liberating Minds from Brains
February 25, 2002
The term uploading, as used on the Net today, refers to taking a computer file and sending it to a different computer, usually a high-powered server of some kind. In futurist circles, however, it also has a different meaning: the transferal of human minds out of their flesh containers into stronger, more flexible mechanical substrates.
It’s a strange idea, but also natural, in a way. After all, are you your body, or are you your mind? If you lose an arm, you’re still you; if you get a brain tumor and have a chunk of brain cut out, you’re still you, though perhaps a little different. But then when you die, your brain stops distributing electricity throughout itself, and you’re not there anymore. Why should your mind be tied to the particular container it was born in? Your mind is information: it’s not your brain, any more than a computer file is the hard drive that it’s stored on.
It sounds outlandish perhaps, this kind of uploading, but what does it require technologically? Faster and more capacious computers than we have today, and more accurate brain scanners. Computers get better and brain scanners get more accurate every year. It’s only a matter of time – perhaps just decades – before you’ll sit down at your computer in the morning and bring up windows featuring a word processor, an action game, and uploaded Uncle Harry.
Is My Upload Me or Not?
Of all the future tech topics I’ve ever encountered, none leads to deeper philosophical dilemmas than uploading. Dilemmas related to cloning, AI and such fade into insignificance by comparison. The seemingly simple question “Is my upload me or not?” has enough different shades to fill an art gallery.
One case of uploading is the creation of an upload with a completely separate physical embodiment from the original mind, while the original mind is left alive and intact. There’s you on the computer, and you in your good old human body, staring at each other. Richard Kennaway, in a 1992 article summarizing the various wildly contradictory views various theorists have put forth on this issue, made the following statement about this situation: “One of the few points of agreement. Everyone seems to agree that in this case, the original and the duplicate are separate persons. Neither experiences the thoughts, feelings, sensations, etc. of the other.” But in fact, I’m not sure that I agree with his statement; so I’m quite certain it’s not true that everyone else besides me does. There has been a lot of interest in supposed paranormal phenomena associated with identical twins: sometimes, it seems, they can sense each others’ mind-states automatically, especially in cases where highly dangerous or otherwise emotionally charged events are involved. If identical twins can in this sense experience a consciousness-overlap, then perhaps two identical minds will do so in a more extreme way. Perhaps there will be a psychic link between a mind and its corresponding upload. Quantum physics does not rule this out: the brain may be a macroscopic quantum system, and there may be bizarre quantum nonlocality effects joining a mind to its digital copy. Of course, this is pure speculation, but it is speculation that is consistent with all known physical laws.
But what if your human brain is destroyed during the uploading process? Then there’s only one you left – the one in the computer. Is it you? Or are you dead, and a new being with great resemblance to you newly created?
A yet more difficult conceptual dilemma is posed by the notion of gradual uploading. This notion refers to the temporary hybridization of a brain with a computing device. The computing device then gradually takes over more and more functions of the brain, until eventually the computer is doing everything and the brain is doing nothing, and the brain can safely be allowed to die. Suppose this process is perfected – then what happens, subjectively? There is a continuous consciousness throughout the whole gradual uploading process. Is it not then obvious that “you” are preserved through the process? Or will there be more of a feeling of transition from one consciousness into another? Will it feel like another you gradually sucking the original you away, or will it just feel like a natural change, similar to going through puberty – you’re very different at the end, but it’s still “you” all along?
As well as presenting new dilemmas, the concept of uploading reminds us of the generally-ignored philosophical confusingness of everyday life. In what sense, after all, am I the same “me” as I was when I was 5 years old? Take a case such as John Nash, the great mathematician whose plunge into schizophrenia and subsequent recovery were portrayed in the recent book and film A Beautiful Mind. After he became schizophrenic, was he really the same John Nash or not? Anyone who’s been married a long time is likely to have observed their spouse change tremendously -- still preserving some kind of essence throughout the changes, but how much? Many divorces occur because one or another partner has changed into an extremely different person. As the late transhumanist theorist Sasha Chislenko put it in a long e-mail on uploading, “if we just look at our own lives, we go thru so many transitions that hardly preserve our identity in any reasonable definition of this word.…”
He ended the e-mail as follows:
Now I am ending the message being attracted by a personal singularity
point that I try to cross daily and that is only an example of a rich
variety of identities that constitute something that I [?] call "myself".
It's 2 a.m., time to sleep. I am discontinuing my conscious existence,
and leaving this message together with all my belongings to the tomorrow's
being who I have never seen and who will probably think that he is *me*.
Hope he'll mail it.
Ever go to sleep thinking hard about something, tell yourself emphatically not to forget about it overnight, and then wake up 7 hours later completely unable to remember what the thing was? In what sense is the morning biologically-embodied you “the same” as the evening biologically-embodied you?
And the puzzles of identity get even trickier when one considers that many uploads won’t want to remain close copies of their human minds of origin. Why bother, when there’s a whole new assemblage of things to be? Why not add direct mind-links into a calculator, a programming language compiler, a paint program, a music synthesizer; why not link up to global satellite networks as new sense organs? Why bother sleeping? Why not create new states of mind between dream and sleep? Why not freely edit out bad memories, why not create simulated drug experiences as far beyond LSD as LSD is beyond clove cigarettes? Why not simulate the sensation of having sex using19.7 sex organs at once? Why not fuse your knowledge base with that of your wife, child or best friend? And once you’ve done all these things, are you still you or not?
I think these are fascinating issues, but I classify them along with issues like “Is the world really there or just an individual or collective mental projection?”, and “Is anyone besides me really conscious, or are they all just automata?” These are deep philosophical dilemmas which none of us ever satisfactorily answers, but, we go on living anyway. In the same sense, I believe, uploading will happen, and will continue to be philosophically problematic even after it becomes a commonplace of life. Life is philosophically confusing, with and without the help of advanced technology. Perhaps an upload will feel like it is and is not the same person as its previous biological incarnation – but it will go on living anyway, as we all do, in spite of the numerous philosophical dilemmas that life poses.
On Principia Cybernetica (http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/), one of the jewels of the Net, a website devoted to futuristic and system-theoretic topics, it is opined that “The decline of traditional religions appealing to metaphysical immortality threatens to degrade modern society. Cybernetic immortality can take the place of metaphysical immortality to provide the ultimate goals and values for the emerging global civilization.” This is a bit optimistic in my view: I’m not so sure that uploading and the ensuing virtual immortality of the mind will in itself provide new goals and values. But surely it will be a major part of a new commonsense philosophy, as different from our contemporary perspective as the latter is from the Stone Age worldview of African pygmy tribes.
Fascinatingly, the philosophy of uploading came up in a discussion between systems theorist Franciso Varela and the Dalai Lama, a few years back. Varela is a Buddhist as well as a biologist, mathematician, and all-around scientifically and philosophically adept individual. He asked the Dalai Lama for an opinion on the possibility of conscious computers. The result was the following conversation, involving Varela, two of his colleagues, and the Dalai Lama:
DALAI LAMA: In terms of the actual substance of which computers are
made, are they simply metal, plastic, circuits, and so forth?
VARELA: Yes, but this again brings up the idea of the pattern, not the
substance but the pattern.
DALAI LAMA: It is very difficult to say that it's not a living being,
that it doesn't have cognition, even from the Buddhist point of view.
We maintain that there are certain types of births in which a
preceding continuum of consciousness is the basis. The consciousness
doesn't actually arise from the matter, but a continuum of consciousness
might conceivably come into it.
HAYWARD: Does Your Holiness regard it as a definite criterion that
there must be continuity with some prior consciousness? That
whenever there is a cognition, there must have been a stream of
cognition going back to beginningless time?
DALAI LAMA: There is no possibility for a new cognition, which has no
relationship to a previous continuum, to arise at all. I can't totally
rule out the possibility that, if all the external conditions and the
karmic action were there, a stream of consciousness might actually enter into
HAYWARD: A stream of consciousness?
DALAI LAMA: Yes, that's right. [DALAI LAMA laughs.] There is a
possibility that a scientist who is very much involved his whole life
[with computers], then the next life . . . [he would be reborn in a
computer], same process! [laughter] Then this machine which is
half-human and half-machine has been reincarnated.
It is intriguing how the Dalai Lama manages to reconcile postmodern technology with his ancient, some would say outmoded, belief system. Like all Tibetan Buddhists, he clearly believes that we all have a soul of some sort, which leaves the body at death and is then reincarnated into another body. But he is willing to consider that a computer program could be made to manifest the abstract patterns that the voyaging soul uses to identify a “mind,” a potential next-nesting-place. He even conjectures that a sufficiently advanced yogi might be able to project their soul into a computer program: a very convenient uploading mechanism, much less risky than the technological means we have at our disposal today!:
ROSCH: So if there's a great yogi who is dying and he is standing
in front of the best computer there is, could he project his
subtle consciousness into the computer?
DALAI LAMA: If the physical basis of the computer acquires the
potential or the ability to serve as a basis for a continuum of
consciousness. I feel this question about computers will be resolved
only by time. We just have to wait and see until it actually happens.
Of course, the Dalai Lama does not specify how, when it actually happens, he intends to tell if a computer program truly has acquired a mind and soul or not. The implicit assumption seems to be that, if it talks like a mind and quacks like a mind, then it has a mind – and if it has a mind, it has some kind of reincarnated soul.
Uploading, Enhanced Sensation, and Virtual Reality
One interesting question about human uploads is the nature of their perceptual inputs. The easiest hypothesis to make is that robot eyes, ears and skin will be developed contemporaneously with uploading technology, giving us an android-like existence. In this case, an upload will basically be an enhanced human. On the other hand, an upload may soon come to find human-like senses overly limiting. Two other options present themselves: virtual reality, and alternate sense organs.
The array of possible alternate sense organs is astounding. All kinds of physical-world sensors exist and are hooked into the Internet, from weather satellites to medical devices to webcams, seismic tremor sensing instruments, etc. etc. Why not consume it all, and increase one’s brain to a size adequate to digest it? There is no reason to assume that the human sensorium is going to be maximally satisfactory to uploaded beings, except for “purists” with a particular historical fetish.
Virtual reality has amazing potential as well. Sure, it will be possible to simulate any real-world situation: love affairs with seven movie stars simultaneously, successful Presidential campaigns, riding sidesaddle on dolphins across the Pacific, mind-blowing drug highs without the nasty aftereffects … whatever. But it’s not at all clear that this type of fantasy-indulgence will suck every upload in. I for one will not choose this kind of reality. My brain patterns are too addicted to the joy of discovery. If my upload were to choose a fantasy virtual reality, I strongly suspect he’d set a time limit on it in advance. On the other hand, others who are less metabolically happy might well cast themselves into a fantasy VR world on an ongoing basis. This is not in my view admirable, but nor are all human lives in the physical world. Some of us will surely use VR to explore exciting new ideas – to wander through landscapes of mathematical theorems, to sculpt and create new kinds of virtual matter and life. Nearly all widespread technological innovations so far have been used both for self-indulgence and for creativity.
The augmented-sensorium and VR possibilities, may seem somehow bizarre or unnatural. But actually, how different are they from the way our bodies work right now? Hal Finney, in a recent post on the Extropians e-mail list, summed things up rather well:
Our brains live in a dark, quiet, wet place. That is the reality.
It is only by means of our senses that we get the illusion of being out
there in the world. In a way, our bodies are a form of telepresence,
operated by our brains, huddling safe in their little caves of bone.
Uploading … does not necessarily mean operating in virtual reality
independent of the physical universe. Of course if the new system is
super-fast, it may not be desirable to spend too much time waiting
for things to happen in the physical universe, so naturally we would
turn to some form of VR which can operate at a more convenient speed.
But manipulating the physical universe will still be a necessary and
important activity. Even if you spend most of your time in a VR there
needs to be construction, maintenance and defense of the physical
substrate which runs the VR.
There are two pesky technical details involved in the uploading idea. One is creating a computer suitable for containing a human mind. The other is actually getting the information characterizing a human mind out of the human brain that carries it. Until these problems are solved, uploading remains a plan and a dream. There is little doubt that they’ll be solved eventually, given the relentless advance of all relevant technologies, but it’s not yet clear exactly what form the solution will take. And of course, various uploading-related ideas like virtual reality will require technical advances of their own!
As for the first of these tasks – creating an appropriate computational substrate -- Moore’s Law, the empirical observation that computing power doubles every 18 months or so, has been going on for decades and shows no signs of abating. There are thought to be around 1010 neurons in the brain, and 1013 -1015 synapses (biological “wires” passing charge between neurons, which work using chemicals called neurotransmitters). According to this, if Moore’s Law holds up, we’ll have achieved computers with human-brain-scale memory and computing power within just a few decades. And the wonder of exponential growth is, even if our estimates of the brain’s memory and processing power are low by a couple orders of magnitude, it will only push the advent of brain-capacity computers off by a decade or so.
The development of the process of getting the mind out of the brain is chancier to predict, because brain scanning is a newer technology than computing. But even so, it’s advancing at least as rapidly. Each year the accuracy of scanning techniques gets better and better – yielding a Moore’s-Law-like exponential acceleration.
One promising brain-scanning technology in common use today is MRI, Magnetic Resonance Imaging. MRI machines are a wonderful application of fairly basic particle physics. The key phenomenon exploited in an MRI machine is the fact that the proton in the nucleus of a hydrogen atom, when exposed to a magnetic field, acts like a small bar magnet and resonates. Furthermore, the resonant frequency is proportional to the strength of the field. So if you expose a brain to a magnetic field whose strength varies across different regions, the protons at different positions will resonate at different frequencies. From this it’s possible to tell how many protons are in a given region of space. The more blood is flowing in a given region of the brain, the more water molecules are there; and the more water molecules are there, the more hydrogen atoms are there. So MRI machines track the flow of blood through the brain, which is meaningful because blood flow follows activity – the regions of the brain that are active require more energy, more blood.
This is fantastic stuff. But it has a long way to go. Right now MRI is nowhere near accurate enough to make a completely detailed picture of a brain-state. The resolution is around a cubic millimeter. How far the resolution can be pushed isn’t yet clear. Some researchers have suggested radical possible improvements, such as distributing Helium-3 through the brain, which would diffuse rapidly into cells and permit resolution sufficient for uploading. Also, if one is willing to slice the brain up into little sections, it’s much easier to use MRI with high resolution – the disadvantage being the destruction of the brain involved.
And plenty of more radical techniques have been proposed. For instance, if one has a stained, vitrified brain (a brain frozen to a very low temperature using special antifreeze chemicals that prevent ice crystal formation), then one can abrade the brain with UV rays and use ultra-sensitive mass spectrometry to infer brain structure. Or, alternately but similarly, one can use an experimental method called abrasive atomic force microscopy. These particular example strategies are likely to be destructive of the brain as well. But it’s not too outlandish to conjecture that the next few decades will bring a high-resolution non-destructive brain scan technology, be it a variant of MRI or something altogether difference.
Digitizing a working human brain is the holy grail of uploading research. But science nearly always achieves its grand goals by small steps. In this case, the first step being taken by adventurous researchers is the uploading of a simpler organism: a nematode worm. A nematode’s brain has only a few hundred neurons, rather far short of the human brain’s hundred billion or so. But it only took us half a century to get from room-sized computers that could add, subtract, multiply and divide, to where we are now with computing: amazingly powerful general-purpose machines on every developed-world desktop. And the general pace of technological advance is accelerating. Treading the path from nematode brain to human brain may not take all that long.
So far no one has reconstructed a nematode worm’s brain in an entirely automatic way. Rather, human scientists had to analyze the images of all 959 cells (338 of which are brain cells), explicitly attending to the lineage of these cells from the fertilized egg. But automation of this kind of process is not too far off. For instance, researchers have carried out a complete automated reconstruction of a capillary bed – which is easier for technical image processing reasons. Image processing software gets better and better, and integration of this software with knowledge bases embodying biological intuition of various sorts is surely not too far off.
And although this began as a biology project, a group of computer folks calling themselves the Mind Uploading Research Group (MURG) has adopted the nematode upload project as its own (http://inforezo.u-strasbg.fr/~kerner/Projects/Nematode/). They aim to make a complete computer simulation of the dynamics of the nematode, with an emphasis on its nervous system. The project is explicitly seen as a first step toward creating digital models of more and more complex organisms.
Given that uploading a nematode worm still poses annoying technical problems, it’s clear we’re not yet ready to upload a human brain. But as nanotechnology pioneer Ralph Merkle has pointed out, it’s perfectly plausible at the present time to shoot for an only slightly smaller goal. In his view, “At the present time, a reasonable research objective is the fully automated analysis of a cube of complex neuropil about 100 microns on a side.” From a nematode worm, to a chunk of brain, and then next, to the brain as a whole. Merkle estimates, based on a very careful and detailed analysis, that the cost of a whole-brain-scanning research project might be roughly in the $10 million range: considerably less than a single advanced US fighter plane.
From a contemporary common sense point of view, the idea of yanking a mind out of the brain it’s embodied in, and transplanting it into a computer of some sort, sounds completely outlandish. But yet it will require no tremendous scientific revolutions to do such a thing. Such an achievement is firmly within the confines of physical law, so long as one accepts that the structure of the brain contains the essence of the mind – a conclusion that is very firmly indicated by all of modern neuroscience. There are many engineering challenges to be overcome, but these are challenges of scale – bigger computers, more accurate brain scanners. This is not something like time travel, which is possible only if current science is incorrect or incomplete. The possibility of uploading is staring us right in the face, and it seems entirely possible that sometime within the 21’st century it will become a reality.
Or in other words, as a fellow named Xiaoguang Li once said on the SL4 futurist discussion list: "Uploading is a no-brainer"!