The idea that you can scan someone’s brain and upload a complete working copy of it into some far-future computer is not a new one. It’s an idea that’s been noted in science fiction for a very long time and comes up every now and again as new scanning technologies come to the fore. Basically the idea is that you can leave your flesh body behind and become a virtual entity living in a simulated digital world. Assuming that you don’t get destroyed somehow, this will make you effectively immortal.
Well, I say “you”, but really it would be a copy of you. There’s no way to transfer a mind into a computer as far as we know. The scanning method may be destructive, which is to say it may destroy your brain, but the mind in the brain itself would have its consciousness interrupted. If this speculative mind-uploading technology were not destructive, it would mean you and your digital copy would keep on living your own lives.
Clearly the idea of mind-uploading comes with a whole bunch of weird implications, but can it be done? How far away are we from achieving it, if ever?
In 2011 IBM published some remarkable milestones in the quest to simulate a copy of a living brain. Using their best computer at the time, they were able to simulate 4.5% of a human brain and, get this, 100% of a cat, rat, and mouse brain.
Simulating such a portion of the human brain took the power of 147,456 processors with 1GB of RAM each. Of course, since then processors have doubled in power a few times, so repeating the feat today would use a much smaller CPU count.
Of course, these simulations were not actually of functional brains, but of the number of neurons necessary to simulate such brains as well as models of some of those brain structures.
Back to School
We’re also still learning about additional aspects of how brains do their job. There are still many open questions about what the problem entails. For example, much of the brain exists only because of the body. A relatively small percentage of a human brain is responsible for consciousness and intelligence. The problem is that we’re still pretty far away from understanding what exact roles all brain structures play in making a human, well, human.
It’s not just how much of the brain we have to simulate, but in how much detail. Do we go down to the cellular level? Further down to the molecular level? Or do we need to simulate every atom? There’s even some very controversial speculation that the brain makes use of quantum effects to generate consciousness or otherwise do its job.
Different Ways to Skin a Brain
In terms of how we’d actually go about performing the scan of a real brain in order to copy it, there are a number of ways it theoretically could be done. Non-invasive scanning technologies such as FMRI may one day be good enough to do something like this. That’s the way that would leave the original brain intact and hopefully working as usual. Nanotechnology may also hold the key. Nanobots could map the brain from the inside, building a precise digital picture of it.
Nanobots could also be the answer to actual digital mind transfer – where a person’s mind is digitized bit-by-bit without their consciousness ever being interrupted. Alternatively, you could slowly replace different parts of the organic with artificial versions with much of the same effect. The key, as Raymond Kurzweil noted in his book The Singularity is Near, is for subjective consciousness to never be interrupted.
Then again, when we go to sleep that’s exactly what happens. In Star Trek, when people get beamed to the ship, they technically are killed and a perfect copy is reconstructed at the other end. Few seem to have a problem with this, so maybe a destructive uploading process wouldn’t be such a big deal. You’d “go to sleep” as an organic human and “wake up” as a digital one.
It’s a hard nut to crack and it may turn out that people wait until the point of their natural deaths to have their brains scanned and copied. That may be for the best, since the most accurate current method of getting a precise brain scan involves slicing it into incredibly thin layers and then intensively scanning each one, which then gets recompiled on a computer. That’s not the equivalent of building a working digital mind, but it’s one way of providing information detailed enough to do so.
Failure is an Option
That we will ever have the ability to copy a human mind as a digital entity is entirely a matter of speculation. George Dvorsky did a great piece on some of the reasons why mind-uploading may never be possible. I’m not going to reproduce that article over here, but some of those reasons are likely enough to make it worth mentioning them.
One reason may be that the way the brain works is so unlike the way a computer works that you can’t really simulate the processes of the brain that produce a mind. That may in fact be true of current digital computers, but it doesn’t take into account that there are other types of computers. One day quantum computing combined with digital simulation might do the job. Alternatively one may build an artificial brain that physically mimics the structure of an organic brain, but is made of stuff that won’t die or decay.
Another plausible idea is that there is something about the actual materials that a brain is made from that’s necessary for a mind to live there. This is in response to the classic idea that a mind does not care what “substrate” it lives in, whether organic stuff or silicon.
The fact is that although a lot of people are very enthusiastic about the idea of mind-uploading or at least mind-copying, we just don’t know enough to really predict if it will ever work.
There’s an Uploading App for That
If we actually did manage it, what would the use be? Of course, for a lot of people the idea would be to live in a simulated paradise for as long as possible. Sort of like The Matrix and you’re in control of reality, like Neo.
Space exploration is another big potential use. The first humans to make contact with alien races may in fact be digitized human minds. They would live on computers built into the ship and take control of physical bodies when needed. In fact, there’s a good chance that if we get visited by aliens they will probably be digital copies too. It’s also far easier to accelerate a small mass up to the universal speed limit of light. Presumably a ship carrying digital copies of people would not need to be very large or complex.
Since mind-uploading seems to be a rather long shot, it makes more sense to put stock in technologies that will extend our organic lifespace. Things like cloned organs and advanced genetic treatments could be a stepping stone until the day this sort of uploading is a reality.
Still, the idea of mind-uploading will continue to captivate the minds of researchers and tech-enthusiasts for the foreseeable future. With every year that passes we see technology that makes it seem more and more likely that mind-uploading could happen. It may even be that someone who has already been born will be the first to undergo this process. Some futurists are very optimistic about it. Ray Kurzweil thinks mind-uploading could be real as soon as 2045. Until then all we can do is marvel at the possibilities technology like this could provide us and think long and hard about the social and ethical implications that come with it.