Mind Uploading

Many thinkers believe that we will eventually be able to preserve our consciousness indefinitely. There are a number of scenarios by which this might be accomplished but so-called mind uploading is one of the most prominent. 

Mind uploading refers to a hypothetical process of copying the contents of consciousness from a brain to a computational device. This could be done by copying and transferring the entire contents into a computer or by piecemeal replacement with parts of the brain gradually replaced by hardware. Either way, consciousness would no longer be running on a biological brain.

I am in no position to judge the feasibility of mind uploading; experts have both praised and pilloried its viability. Nor can I judge what it would be like to live in a virtual reality—I don’t even know what it’s like to be another person. In fact, we don’t exactly know exactly;u how the brain gives rise to subjective experiences, so we certainly don’t know what it would be like to exist as a simulated mind inside a virtual reality or a robotic body. 

But does it make sense to think a mind program could run on something other than a brain? Isn’t our subjective consciousness rooted in the biological brain? Yes, for now, our mental software runs on the brain’s hardware. But there is no necessary reason that this must be the case. If I told you a hundred years ago that some integrated silicon circuits will soon play chess better than grandmasters, model future climate change, recognize faces and voices, solve famous mathematical problems, and write poetry, you would be astonished. Today you might reply, “but computers still can’t feel emotions or taste a strawberry.” And you are right they can’t—for now. But what about a thousand years from now? What about ten thousand or a million years from now? Do you really think that in a million years the best minds will run on carbon-based brains?

If you still find it astounding that minds could run on silicon chips, consider how remarkable it is that our minds run on meat! Imagine beings from another planet with cybernetic brains discovering that humans have meat brains. These aliens have encountered many sentient beings in their travels but never ones like us. That we are conscious and communicate by means of such brains would amaze them. They might find this as implausible as we do the idea that minds could run on silicon or some other substrate. 

To understand how mental software could run on non-biological hardware, think of mental states not in terms of their physical implementation but in terms of their functions. For instance, one of the functions of the pancreas is to produce insulin which maintains the balance of sugar and salt in the body. It is easy to see that something else could perform this function, say a mechanical pancreas. Now consider an hourglass or an atomic clock. The function of both is to keep time yet they do this quite differently.

Analogously, if mental states are identified by their functional role then they too could be realized on other substrates, as long as the system performs the appropriate functions. Once you have jettisoned the idea that your mind is a ghostly soul or some other mysterious, impenetrable, non-physical substance, it is relatively easy to see that your mind program could run on something besides a biological brain. Now there’s no way for us to know what it would be like to exist without a brain and body, but there’s no convincing reason to think that one couldn’t have subjective experiences without physicality. Perhaps our experiences would be even richer without a brain and body.

We have so far ignored important philosophical questions about whether a consciousness transferred to a computer is you or just a copy of you. However, I doubt that such existential worries will stop people from using technology to preserve their consciousness when oblivion is the alternative. We are changing every moment and few worry that we are only a copy of ourselves from ten years ago. We wake up every day as a copy of what we were yesterday and few fret about that.

We might also ask what one does inside a simulated reality for an indefinitely long time. The Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano agrees that the question is not whether we will be able to upload our consciousness into a computer—he says we will—but what we will do afterward. He suggests we may get bored. 

I suppose that some may get bored with being conscious for eons of time and prefer annihilation instead. Some would get bored with the heaven they supposedly desire. Some are bored now. So who wants to extend their consciousness so that they can love better and know more? Who wants to live long enough to have experiences that surpass our current ones in unimaginable ways? The answer is … many of us do. Some of us aren’t bored easily. And if we get bored we should make sure that we can always delete the program.

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8 thoughts on “Mind Uploading

  1. Our mind and connected nervous systems regulate our body, and do it quite well– autonomously. It seems to me to be a feedback system and difficult to imagine a sentient mind devoid of a sensory body. What would the mind’s function be? Why would we want to keep this piece of meat alive indefinitely when non-meat chips are capable of performing these functions quicker and more accurately?

  2. Dear Dr. John, You have introduced and discussed this subject a number of times, and every time it comes up there are more points to evaluate and comment on it. It is a great and worthy topic that will never become stale!
    First off let me say; I am neither for or against this idea, I personally don’t believe it will ever be possible. The human mind is a product of nature as is every living thing on Earth!
    The Computer is also a product of Nature but produced by men and therefore having the limitations that Nature imposes on Men, I don’t believe it is part of the plan that Men should rule nature and create new life, I don’t believe that Nature bestowed Man the ability nor the wisdom to allow Man to do that, Man didn’t create his Brain he was born with it!
    Descartes had it wrong, He didn’t think therefore he was, he was therefore he thought, first comes the birth then comes the thoughts . The quality and quantity of the thoughts are limited by the abilities Nature has bestowed! Not all brains are equal, that is true, but all brains were born with the person who lives in them!

    “So who wants to extend their consciousness so that they can love better and know more? Who wants to live long enough to have experiences that surpass our current ones in unimaginable ways? The answer is … many of us do. Some of us aren’t bored easily. And if we get bored we should make sure that we can always delete the program”

    Perhaps we will worry about someone unplugging the computer? You would be living inside the machine and probably having no possibility to foresee or prevent events out there, perhaps you wouldn’t even be aware that there was an ‘Out There’ out there, in that case you wouldn’t worry about it? Yet even if you were unaware of its existence there would still be something which could terminate what ever you were doing.
    And why not extend your consciousness now while you are still living in the body and brain that nature gave you? If you wish to experience life in a Simulacrum you can try the Meta verse, it won’t be exactly as living in the computer might be imagined but it will have some points of similarity, give yourself a little taste so that you can decide if you really hope to spend eternity in there! Or not!

  3. About eighteen or so years ago, a scientist said “uploading has begun.” But he wouldn’t provide more detail when I asked. Someone else said “we don’t want the public involved.”
    One of the first books I read, ‘The Immortalist ‘, said: “…they want to keep immortalism for themselves, and they might be right.”
    The public thinks that because ignorance CAN be bliss, that ignorance IS bliss.

  4. There’s a good book on this subject: Descarte’s Error. The author points out the many connections between the brain and the body. There is no “mind-body problem” — the mind is composed of the brain and the body. A warm day raises body temperatures that in turn alter the production of various hormones that in turn affect brain behavior. Body sensation, the state of the digestive system, and every other aspect of our bodies influences our brains. If we wish to upload our consciousness into a machine, the only way to successfully accomplish this will be to build a machine that is an exact replica of our bodies in every way. Any deviation from absolute physical fidelity will result in a mind that does not behave as our original mind behaves.

  5. @Al Brooks,

    Ignorance ‘is’ Bliss Al, you don’t worry about someone pulling the plug if you don’t know there is a plug.

  6. I have been watching for the emergence of a coherent idea of consciousness for twenty years. Actually, watching is not correct—anxiously awaiting is better. Recently, a neuroscientist has proposed that consciousness is hallucination. I am still anxiously awaiting. An associate has termed the idea frivolous. It also seems that way to me. I don’t know what is impossible. I do know that reality now is, in many fields, not the reality of even a hundred years ago. And, changes in this quotient are due to our trying harder to think better. So, reality changes, as do our notions of truth. Mind-uploading might have application some day. It will not impact me. Or my brother’s children’s children.

  7. Fascinating topic. Mind uploading would seem indeed preferable to oblivion. I agree with you on the boredom argument: not all of us get bored, at least not easily or not without becoming aware of boredom and telling ourselves to stop wasting our time getting bored and to actually do something useful for ourselves (maybe even for others).

    Thank you.

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