Let’s imagine that brain scanning technology improves enormously in the next few decades, to the point where we can observe how each individual neuron talks to other neurons. Then imagine that we can record all this information to create a simulation of someone’s brain on a computer.
This is the concept behind mind uploading: the idea that we may someday be able to transition a person from their biological body to a synthetic ‘body’. The idea originated in an intellectual movement called transhumanism and has several significant proponents, including computer scientist Ray Kurzweil, philosopher Nick Bostrom and neuroscientist Randall Koen.
The central hope of transhumanists is to transcend the human condition through scientific and technological progress. They believe that mind uploading can allow us to live as long as we want (but not necessarily forever). It could even allow us to improve ourselves, for example, by having simulated brains that work faster and more efficiently than biological ones. It’s a techno-optimist’s dream for the future. But does it have any real substance?
The feasibility of mental workload is based on three basic assumptions #
– the first is the technological assumption, the idea that we will be able to develop the mental payload in the next few decades
– the second is the artificial mind assumption, the idea that a simulated brain would give rise to a real mind
– and third is the survival assumption, the idea that the person created in the process is really “you”. Only then does mental uploading become a way to continue living.
Is it possible for these assumptions to come true?
The technological assumption #
Trying to simulate the human brain would be a monumental challenge. Our brains are the most complex structures in the known universe. They house about 86 billion neurons and 85 billion non-neuronal cells, with an estimated 100 trillion neural connections between them. By comparison, the Milky Way is home to about 200 billion stars.
Where are we on the road to creating brain simulations? At the moment, neuroscientists are making 3D wiring diagrams (called “connectomes”) of the brains of simple organisms. The most complex comprehensive connectome we have to date is of a fruit fly larva, which has about 3,000 neurons and 500,000 neural connections. We can expect to map the brain of a mouse within the next ten years.
The artificial mind assumption #
Would a simulation of your brain give rise to a conscious mind like yours? The answer depends on the connection between our mind and our body. Unlike the 17th century philosopher René Descartes, who thought that mind and body are radically different, most academic philosophers today think that the mind is ultimately something physical in itself. Simply put, your mind is your brain.
The survival assumption #
Suppose it is possible to simulate a human brain and the simulation creates a conscious mind. Would the person in the computer really be you or just a mental clone?
This brings us back to an old philosophical conundrum: when you wake up in the morning, are you still the same person who went to bed the night before?
Roughly speaking, philosophers are divided into two camps on this question. The biological camp believes that you in the morning and in the evening are the same person because you are the same biological organism, connected by a biological life process.
Is the risk worth it? #
Unfortunately, the artificial mind assumption and the survival assumption cannot be conclusively empirically tested; in fact, we would have to carry ourselves in order to find out.
Therefore, loading the mind into a computer always involves a huge leap of faith. Personally, I would only take that leap if I knew with certainty that my ‘biological hardware’ was about to expire.