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Many “futurists” insist that technological advances will enable humans to “upload our minds” into computer systems, thereby allowing us to “live forever”, defying our biological limitations. This concept is deeply flawed, but has gained popular attention in recent years. So much so that Amazon has a TV series based on the premise called Uploadnot to mention countless other pop culture references.
By way of background, the concept of “mind uploading” is rooted in the very reasonable premise that the human brain, like any system that obeys the laws of physics, can be modeled in software if sufficient computing power is devoted to the problem. To be clear, mind uploading is not about modeling human brains in the abstract, but about modeling specific people, their unique minds represented in such detail that every neuron is accurately simulated, including the vast tangle of connections between them.
Is it even possible?
Of course, this is an extremely challenging task. There are more than 85 billion neurons in your brain, each with thousands of connections to other neurons. There are around 100 trillion connections – a thousand times more than the number of stars in the Milky Way. It is these trillions of connections that make you who you are – your personality and memories, your fears and skills and ambitions. Reproducing your mind in software (sometimes called a infomorph), a computer system must accurately simulate the vast majority of these connections down to their most subtle interactions.
This level of modeling will not be done by hand. Futurists who believe in “mind uploading” often envision an automated process using some kind of supercharged MRI machine, capturing biology down to the molecular level. They further envision using artificial intelligence (AI) software to turn the detailed scan into a simulation of each unique neuron and its thousands of connections to other neurons.
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This is a very challenging task, but is theoretically feasible. It is also theoretically possible for a large number of simulated minds to coexist in a rich simulation of physical reality. Yet the notion that “mind uploading” will enable any biological human to extend their life is deeply flawed.
The real problem is that the key words in the previous sentence are “their lives”. Even if it is theoretically possible – with sufficient technological advances – to copy and reproduce the shape and function of a unique human brain in a computer simulation, the human that was copied will still exist in their biological body. Their brains would still be safely housed inside their skulls.
The person who would exist in the computer would be a copy.
In other words, if you signed up for “mind uploading”, you wouldn’t feel like you suddenly entered a computer simulation. In fact, you wouldn’t feel anything at all. The brain copying process could have happened without your knowledge while you were asleep or sedated, and you would have no idea that a reproduction of your mind existed in a simulation.
Mind uploading and the digital twin – you, but not really YOU
We might think of the copy as a digital clone or twin, but it wouldn’t be you. It would be a mental copy of you, including all your memories up to the moment your brain was scanned. But from that point on, the replica would generate its own memories in whatever simulated world it was installed in. It could interact with other simulated people, learn new things, and have new experiences. Or perhaps it would interact with the physical world through robotic interfaces. At the same time is biologically you would generate new memories and skills and knowledge.
In other words, your biological mind and your digital copy would immediately begin to diverge. They would be identical one moment and then grow apart. Your skills and abilities will vary. Your knowledge and understanding will differ. Your personality and goals will differ. After a few years there will be significant differences. And yet both versions would “feel like the real you.”
This is a critical point – the copy would have the same feelings of individuality that you have. It would feel equally entitled to own its own property and earn its own wages and make its own decisions. In fact, you and the copy would probably have a dispute over who gets to use your name, since you’d both feel like you’d been using it your whole life.
If I made a copy of myself, it would wake up in a simulated reality completely believing it was the real one Louis Barry Rosenberg, a lifelong technologist. If it was able to interact with the physical world through robotic means, the replica would feel like it had every right to live in my house and drive my car and go to my job. After all, the copy would remember that I bought that house and got that job and did everything else I can remember doing.
In other words, creating a digital copy through “mind uploading” has nothing to do with you being able to live forever. Instead, it will create a competitor who has identical skills, abilities and memories and who feels equally entitled to be the owner of your identity.
And yes, the copy would feel equally married to your spouse and parent to your children. In fact, if this technology were possible, we could imagine the digital copy suing you for joint custody of your children, or at least visitation rights.
To address the paradox with make a copy of a person instead of enabling digital immortality, some futurists are proposing an alternative approach. Instead of scanning and uploading a mind to a computer, they envision the possibility of gradually transforming a person’s brain, neuron by neuron, into a non-biological substrate. This is often referred to as “cyborging” rather than “uploading”, and is an even more challenging technical task than scanning and simulating. Additionally, it is unclear whether gradual replacement actually solves the identity problem, so I would call this direction uncertain at best.
All this said, uploading thoughts is not the clear path to immortality represented in popular culture. Most likely there is a way to create a duplicate that will react exact the road you would if you woke up one day and were told – Sorry, I know you remember getting married and having kids and a career, but your spouse isn’t really your spouse and your kids aren’t really your kids and your job isn’t really...
Is there anything someone would expose a copy of yourself to?
Personally, I see this as deeply unethical. So unethical that I wrote a cautionary graphic novel over a decade ago called UPGRADING which explores the dangers of uploading thoughts. The book takes place in a future world where everyone spends most of their lives in the metaverse.
What the inhabitants of this world don’t realize is that their lives in the metaverse are continuously profiled by an AI system that observes their every action and reaction, allowing it to build a digital model of their mind from a behavioral perspective (no scanning required). Once the profiles are complete, the fictional AI convinces people to “upgrade themselves” by ending their lives and allowing their digital copies to fully replace them.
When I wrote that book 14 years ago, it was meant as irony. And yet there is an emerging field today that is headed in exactly this direction. Euphemistically called the “digital afterlife” industry, there are many startups pushing to “digitize” loved ones so that family members can interact with them after their death. There are even startups that want to profile your actions in the metaverse so that you too can “live forever” in their digital world. Even Amazon recently entered this space by demonstrating how Alexa can clone your dead grandmother’s voice and let you hear her speak.
With so much activity in this space, how long before a startup starts touting the cost-saving benefits of ending your life early and letting your digital replacement live on? I fear it is only a matter of time. My only hope is that entrepreneurs will be honest with the public about the reality of mind uploading – it is not a path to immortality.
At least not in the way many people think.
Louis Rosenberg, Ph.D., is a pioneer in the fields of VR, AR and AI. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University, has been awarded over 300 patents, and founded a number of successful companies. Rosenberg began his work at the Air Force Research Laboratory where he developed the first functional augmented reality system to merge real and virtual worlds. Rosenberg is currently the CEO of Unanimous AI, the Chief Scientist of the Responsible Metaverse Alliance, and the Global Technology Advisor for the XR Safety Initiative (XRSI).
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