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Many “futurists” insist that technological advancements will allow humans to “upload our minds” to computer systems, allowing us to “live forever”, defying our biological limitations. This concept is very flawed, but has received a lot of attention in recent years. So much so, Amazon has a TV series based on the premise called uploadnot to mention countless other pop culture references.
As a 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 enough computing power is devoted to the problem. To be clear, Thought Upload isn’t about modeling human brains abstractly, it’s about modeling specific people, their unique minds rendered in such detail as to accurately simulate each neuron, including the vast tangle of connections between them.
Is it even possible?
This is, of course, a very challenging task. There are over 85 billion neurons in your brain, each with thousands of links to other neurons. That’s about 100 trillion connections – a thousand times more than the number of stars in the Milky Way. It’s those trillions of connections that make you who you are – your personality and memories, your fears and skills and aspirations. To reproduce your mind in software (sometimes a infomorph), a computer system would have to accurately simulate the vast majority of those connections down to their most subtle interactions.
That level of modeling will not be done by hand. Futurists who believe in “mind uploading” often envision an automated process using some sort of supercharged MRI machine, which captures biology down to the molecular level. They further envision using artificial intelligence (AI) software to turn that detailed scan into a simulation of each unique neuron and its thousands of connections to other neurons.
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This is a hugely challenging task, but theoretically feasible. It is also theoretically possible that large numbers of simulated ghosts could coexist in a rich simulation of physical reality. Yet the idea that mind-uploading will enable any biological human to extend their life is deeply flawed.
The real problem is that the keywords in that previous sentence are “their lives.” While it is theoretically possible – with enough technological advances – to copy and reproduce the form and function of a unique human brain within a computer simulation, the copied human would still exist in its biological body. Their brains would still be safely housed in their skulls.
The person who would exist in the computer would be a copy.
In other words, if you had signed up for mind uploading, you wouldn’t feel like you’ve suddenly transported yourself into 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 your mind was being reproduced in a simulation.
Mind upload and the digital twin – you, but not really YOU
We can 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 time your brain was scanned. But from then on, the copy would generate its own memories in the simulated world it was installed in. He could interact with other simulated people, learn new things and have new experiences. Or maybe it would interact with the physical world through robotic interfaces. At the same time, the biological 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 for a moment and then grow apart. Your skills and abilities would vary. Your knowledge and understanding would vary. Your personality and goals would differ. After a few years there would be big differences. And yet both versions “feel the real you.”
This is a critical point – the copy would have the same sentiments 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 because you’d both feel like you’ve been using it your whole life.
If I made a copy of myself, it would wake up in a simulated reality and fully believe it was the real one Louis Barry Rosenberg, a lifelong technologist. If it were able to communicate with the physical world through robotic means, the copy would feel like it had every right to live in my house, drive my car, and go to work. After all, the copy would remember buying that house and getting that job and doing everything else I can remember.
In other words, creating a digital copy through “mind uploading” has nothing to do with allowing you to live forever. Instead, it would create a competitor who has identical skills, abilities, and memories, and who feels equally justified in owning your identity.
And yes, the copy would feel equally married to your spouse and parent to your children. If this technology were possible, we could even imagine that the digital copy would sue you for joint custody of your children, or at least visitation rights.
To tackle the paradox of make a copy of a person instead of enabling digital immortality, some futurists are proposing an alternative approach. Instead of scanning a mind and uploading it to a computer, they hypothesize the possibility of gradually transforming a person’s brain, neuron by neuron, into a non-biological substrate. This is often referred to as “cyborg” rather than “upload” and is an even more challenging technical task than scanning and simulation. In addition, it’s unclear whether gradual replacement actually solves the identity problem, so I’d call this direction uncertain at best.
Having said all that, uploading thoughts is not the clear path to immortality represented in popular culture. Most likely it’s a duplicate creation path that would respond precisely the route you would if you woke up one day and were told – Sorry, I know you remember getting married and having kids and having a career, but your partner isn’t really your partner and your kids aren’t really your kids and your job isn’t really….
Is that something someone would want to submit a copy of yourself to?
Personally, I find this very unethical. So unethical, I wrote a cautionary graphic novel over a decade ago called UPGRADE that explores the dangers of mind uploading. The book is set 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 constantly being profiled by an AI system that observes all their actions and reactions so that it can build a digital model of their minds from a behavioral perspective (no scanning required) . When the profiles are complete, the fictional AI convinces humans to “upgrade themselves” by ending their lives and having their digital copies completely replace them.
When I wrote that book 14 years ago, it was meant to be ironic. And yet today there is an emerging field that is moving in this direction. Euphemistically the . named “digital afterlife” industry, there are many startups pushing to “digitize” loved ones so that family members can communicate with them after death. There are even startups that want to profile your actions in the metaverse, so you too can “live forever” in their digital world. Even Amazon recently stepped into this space by showing how Alexa can do it clone your dead grandmother’s voice and let you hear her speak.
With so much activity in this space, how long will it take for a startup to start touting the cost-saving benefits of ending your life early and letting your digital replacement live on? I’m afraid it’s just a matter of time. My only hope is that entrepreneurs will be honest with the public about the reality of mind uploading – it’s not a path to immortality.
At least not as many people think.
Louis Rosenberg, Ph.D., is a pioneer in VR, AR and AI. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University, has been awarded more than 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 CEO of Unanimous AIthe chief scientist of the Responsible Metaverse Alliance and global technology advisor to the XR Safety Initiative (XRSI).
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