Considering Mind Uploading as a Destination

This popular press article takes a look at some of the people involved in the early stage scientific foundations that will be needed to eventually run a human mind in software. Many of these advocates see mind uploading as a viable end goal for the defeat of aging - to transition away from biology entirely towards emulation of the mind in software. This has always seemed to me to be a potentially dangerous distraction from the business of ensuring personal survival. In most cases the advocates of uploading consider that making a copy of the data of the self is an acceptable form of continuation of identity, but in fact that isn't personal survival at all. The self isn't just data absent context, it is the combination of data and the particular collection of matter than encodes it: thus you are not your copy, these are two individuals made up of two separate collections of matter.

Yes, it is technically possible to transition away from biology in ways that might preserve the self. Consider a slow swapping out of neurons for nanomachines, one by one, for example, a personal Ship of Theseus in which transitions run little differently from the present processes of neurogenesis in the adult brain. That isn't the direction of interest for most of the community presently putting in effort on the very early groundwork needed to abandon our biology, however. Their aim is often simply scanning of the brain, a straight copy.

While many tech moguls dream of changing the way we live with new smart devices or social media apps, one Russian internet millionaire is trying to change nothing less than our destiny, by making it possible to upload a human brain to a computer. "Within the next 30 years," promises Dmitry Itskov, "I am going to make sure that we can all live forever." Itskov is putting a slice of his fortune in to a bold plan he has devised to bypass ageing. He wants to use cutting-edge science to unlock the secrets of the human brain and then upload an individual's mind to a computer, freeing them from the biological constraints of the body. The scientific director of Itskov's 2045 Initiative, Dr Randal Koene - a neuroscientist who worked as a research professor at Boston University's Center for Memory and Brain - laughs off any suggestion Itskov might have lost touch with reality. "All of the evidence seems to say in theory it's possible - it's extremely difficult, but it's possible. The challenge is precisely how to go from a physical substrate of cells that are connected inside this organ, to our mental world, our thoughts, our memories, our feelings."

To try to unlock its workings, many neuroscientists approach the brain as if it were a computer. In this analogy the brain turns inputs, sensory data, into outputs, our behaviour, through computations. This is where the theoretical argument for mind uploading starts. If this process could be mapped, the brain could perhaps be copied in a computer, along with the individual mind it gives rise to. That's the view of Dr Ken Hayworth, a neuroscientist who maps slivers of mouse brain at the Janelia Research Campus in Virginia by day, and by night grapples with the problem of how to upload his mind. Ken believes mapping the connectome - the complex connections of all the neurons in a brain - holds the key, because he believes it encodes all the information that makes us who we are, though this is not proven. "In the same sense that my computer is really just the ones and zeros on my hard drive, and I don't care what happens as long as those ones and zeros make it to the next computer it should be the same thing with me. I don't care if my connectome is implemented in this physical body or a computer simulation controlling a robotic body."

Ken is a realist. "We are pitifully far away from mapping a human connectome." Here Itskov might get some unexpected help, according to Prof Rafael Yuste of Columbia University - who helped bring about the world's biggest neuroscience research project, the Brain Initiative. As part of this $6bn American programme aimed at solving the mysteries of brain disorders like Alzheimer's, he is hoping to map the continual interaction of neurons - the patterns of firing - in the brain over time. Within 15 years Yuste hopes to map - and interpret - the activity of all the neurons in a mouse cortex. But the ultimate aim is to read the activity of the human brain. "If the brain were a digital computer, if you wanted to upload the mind you need to be able to decipher it or download it first. So I think the Brain Initiative is a step that is necessary for this uploading to happen."



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