Many technology gurus believe that someday humans will cheat death by uploading their consciousness into computers. In a seminal 2015 paper, Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute envisions it as “whole brain emulation”: “The basic idea is to take a particular brain, scan its structure in detail, and construct a software model of it that is so faithful to the original that, when run on appropriate hardware, it will behave in essentially the same way as the original brain.”
This may sound like fringe science but it is gaining a foothold. Y-Combinator, a company that specializes in getting startups underway, is backing Nectome, whose goal it is to make uploading one’s consciousness a reality. Earlier this year, Nectome was taking prepayments for the procedure. That doesn’t mean the procedure works; at least for a while, the $10,000 were being used to fund research. But at least 25 people took them up on the offer.
The practice is reminiscent of Tesla selling customers the “future full self-driving car” upgrade on all its cars, despite the fact that neither Tesla nor anyone else actually knows how to make it happen. As reported here, after selling this vaporware upgrade for years, Tesla recently removed the option from its website. Similarly, Nectome no longer advertises the mind upload procedure.
The deeper questions, however, remain: Is it even possible to upload your consciousness to a computer and, if so, is it still really you?
The sci-fi TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013– ) tackled this question in an episode titled “Self Control”. Scientist Holden Radcliffe has an android assistant appropriately named Aida (Artificial Intelligence Digital Assistant). Together, they build a virtual world that people could be plugged into and uploaded into, called The Framework:
“Radcliffe built a world. A world exactly like this one. Every molecular detail the same. Just with a little less hurt. For each of us.”
“What do you mean, hurt?”
“Imagine if your greatest regret could be wiped away. Do you know what that would be?”
Radcliffe programmed Aida with two missions—to protect him and to protect The Framework. However, Aida becomes concerned that Radcliffe himself posed a threat to The Framework. Therefore, Aida proposes a question to Radcliffe—whether life in The Framework is just as real as life lived normally. Radcliffe answers that, indeed, the framework is exactly as real as normal life. Therefore, Aida murders Radcliffe and, while he is dying, uploads his mind into The Framework (Season 4, Episode 15, February 21, 2017).
The artistic goal of this scene is to get the viewer to think long and hard about whether or not these promises of eternal but virtual digital life represent a reality. If many people come to believe that they do, it will have drastic consequences in our real world. It affects what we mean by “alive”, “dead,” and even “real.” If I kill you but upload your mind into an android, did I murder you or just modify you? If the government decides that bodies are too wasteful, could they compel us to upload ourselves into the digital domain? This scene, gruesome as it is, helps us see more concretely how different ideas about what technology can do might really play out.
Note: Nectome parted ways with MIT Media Lab as of April 2, 2018. According to the latter: “Neuroscience has not sufficiently advanced to the point where we know whether any brain preservation method is powerful enough to preserve all the different kinds of biomolecules related to memory and the mind. It is also not known whether it is possible to recreate a person’s consciousness.” Consciousness, as such, is a very difficult problem for science today.
Jonathan Bartlett is the Research and Education Director of the Blyth Institute.
Also by Jonathan Bartlett: Did AI show that we are a “peaceful species” triggered by religion?
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