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Many “futurists” insist that technological advances will allow humans to upload “our minds” into computer systems, allowing us to “live forever” and defy our biological limitations. This concept is deeply flawed but has gained public attention in recent years. So much so that Amazon has a TV series based on the premise 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 computational power is devoted to the problem. To be clear, thought uploading isn’t about modeling human brains in the abstract, it’s about modeling specific people, whose unique minds are portrayed in sufficient detail to accurately simulate each neuron, including the massive tangle of connections between them .
Is it even possible?
This is of course a very demanding task. There are more than 85 billion neurons in your brain, each with thousands of connections to other neurons. That’s around 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 what you are – Your personality and memories, your fears and abilities and ambitions. To reproduce your mind in software (sometimes called infomorph), a computer system would have to accurately simulate the vast majority of these compounds, down to their most subtle interactions.
This level of modeling is not done by hand. Futurists who believe in “mind uploading” often envision an automated process that is some sort of charged MRI machine, which captures biology down to the molecular level. They also envision using artificial intelligence (AI) software to turn this detailed scan into a simulation of each individual neuron and its thousands of connections to other neurons.
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This is an extremely challenging task, but theoretically doable. It is also theoretically feasible that large numbers of simulated heads could co-exist in a rich simulation of physical reality. Still, the notion that “thought uploading” will allow every biological human to extend their lives is deeply flawed.
The real problem is that the keywords in that previous sentence are “her life”. Although it is theoretically possible – given sufficient technological advances – to duplicate and reproduce the form and function of a unique human brain within a computer simulation, that duplicated human would still exist in his biological body. Her brain would still be safely housed in her skull.
The person who would exist in the computer would be a copy.
In other words, when you sign up for Mind Uploading, you wouldn’t suddenly feel like you’re in a computer simulation. In fact, you wouldn’t feel anything at all. The brain’s replication process could have taken place unbeknownst to you while you were asleep or sedated, and you would not have the slightest idea that a reproduction of your mind existed in a simulation.
Think about uploading and the digital twin – you, but not really YOU
We can think of the copy as a digital clone or twin, but you wouldn’t be. It would be a mental copy of you, including all your memories up until the moment your brain was scanned. But from that point forward, the copy would generate its own memories in the simulated world in which it was installed. She could interact with other simulated humans, learn new things and have new experiences. Or maybe it would interact with the physical world via 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. Their skills and abilities would diverge. Their knowledge and understanding would diverge. Your personality and your goals would differ. After a few years, there would be noticeable differences. And yet both versions would “Feel like the real you.”
This is a critical point – the copy would have the same sentiments individuality that you have. It would feel just as entitled to own its own property and earn its own wages and make its own decisions. In fact, you and the copy would likely have an argument over who gets to use your name, since you both would feel like you’ve used it your entire life.
If I made a copy of myself, she would wake up in a simulated reality believing that she was reality Louis Barry Rosenberg, a lifelong technologist. If it were able to interact with the physical world via robots, the copy would feel like it had every right to live in my house, drive my car, and go to my work. Eventually the copy would remember buying that house and getting that job and doing everything else I can remember doing.
In other words: create a digital copy mind uploading has nothing to do with being allowed to live forever. Instead, it would create a competitor who has identical skills, abilities, memories, and 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. If this technology were possible, we could even imagine the digital copy suing you for joint custody of your children, or at least visiting rights.
To address the paradox of Making a copy of a person Instead of enabling digital immortality, some futurists propose an alternative approach. Rather than scanning a mind and uploading it to a computer, they posit the possibility of converting a person’s brain, neuron by neuron, step-by-step into a non-biological substrate. This is often referred to as “cyborging” instead of “upload‘ and is an even more challenging technical task than scanning and simulating. Also, it’s unclear if gradual replacement actually solves the identity problem, so I’d call that direction uncertain at best.
All that said, uploading thoughts is not the clear path to immortality represented in popular culture. Most likely it’s a path to create a duplicate that would react exactly the way she would if you woke up one day and were told – I’m sorry, I know you remember getting married, having kids, and having 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 that something someone would want to expose a copy of themselves to?
Personally, I think that’s deeply unethical. So unethical that I wrote a cautionary tale graphic novel with the title over a decade ago UPDATE which examines the dangers of uploading thoughts. The book is set in a future world where everyone spends most of their lives in the Metaverse.
What the denizens of this world don’t realize is that their life in the metaverse is continuously being profiled by an AI system that is observing their every action and reaction so it can create a digital model of their mind from a behavioral perspective (no scanning required). When the profiles are complete, the fictional AI convinces humans to “improve themselves” by ending their lives and allowing their digital copies to replace them entirely.
When I wrote this book 14 years ago, it was meant as irony. And yet today there is an emerging field that is going in exactly this direction. called euphemistically “digital afterlife” industry., there are many startups pushing to “digitize” loved ones so family members can interact with them after they die. There is even Startups who want to profile their actions in the Metaverse so that you too can “live forever” in your digital world. Even Amazon recently entered this space by demonstrating how Alexa can do it Clone your dead grandmother’s voice and allow yourself to hear them 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’m afraid it’s only a matter of time. My only hope is that entrepreneurs will be honest with the public about the reality of thought uploading – it’s not a path to immortality.
At least not in the way many think.
Louis Rosenberg, Ph.D., is a pioneer in the fields of VR, AR and AI. He earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University, received over 300 patents and founded a number of successful companies. Rosenberg began work at the Air Force Research Laboratory, where he developed the first function Augmented Reality System to merge real and virtual worlds. Rosenberg is currently the CEO of Unanimous AIthe chief scientist Responsible Metaverse Alliance and Global Technology Advisor XR Security Initiative (XRSI).
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