We may soon be able to create our own, Black Mirror-style digital afterlives, and leave ‘meat space’ behind. But what would that mean for the future of the human race?
Uploading our minds to a computer, to live on after the inevitable death and decay of our physical bodies, has long been a fantasy of sci-fi films, video games and TV series (case in point: the much-loved Black Mirror episode “San Junipero”). Many people might argue that it should stay that way. Like it or not, though, scientists are hard at work as we speak, conducting research that might one day make digitally-assisted eternal life a reality. Some, like computer scientist Ray Kurzweil, believe that humans will be able to upload their entire brains to computers – and thus achieve “digital immortality” – as early as 2045.
Unsurprisingly, the concept of handing over a detailed map of your brain to be uploaded to the cloud, or live out the rest of your days as a janky avatar in a sad little metaverse (god forbid), is quite controversial. Some say that the ethical roadblocks are too great. Some say it’s physically impossible. Even Elon Musk says it’s “weird”, although that hasn’t stopped him seeking ways to store human consciousness with Neuralink, to be downloaded into a new human or robot body somewhere down the line.
But what would it actually mean to transfer your mind from “meat space” to cyberspace, and how could it be done? The basic idea rests on several assumptions, says Angela Thornton, a researcher at the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training at University of Nottingham, who is also partnered with the Carboncopies Foundation, a non-profit that focuses on “whole brain emulation” and the creation of substrate-independent minds. “It assumes that we could replicate our brain [with] a certain level of understanding of how it works,” she says. “Not necessarily knowing all the detail, but enough to be able to emulate it.” Then, she adds, we have to make the assumption that the “mind” (i.e. the abstract part of us that thinks, remembers, imagines and senses) naturally emerges from the structures of the physical brain.
This is a lot to take on, which is partly why current brain emulation research is still stuck at the level of worms and, in more advanced studies, mice. Whether you agree with them or not, though, the arguments to take experiments further – toward larger mammals and, finally, humans – are quite obvious. For one, we could theoretically ‘live’ forever as a disembodied consciousness (or at least until the machines that hosted our virtual minds were destroyed), and continue interacting with our loved ones after they’ve passed as well. It’s possible that this could also go some way to solving the alleged population crisis, while limiting the impact of our physical bodies on the planet’s finite resources.
Of course, there are plenty of important questions that need answers before any of this can actually happen. Below, Thornton helps us unpick some of the main constraints and controversies.
HOW WOULD MIND UPLOADING ACTUALLY WORK?
There are two commonly-proposed paths to digital immortality: “scan and copy” and neural prosthetics. The “scan and copy” is the most common route, says Thornton. “Basically, you scan your brain in detail using something like [an] electron microscope, and from there you try to understand how the pieces fit. Then, you try to model it,” she explains. “If you can model it and understand how it works, you might be able to emulate or replicate it.”
The neural prosthetics method is a slightly more gradual approach. Rather than looking at the brain as a whole, it would involve substituting various parts with synthetic components, until eventually the whole brain is synthetic. Most of these components are yet to be invented, of course, but we already have some working examples. A hippocampal prosthetic, tested in humans, has been shown to improve visual memory, while an implant called a Stentrode has helped severely paralysed patients control computers with their thoughts.
NEURAL IMPLANTS? ISN’T THAT WHAT NEURALINK USED ON THOSE POOR MONKEYS?
Yes. For better or worse, Elon Musk’s Neuralink is the best-known example of a company conducting research into neural implants and the virtual mind. And yes, Neuralink has caused controversy for reportedly killing several monkeys, as well as more than a thousand other animals, while researching new neurotechnologies. That said, Neuralink hasn’t necessarily violated any laws or regulations. Whether we like it or not (for the record: we don’t) animals often suffer when experimenting with technologies that are deemed too dangerous to test on humans, including lifesaving drugs and, in this case, implants that could cause conditions such as blindness or paralysis.
SO WHEN CAN WE START UPLOADING OUR MINDS?
Human beings have an average of 86 billion neurons (nerve cells that send messages around the body). The types of worms that mind uploading researchers have been looking at, C. elegans, have about 302. In other words, we’re pretty far off, and some believe that we’ll never understand the human brain’s intricate web of connections and communication pathways.
In April 2023, though, scientists at Duke‘s Centre for In Vivo Microscopy managed to create an image of an entire mouse brain 64 million times sharper than ever before. This happened just 50 years after the very first MRI scan, which gives an idea of the increasing rate of progress. New technologies, such as AI, could speed this up even more. We’re still a “long way off” the assembly of a whole brain, Thornton admits, noting that we still have to grapple with issues like the mind-body problem. However, we’re further down the path than many people might think.
“Most people don’t want to exist as an avatar in a virtual world. They want to have some kind of form” – Angela Thornton
THE MIND-BODY PROBLEM?
Let’s say that it is possible to create a full emulation of our brain, and get it up and running on external hardware. How might we interact with the world? As an avatar in a Second Life-style metaverse? As a disembodied brain, floating in space? Or would we move around the real world in a robot shell? There’s some debate about whether we’d even be able to cope with our existence without any form of interaction with our environment.
Thornton, whose research involves educating people on the possibilities of mind uploading and documenting their responses, says: “Most people don’t want to exist as an avatar in a virtual world. They want to have some kind of form.” This raises another question, though: would we want to limit ourselves to our current understanding of a body, or would we get more creative, expanding on our humanoid form? Could we all be transplanted into Boston Dynamics robot dogs, for example, or a cheetah that’s capable fo running faster than Usain Bolt?
“There’s a lot of freedom that goes with that idea,” says Thornton. “But there’s also quite a big adjustment, in terms of your brain and your mind coping with the fact that the shell you’re in is completely different.” This could be a terrifying experience, if the mind isn’t able to create the illusion that you – the sum of your memories and personality – are still you. “You might just tip over the edge.”
HOW CAN WE UPLOAD OUR MINDS WITHOUT UNDERSTANDING THE MIND ITSELF?
Human consciousness – in other words, the way our understanding of the world emerges from the structures of the brain – remains one of the deepest mysteries of our time. Is it possible that our conscious mind could spring into existence by reproducing the physical brain in enough detail, without actually knowing the underlying mechanisms? Maybe. But there’s no way to know for sure.
“There are a lot of very clever people who have done a lot of thought experiments... pages and pages and pages of it online, and nobody has really come to an agreement,” says Thornton. “What is consciousness? What is personal identity, or your sense of self? They’re really huge questions that people have grappled with for centuries.”
Notably, when the futurist researcher Anders Sandberg and philosopher Nick Bostrom published a roadmap for whole brain emulation in 2008 (for Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute), it came with a huge caveat related to these questions. “The workshop avoided dealing with socioeconomic ramifications and with philosophical issues such as theory of mind, identity or ethics,” the authors wrote. “While important, such discussions would undoubtedly benefit from a more comprehensive understanding of the brain.”
WHAT ARE THE WORST CASE SCENARIOS?
“There are positives, but there are a huge amount of ethical concerns with any neurotechnology,” says Thornton. “Because your brain data is the most intensely personal thing you have.” The fears involved with handing your brain data over to a company (or government) for the rest of eternity go without saying, ranging from fatal glitches or bankruptcies, to “mind slavery” (the behaviour of existing companies with access to our personal data, like Meta, hardly inspires confidence).
In a worst case scenario, people could hijack your neural data and use it to abuse or torture you, suggests Thornton. Or digital viruses could spread at light speed. Or you could decide you want to finally embrace the sweet release of death, only to find that there’s no way out once you’ve signed up. Whole brain emulation could even open up the door to instantaneous mind cloning, and we might end up with a virtual world populated by millions of Elon Musks.
Needless to say, these are all extreme scenarios in the “far, far future”. But it’s probably best to think about them in advance, just in case.
WHO WILL BE FIRST IN LINE TO UPLOAD THEIR MINDS?
We’ll give you three guesses... The answer is, of course, the super-rich. “Equitable access is a big, big issue,” says Thornton. “There’s a natural worry that the rich, the wealthy, the powerful would get their hands on this technology first.” Another worry, echoed by Carboncopies chief science officer Dr Randal Koene, is that the technology is developed by a less ethical organisation, or a country where regulation is likely to be less strict.
Besides the unfair access to eternal life, there are significant concerns about what happens to the people left behind. “If not everybody has equal access, you’re going to get discrimination on the basis of whether or not you’ve been mentally augmented or uploaded,” Thornton suggests. “And then you’re going to get peer pressure, if everybody around you is uploading.” In essence, there could be conflicts between a group with digitally-assisted eternal lives and an underclass of mere mortals.
@neurorights_initiative What are the five NeuroRights❔ To learn more visit nri.ntc.columbia.edu #neuroscience #neurorights #artificialintelligence #technology ♬ original sound - Columbia University
HOW CAN WE PREVENT MIND UPLOADING DYSTOPIAS?
As with any cutting-edge technology, innovations in mind uploading need to be kept in check through oversight and regulation. This is the core mission of organisations like the Neurorights Foundation, which engages with the public, governments, and the UN, as well as companies and researchers, to “raise awareness about the human rights and ethical implications of neurotechnology”. According to the Neurorights Foundation, there are five main principles to this new sphere of human rights: equal access, free will, mental privacy, personal identity, and protection from algorithmic bias.
The movement to adopt these principles has already started. Earlier this year, Chile pioneered neurotechnology legislation with amendments to its constitution that incorporate “brain rights”. This action reflects the growing urgency of the conversation. “It might sound like completely crazy science fiction, but there is already an issue [with neurorights],” Thornton agrees, noting that the devices we’re developing today will change the way we think about personal data and human rights in the future.
“You can’t stop technology developing,” she adds. “You can’t turn back the clock. It’s just about trying to ensure that people do it in a responsible way, and that they actually think about the implications and ethical issues, rather than just going, ‘We can do it! Isn’t this amazing?’ The geek part of me goes, ‘Yes, it’s so cool!’ And then the other part of me, the ethical researcher, goes: ‘Yeah, but what if...’”