In the 2015 movie “Chappie”, which is set in the near future, automated robots comprise a mechanised police force. An encounter between two rival criminal gangs severely damages the law enforcing robot (Agent 22). His creator Deon recommends dismantling and recycling the damaged police droids. However, criminals kidnap Deon and force him to upload human consciousness into the damaged robot to train it to rob banks. Chappie becomes the first robot with the human mind who can think and feel like a human. Later, in the movie when his creator Deon is dying, it’s Chappie’s turn to upload Deon’s consciousness into a spare robot through a neural helmet. Similarly, in the “Avatar” a 2009 Hollywood science fiction, a character in the film by name Grace connects with Eiwa, the collective consciousness of the planet and transfers her mind to her Avatar body, while another character Jake transfers his mind to his Avatar body rendering his human body lifeless.
Mind uploading is a process by which we relocate the mind, an assemblage of memories, personality, and attributes of a specific individual, from its original biological brain to an artificial computational substrate. Mind uploading is a central conceptual feature of many science fiction novels and films. For instance, Hanson’s book titled “The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth” is a 2016 nonfiction book which explores the implications of a future world when researchers have learned to copy humans onto computers, creating “ems,” or emulated people, who quickly come to outnumber the real ones.
Ever since we have realised our mortality, achieving immortality has been humankind’s holy grail. Although medicine has advanced and prolonged human lives, immortality has eluded us. Achieving physical immortality may seem far away, but digital immortality appears within our reach today. Transhumanists consider mind uploading as an important technology for life extension. It’s probably the current best option for preserving the identity of the species, as opposed to cryonics. Many Trans-humanists believe that they will become immortal by creating non-biological copies of their brain and leaving behind their biological shell. They also believe that consciousness has a computational basis.
According to Moore’s law, computing power doubles approximately every two years, enabling several technologies from nanotechnology to 3D printing to undergo exponential advances. Because of the implacable climb of the technologies by 2045, on a conservative estimate, Ray Kurzweil an American futurist believes that we will achieve a level of computation to simulate a functional human brain. This impending Singularity is what a “transhumanist” interprets as digital immortality. Transhumants believe that soon, humans will upload their minds to a computer, transcending the need for a biological body. This may sound like sci-fi but in reality Neuro-science appears to be making rapid strides towards it.
In August 2014, IBM’s Dharmendra Modha announced a breakthrough in the development of TrueNorth, a neuromorphic computing chip that IBM meant to emulate the neurobiological architecture of the human brain. In April 2013, President Obama made public the “Brain Activity Map Project”, a decade-long plan to map every neuron in the human brain and revolutionise our understanding of human brain. The Blue Brain Project by the Brain and Mind Institute of the Ecole polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland is an attempt to create a synthetic brain by reverse-engineering mammalian brain circuitry.
Markram, Director of the “BlueBrain” Project, five years after the successful simulation of the part of a rat brain believes that we can build a functional artificial human brain within a decade. Current ongoing work in brain simulation has achieved partial and whole simulations of some animals. For example, the roundworm C. elegans, Drosophila fruit fly, and mouse have achieved mind-uploading to various degrees.
Berger, a researcher at the University of Southern California, is aiming to replace a portion of the hippocampus region in the brain with a BCI which converts short-term memories into long-term ones. The device converts a short-term memory such as a phone number into a digital signal which is mathematically transformed in a computer and fed back into the brain, where it is sealed in as long-term memory. He has successfully tested this device in rats and monkeys and is now testing it on humans. Rothblatt believes we will create “mind clones” in the future, which are digital versions of humans that can live forever. We will create mind clones from a “mindfile” from an online repository that humans already have such as Facebook.
The mindfile would run on a mind-ware a kind of software for consciousness. The implication of creating a mindfile is continuity of self because a person would not have to inhabit a human body. In “Altered Carbon”, a Netflix series that takes place hundreds of years in the future, the body no longer matters. A character in the series sarcastically says: “You shed it like a snake sheds its skin.” That’s because we can digitise human consciousness and translocate it between bodies - both real and synthetic
Mind uploading can also provide a permanent back-up file to enable interstellar space travels. Instead of a human astronaut in a space flight to outer planets, we could use an uploaded astronaut for unlimited interstellar travel to avoid the perils of zero gravity, cosmic radiation to the human body and the vacuum of space. Michal Kaku in his book “Physics of the Impossible” mentions that mind simulation through techniques such as quantum entanglement and whole brain emulation using an advanced MRI may help teleportation of humans to vast distances at the speed of light. Uploading the human mind could lead to exponential economic growth.
Humans would be more efficient if we upload minds into a robotic humanoid body. When the mind gets uploaded into a computer, the mind develops computer-like intelligence and improves the ability to think a million times faster than the average brain which in theory could mean that we can experience one year in a real-world in approximately 31 seconds of real-time.
Mind uploads can minimise the increase in the world’s population and the resultant harmful consequences, because of enhanced computing power and several folds increase in productivity. Besides, if we uploaded human consciousness into virtual reality, there could be better environmental recuperation. Humans would have less effect on the environment and release less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as they would not be using up energy if they exist in virtual reality. Mind uploading could help humanity survive a crisis such as a climate change by making a functional copy of human society in a “Matryoshka brain”, a computing device that consumes all energy from a star.
Mind uploading is today possible by one of the two methods. First, by gradual replacement of neurons or copy and transfer of neurons. The human brain comprises, on average, 86 billion nerve cells called neurons, which they link to other neurons through connectors called axons and dendrites. Signals at the synapses (junctions) of these connections get transmitted by the release of neurotransmitters. Important functions performed by the mind, such as learning, memory, and consciousness, are purely because of electrochemical processes in the brain. In the former, reconstructing neurons and their connections may be a huge task that depends on the dynamics of electrical and biochemical exchange between neurons. Therefore, capturing them in a single frozen state may prove difficult.
In the latter, we can achieve an upload by scanning and mapping the brain and transferring the information into a computer system. The biological brain may not withstand the copying process. The transferred mind could be within a virtual reality or a robot or 3D body simulation model. Many of the tools and ideas required to achieve mind uploading are already in existence or are under active development. A startup in the USA called Nectome has revealed plans to preserve human brains by a revolutionary brain embalming technique called “vitrification”. It involves replacing the blood flow in the brain with embalming chemicals to preserve its neuronal structure. Many models of the brain have estimated the computing power needed for partial and complete simulations. If trends of Moore’s law persists, the models show that brain uploading could become possible in a few decades.
Millions of dollars is being spent on digital ideas that promise to turn our brain into a digital organ despite many believing that human consciousness is too nuanced to turn into a digital product. Moore’s law may suggest that necessary computing power may become available within a few decades but actual computational requirements to enable a simulated brain to function is very difficult to quantify. Because of many neurons in the brain and the substantial complexity of each neuron, the processing demands are likely to be enormous. In the brain, every molecule is a computer, and we would need to simulate the structure and function of trillions of molecules as rules that govern how they interact. But Penrose from the University of Oxford does think it will not be possible until the development of quantum computers which is likely to happen by 2045. He believes that consciousness is a quantum mechanical phenomenon arising from the fabric of the universe.
A great danger of mind-uploads is that it could create a mindless monster. There are also questions about the legal position of such uploaded humans - What would be his legal rights? Would he inherit property? What would happen to his biological body? Can we inflict the death penalty on criminal emulations? Can an upload marry? If we assign simulated minds rights, would it be possible to ensure the protection of “digital human rights”. Computer viruses or malware could destroy the hardware of the uploaded minds. This may make the assassination of individuals with mind-uploads easier than physical humans. The attacker could also misuse the computing power of the mind uploaded entity.
Finally, mind uploading technology raises some questions. Does human consciousness have a computational basis? Do spiritual experiences come from God or are they just a random firing of neurons in the brain? Man, the technology creating species through mind uploading technology appears all set to merge with his own computational technology. Technological evolution is therefore moving man closer to becoming a God. If then, till now, was it God that was creating our spiritual experiences or was it just our brain?
(Dr Jayanth K Murali, IPS, is ADGP(Law and Order) Tamil Nadu. He can be contacted at www.jayanthmurali.com)