Futurist pundit George Dvorsky recently posted an article on io9, labeled as “DEBUNKERY” and aimed at the topic of mind uploading. According to the good Mr. Dvorsky, “You’ll Probably Never Upload Your Mind into a Computer.” He briefly lists eight reasons why, in his view, mind uploading will likely never happen.
UPDATE - here is a video interview on this subject:
Note that he’s not merely arguing that mind uploading may come too late for you and me to take advantage of it – he’s arguing that it probably will never happen at all!
The topic of Dvorsky’s skeptical screed is dear to my heart and mind. As a person frustrated with the limitations of the human body and interested in unlimited lifespan, I find the notion of mind uploading highly appealing. While my main research area is artificial general intelligence, I’ve also dug fairly deep into the science underlying mind uploading … in 2012 I edited the first journal issue entirely devoted to Mind Uploading (an issue of the Journal of Machine Consciousness).
Every one of Dvorsky's objections has been aired many times before – which is fine, as his post is a journalistic article, not an original scientific or philosophic work, so it doesn’t necessarily have to break new ground. More problematic is that the arguments he presents for the objections are rather weak.
In this article I will briefly run through Dvorsky’s eight objections, and give my own, in some cases idiosyncratic, take on each of them. I will explain why, from my own perspective, none of them is nearly as compelling an objection as he suggests. Of course, at this stage, we cannot know FOR SURE that mind uploading is a real possibility. But in my view, the balance of the evidence is strongly in favor of mind uploading’s feasibility.
Whether mind uploading will be developed in time for you and me to enjoy its benefits is quite another question, of course ... identifying what is possible is much easier than predicting what will happen when. But, the timing of what happens when, depends substantially on our attitude and initiative. If we believe, pace Dvorsky, that mind uploading is probably a pipe dream, then work toward mind uploading is not likely to advance very fast. If we believe mind uploading is a highly feasible technology and it’s likely just a question of when, then we’re likely to progress toward mind uploading a lot faster.
Reader be aware: My take on mind uploading, and Dvorsky’s objections, may not reflect that of the prototypical mind uploading researcher, or Singularitarian, or whatever. Like Dvorsky (whom I count as a friend and whose work I respect), I have my own particular point of view. For more depth on my general perspective on mind, brain, consciousness and reality from a futurist perspective, see my brief book A Cosmist Manifesto.
I use the term "mind uploading" here because Dvorsky does, but actually I prefer Randal Koene's phrase "substrate independent minds." Koene's term is less sexy than "mind uploading" but also probably less misleading. The point is the liberation of the mind from any particular substrate. Once one's mind is liberated from a particular substrate, then, at that point, one can choose what kind of embodiment one wants. Some will want human bodies, some monkeys, some cute fluffy bunnies, some flying space robots, some virtual-world avatars -- and some will want things we cannot now imagine.... Each chosen embodiment will influence the nature of the mind instantiated in it, often quite dramatically, and that will be part of the wonder!
Dvorsky’s Complaint #1: Brain functions are not computable
“Is” and “are” are complicated words, semantically…. Computability, in the sense it’s used in Dvorsky’s complaint, is a mathematical tool used for modeling certain systems. So his claim would be “brain functions cannot be effectively modeled using computable models.”
This is an interesting hypothesis, but there is certainly no scientific evidence for it. Furthermore, within the confines of current science, there is no possible way to gather solid scientific evidence for it. The problem is that all scientific data ever gathered, constitutes one large but finite set of bits (i.e a finite set of finite-precision numbers). Any finite set of bits can be modeled computationally. Of course, someone can claim a non-computable model is “better” than any computational model, for a given finite set of bits. But this then becomes a subjective claim, based on aesthetics, or intuition.
Perhaps some future discipline, going beyond the bounds of science as we know it today, will formulate some new sense in which brains fundamentally cannot be computationally modeled. But this vague possibility seems a rather threadbare excuse for rejecting mind uploading.
Dvorsky also conveniently ignores the possibility of analog and quantum computing. If it turns out the brain cannot be modeled using conventional computers, for some reason outside the scope of contemporary science -- or if modeling using conventional computers proves overly difficult even though possible -- then maybe the brain will still be effectively modelable using analog or quantum computers. In that case, maybe we could upload into those. I don't really care if my substrate is digital, analog, quantum or twistor based, so long as it works!
Dvorsky’s Complaint #2: We’ll never solve the hard problem of consciousness
I don’t know if we will ever solve the “hard problem of consciousness”, i.e. the problem of rigorously connecting subjective experiences with physical structures and dynamics. My gut feel is that this will require the invention of some new discipline going beyond contemporary science, synthesizing aspects of empirical/theoretical science with aspects of spiritual traditions and contemplative metaphysics like that of the medieval Buddhist logicians. I gave a talk on this at the 2011 Asia Consciousness Festival.
But, whatever…. An artist doesn’t need to solve the problem of defining beauty to make a beautiful painting.
What happens when I upload my mind into a robot body, and then George Dvorsky argues with the robot Ben Goertzel, saying “Robot Ben, you’re not really conscious, because you can’t clearly demonstrate to me philosophically how your consciousness is rooted in your circuitry.”
What happens when Robot Ben replies to Meat George: “OK, my meaty friend, then perhaps you’re not really conscious either. because you can’t clearly demonstrate to me philosophically how your consciousness is rooted in your neural wetware.”
If life were restricted to that which can be rigorously philosophically justified, to the agreement of the majority of philosophers, not much would happen.
Dvorsky’s Complaint #3: We’ll never solve the binding problem
The “binding problem” has to do with how percepts and concepts are represented in the brain, in such a way as to have a unified feeling and dynamic in spite of their involving physically disparate parts of the brain.
Why Dvorsky thinks we’ll never solve this, I really don’t know. It’s a non-trivial science problem, but seems likely to be straightforwardly resolvable once we have more spatiotemporally accurate brain imaging hardware. Of course, I can’t PROVE that, but, really…. Yeah, it’s possible that interpreting future highly detailed brain imaging data will prove somehow beyond human capability, and neuroscience will grind to a standstill. But… pshaw….
Dvorsky’s Complaint #4: Panpsychism is true
This is a weird one. I personally believe panpsychism is true – I think everything in the universe has its own little spark of consciousness. Why this would be taken to mean we can’t upload our minds into computers, I have no idea. If everything in the universe has its own spark of consciousness, then so do brains, and so do computers. So what?
The tricky question becomes figuring out what kinds of consciousness correlate with what kinds of physical systems. What properties of the human brain need to be emulated in another substrate, in order to cause that substrate to correlate with consciousness that is human-like, instead of having some other flavor.
Why Dvorsky considers this problem unsolvable, I don’t know. Maybe he just got up on the wrong side of bed and fell out of his treehouse?
Dvorsky’s Complaint #5: Mind-body dualism is true
Philosopher Galen Strawson has argued pretty persuasively that dualism is logically incoherent.
But giving Dvorsky probably more benefit of the doubt than he deserves here – OK, what if Strawson and common sense are wrong, and mind-body dualism is true?
Let’s suppose that mind contains some aspect that is separate from physical reality, yet connected to it. So that the human brain is, in some regards, an “antenna receiving the immaterial mind”, rather than something that produces the mind. (Though please note, it must be an awfully complex antenna, given all that’s known about the specific cognitive and experiential consequences of messing with particular parts of the brain.)
In this case, if we upload a human brain into a different substrate, why wouldn’t the new version of the brain act as an antenna for the immaterial portion of the mind equally well?
Of course this is not guaranteed, since IF mind-body dualism is somehow true, we have no idea how it would work. It’s possible to make up various dualist theories under which mind uploading is impossible. The Christian Church has made up one, for example. But why should we believe these theories, instead of looking in the direction neuroscience is pointing us?
Dvorsky’s Complaint #6: It would be unethical to develop
Some consider it unethical to develop mind uploading. Many of us consider it unethical not to – because we feel that extending life and mind throughout time and space is an ethical imperative.
Some consider it unethical to use electrical power, as well. So what? That doesn’t stop the rest of us….
Dvorsky’s Complaint #7: We can never be sure it works
As an old man of 46 years old, one thing I have realized more and more in the course of my life is: We can never be sure of anything.
Even death and taxes are not really inevitable, as we now have a society of immortality and abundance within reach.
We may well be living within some sort of computer simulation. How can we know?
I certainly can’t know that George Dvorsky is really conscious, nor that the world outside the house I’m now sitting in hasn’t recently been replaced by some sort of Truman Show.
While Meat George is pointing at him saying “I can’t be sure you’re conscious”, Robot Ben will be flying around in space, solving eight billion dimensional nonlinear equations, communing with the trans-galactic superorganism and having sixty seven orgasms at once, cackling “That, my friend, is because you’re limited to a legacy human brain!”
Dvorsky’s Complaint #8: Uploading would be susceptible to hacking and abuse
This reminds me of someone, back in 1990, saying that the Web will never be created because it would be susceptible to hacking and abuse.
Well, yeah. Hacking and abuse happen. Defense mechanisms are created. The struggle between organisms continues. Life goes on.
And, if we’re reasonably lucky, life will go and and on – beyond the realm of meat humans with painfully short lifespans, into the domain of uploads and AGIs exploring aspects of the multi-multi-…-multiverse that meat humans can’t even imagine.
Can we prove for sure that mind uploading is possible? Of course not.
But, red herrings about ethics and hacking aside, the arguments Dvorsky raises against mind uploading basically boil down to: Many people are confused about the philosophy of mind, and they argue about it a lot....
Many people are confused about the philosophy of matter and the nature of space and time also, but that doesn't stop us from manipulating matter in pretty cool ways. Actually, time is just as confusing to philosophers as consciousness -- yet few go around claiming that we can't build machines operating in time until we have an adequate, detailed, broadly accepted philosophy of time!
Mind uploading is coming. I hope it's coming in time for us. Time -- even though we don't understand it that well yet -- will nevertheless tell...
For more info on the growing science of mind uploading, see Randal Koene's excellent Carbon Copies website.
-- This article brought to you by Meat Ben. Enjoy him while he lasts! --
Sign up for the Humanity+ newsletter:
Joining Humanity+ as a Full, Plus or Sponsor Member enables you to participate in Humanity+ governance and decision-making - an important role in the growing Transhumanist movement. It also, of course, gives you the opportunity to support us in the work Humanity+ does!