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Mind Uploading and Mind Children


There are two major questions surrounding the concept of mind uploading. There is the question of feasibility: Can we build a model of a brain complete enough to allow a conscious mind to emerge? The other question is concerned with identity. Some people argue that, if a copy of a conscious mind is identical by all measures (ignoring the fact that one is biological and the other is neuromorphic software/hardware) it should be thought of as a continuation of the mind that was mapped and uploaded. Others argue that a copy cannot be considered the same as the original, so the newly awakened consciousness must be another person.

Various attempts have been made to imagine the benefits of mind uploading. Assuming continuation of the mind, these benefits include indefinite lifespans and upgrading the mind. When your current brain no longer works well enough or not at all, you transfer your conscious mind to another (perhaps better) artificial brain. None of these benefits are tempting to those who see uploads as different people. In The Spike, Damien Broderick declared “copies are not you” and asked, “Would you be prepared to die (sacrifice your current embodiment) in order that an exact copy of yourself be reconstructed elsewhere, or on a different substrate?” He goes on to argue that this is not a procedure he would be willing to undertake. Let’s assume Broderick is right and a copy is indeed “not you.” Does it then follow that mind uploading offers no benefits?

Throughout Broderick’s argument, there is the impression that the uploaded consciousness would be a stranger to whom one would have few ties. But I think the copy would have the same status as Hans Moravec’s 4th generation universal robots. Moravec said, “I consider these future machines to be our progeny, ‘mind children’ built in our image and likeness.” I think “mind children” is an appropriate term for uploads. After all, when you have offspring some of your genes are duplicated. Each person is the result of two channels of heredity: genetic data encoded in DNA, and culture. Vernor Vinge has suggested humans can be defined as the species that learned to outsource aspects of cognition. This began with the evolution of complex language and the ability to communicate thoughts and intentions to other minds. It continued with the emergence of writing and the preservation of memories in external systems, and now includes technologies that are gradually assuming functions once thought to be exclusively biological. Mind uploading would mark the point at which culture becomes completely independent of biology — when all (not just aspects of) a person’s cognition could be duplicated. Can it really be the case that people would treat their upload as a stranger? I would imagine there would actually be a connection that is closer than that which can exist between identical twins.

It would also offer a solution to Terry Grossman’s complaint that death wastes a colossal amount of knowledge. If you assume each person’s life experience amounts to one book, the 52 million deaths that occur annually are equivalent to burning the Library of Congress three times every year. We do attempt to preserve knowledge and pass it on to future generations, but it takes decades for biological children to reach maturity. However, a “mind child” uploaded from an adult brain would, from day one, possess a lifetime’s worth of knowledge. As the problems society faces grows more complex, surely it makes sense to have offspring that can contribute to problem-solving from day one?

Must we wait until mind uploading is realized before we get to know our “mind children,” those future progeny who possess our memories and yet grow into different people? Perhaps not. Today, some people use online worlds like Second Life to create and develop “digital people.” This involves emphasizing the roleplaying possibilities of shared online spaces. So, whereas Emily Brontë used the medium of literature to create and develop the character of Heathcliff, now some people create and develop characters who exist exclusively within online spaces. A digital person is best not thought of as comparable to the relationship between “George Elliot” and “Mary Evans” (the former being a pseudonym of the latter) but more like “George Elliot” and “Silas Marner” (the latter being a character created by the former).

If you try to argue ‘an upload of your mind would not be you’ with a digital person (which, remember, is a term used to describe a character roleplayed in virtual worlds), you are missing the point. The scanning procedure would not be performed on the brain of the digital person. After all, it does not really have a brain of its own, any more than a literary or movie character does. No, the brain being scanned would belong to the person who actually does the roleplaying. Subjectively, there may already seem to be a degree of separation. He or she may imagine the character to be an individual in its own right. Once the upload is complete and that digital person truly develops independent of the mind that thought it up, perhaps that would not trigger the psychological issues that might arise if one expected the upload to be a continuation of oneself.

A related question is often asked: To what extent is a digital person separate from the person who is roleplaying them? The question is often asked. Many consider it impossible to create and sustain a personality that is substantially different from the RL persona. Others argue that current virtual reality is too crude to enable deep immersion into an alternate identity. The first argument may be true, but it hardly rules out the possibility of developing a digital person that is somewhat different from the RL self. As for the second argument, the crudeness of current VR may be an advantage. It enables those who want to play around with alternate identities or character creation, but does not yet raise the kind of existential questions that plagued people in Greg Egan’s Permutation City or the Matrix movies. As online worlds grow in sophistication, it should enable increasingly complex explorations of alternate identities. The end result may seem very strange to us, but perhaps less so to the people who get to use them, especially if they emerged from many small steps from the previous generation of online worlds.

Mind uploadingDevelopments in AI may also allow avatars to become increasingly autonomous. With eye-tracking software, a user could look at a point in the virtual space, and their avatar would head toward it. This might seem like nothing more than a convenient tool, but if an avatar can infer objects of interest from the direction of the user’s gaze, that would represent a basic step toward developing theory of mind.

This is something that interests search engine providers. Yahoo’s Usama Fayyad commented, “With more knowledge about where you are, what you are like and what you are doing at the moment…the better we will be able to deliver relevant information when people need it.” This would suggest mind uploading might benefit from progress in search software. After all, to develop as complete a model of a person’s state of mind as possible, eventually you must build something close to a copy of that mind. At Google, Peter Norvig sees us moving away from typing words into a search engine. Instead, “people will discuss their needs with a digital intermediary…the result will not be a list of links, but an annotated report (or a simple conversation) that synthesizes the important points.”

A “digital intermediary” sounds less like a tool and more like a person that collaborates with users, helping to gather and organize information. As storage capacities grow and computers and sensors shrink, some researchers foresee the emergence of computing ecosystems that can automatically capture and store “digital memories” of everything that happens in a person’s daily life. Such a gigantic store of accumulated data would require an AI competent at organizing information. Positive feedback might occur: the better digital intermediaries get at finding meaningful patterns in data, the more they know about the user. The more they know about the user, the better they get at finding meaningful patterns.

Digital intermediaries might develop into what Ben Goertzel has called “digital twins”: “An AI-powered avatar…embodying one’s ideas and preferences and [making] a reasonable emulation of the decisions one would make.” Some have argued that this approach is unlikely to capture enough information about a person to equal a mind upload. I agree. I think “digital twins” are unlikely to convince people that they are the person they claim to be, if subjected to lengthy interrogation by close family and friends. But they are more likely to be developed before “mind children”, as will software designed around partial understandings of the structure and functions of the brain. How will regular interactions with digital intermediaries, digital twins, and a clearer understanding of how the mind works affect concepts of “self”?

Traditionally (in the West at least), the self has been attributed to an incorporeal soul, making “I” a fixed essence of identity. But neuroscience is revealing the self as an interplay of cells and chemical processes occurring in the brain — in other words, a transitory dynamic phenomena arising from certain physical processes. German philosopher Thomas Mezinger’s “Phenomenal Self Model” moves away from a notion of “I” as a substance (incorporeal though it may be) and replaces it with representations of the information that is processed in the brain. The phenomenal self model challenges the “fixed essence of identity” that underlies expressions such as “she is no longer herself.” There isn’t any self in that sense; rather (in Lone Frank’s words) “life is not so much about finding yourself but choosing yourself or molding yourself into the shape you want to be…. The neurotechnology of the future will likewise produce the means for transforming the physical self — be it through various cognitive techniques, targeted drugs, or electronic implants…our individual self will simply be a broad range of possible selves.”

Maybe enabling technologies and knowledge gained during the reverse-engineering of living brains will turn current conceptions about "self" upside down.

By the time mind uploading is generally available, perhaps people will have forgotten a time when a singular self was “normal.” They will be used to multiple viewpoints, their brains processing information coming not only from their local surroundings, but also from the remote sensors and cyberspaces they are simultaneously linked to. They will have already become familiar with mental concepts migrating from the brain to spawn digital intermediaries within the clouds of smart dust that surround them. Every idea, each inspiration, would give birth to software lifeforms introspecting from many different perspectives before integrating the results of their considerations with the primary consciousness that spawned them. Each and every brain (whether robot, human, or a hybrid) will continually send and receive perceptions etc. to and from their personal exocortex, operating within the Dust. Just as computers can already cluster together to create temporary supercomputing platforms, perhaps many exocortices will cluster together to form metacortices within…what?

Well, that’s another question. I will not attempt to answer it, but return instead to the question: “who would want mind uploading?” Perhaps Greg Egan is right, and only the terminally ill who have exhausted all other possibilities for life extension would be prepared to undergo the procedure. Maybe it would appeal only to those who have created and developed “digital people” and who seek to give their “offspring” autonomy by arranging to create a duplicate of their mind, installed in hardware that will enable the digital person to grow in ways its “parent” could scarcely imagine. Or, just maybe, enabling technologies and knowledge gained during the reverse-engineering of living brains will turn current conceptions about “self” upside down. Maybe debates over whether or not “the copy is you” will turn out to have been precisely the wrong kinds of questions to ask.

The right questions can only be known to the future society that must co-exist with practical mind uploading technologies.

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19 Responses

  1. Ginger says:

    This concept is really hard to imagine for me, only because I feel like we are not that advanced technology-wise yet. It also makes me feel like we are striving for a human rapid prototyping software…were everyone has the same mind, we might as well be robots. I don’t know how I feel about that.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I would make transfers of myself, BUT I would also make some sort of “backup copy” somewhere, for obvious reasons. If a “backup” is not possible, then I’m sure the whole “loss of identity” stuff isn’t that bad. If anything it is another opportunity for experimentation on the self for greater knowledge, as in the scenario that Valkyrie Ice described.

    Either way, I’m sure that engaging yourself in a conversation would be an interesting experience. Who knows, it could also be educational.

  3. cambrian77 says:

    Isn’t the belief in mind uploading merely a modern manifestation of that old superstition that held that, in taking someone’s picture, you somehow capture their soul? It seems to me that mind uploading, at the very best, is a means of recording the information that a mind has gathered through experience. It is equivalent to writing an autobiography containing every single memory one has. The mind, however, is not transferred, nor is the digital copy a copy of the mind (just a reproduction of its memories).

  4. Valkyrie Ice says:

    I am probably an oddity in that I consider an exact copy of me, me. I do however view it somewhat differently, because the me copy and the me not copy would both share the same desire I have now, which is to remerge our experiences to maintain a unified indentity. Even if one of us is a computer, and one of us biological, we would want to ensure that both our experiences could be experienced by each of us. Therefore, a corollary to uploading would have to also include an ability to download just as easily.

    In this sense I would envision my mind linked with a simultaneous copy, one which is multiply redundant on many levels, so that no single failure could result in my “death” My body would be both my body and simultaneously a “terminal” of the larger “me”. If I choose to run multiple variants of “me”, say a male, a female, and however many other versions I decide on, they would all still be integrated with the “real me” and they would also each share the memories and experiences of all other “me”s.

    So I guess you could say I would view all “me”s including the “me” right now, as nodes of my overall consciousness. I may only have this one node right now, and I have to make sure it remains in working order until I have access to other nodes, but it’s my consciousness which is the “real me” not my body.

  5. Anonymous says:

    We seriously need to STOP talking about mind-uploading, in the form of copying.
    Almost always, when people discuss mind-uploading, they’re only talking about creating a copy of you. And while one could look at it as creating mind-children, is USELESS to the original.

    FAR MORE focus should be placed on uploading methods which directly benefit the ORIGINAL consciousness/mind. Mind-Transfer methods if you will. Forget about any method which involves copying!
    Copying is no more useful than creating an AI. Sure, it has uses, but NOT in the way it should.

    We need to focus on Mind-Transfer methods which preserves the original mind/conscious/experience-line, in effect a method which makes the original mind immortal. A method which can take our minds, the original true “me”, and transfer it to a digital construct, in a way that the original mind is experiencing the end result.

    I still say that we need some sort of method, via Nanobot-braincells, which cell by cell takes over the function of each cell in the brain, gradually in the same way the body naturally replaces old cells. Then once the entire brain has been upgraded in this way, we’ll be able to move onto the next step, whatever that may be. But this method would at least give the benefit of the “uploading” process to the original mind.

  6. Steve says:

    Pick a document on your computer and copy it.

    Is it the same file? No.

    Is it the same document? Depends what you mean by the question. Usually, we’d say “Yes, it’s the same document”.

    Modify the copy of the document and save it. Is it still the same document? No.

    Why the confusion with uploaded copies of your mind (unless you happen to believe that your mind cannot be digitally represented)?

  7. exapted says:

    I would like to challenge everyone here who says that “it’s a different consciousness”. You are talking about something imaginary. Consciousness is a terminal that society has defined as a matter of necessity, to bootstrap our way to morality and logic.

    If you disagree, then I challenge you to explain in further detail what you mean. I will explain what I think uploading is, without falling back on anything imaginary. I may not have a complete explanation, but I don’t make any assumptions based on “consciousness”.

    The temporal experience of reality is at least mostly computable, if not fully computable. Regardless, uploading would demonstrate multiple realizability, the realization of a mind on more than one type of substrate.

    First I will assume that the mind is fully computable, then I will consider other possibilities. (Although I do think the mind is fully computable.) If the mind is computable, then the experience of having a ‘self’, or your own consciousness, is a belief. Therefore if I upload myself, and I (and everyone who knows me) is convinced that the copy will be “me”, then the copy will be “me”, and my original self might even be considered “another”. Or if my brain was destructively scanned, and I believed I was not dying, then the emulated me would believe it is me, end of story. Or if my brain was destructively scanned, and I believed I was dying, then the emulated version of me would believe it was a copy of me, but not really me, since it would have to believe that the “real” me died (or maybe it could be convinced otherwise).

    If the mind is not fully computable, then it is possible that the uncomputable part of the mind would not be transfered. You could even say that the uploaded version of my mind was simply missing from the copy. Or you could claim that my uncomputable part was divided in half, gave birth to a new uncomputable self component, etc. As they say, “the sky is the limit”. But I think there is no empirical warrant to say that things falling under the rubric of “consciousness”, like the experience of making decisions, feeling empathy, etc., are any different from other aspects of intelligence. Believing in an “uncomputable” portion of the self is really just arguing for an unchangeable, essential property of the mind. And that’s very similar to saying that “the copy would be a different consciousness”.

    There would be another realization of consciousness indistinguishable from the original. That’s it. It’s goals might even be at odds with the original’s.

    If we want to upload our minds, I think *destructive* uploading might be a good idea. Destroy the original, maintain the internal dynamics and relationships of the mind while uploading. If we all believe the emulation is the same consciousness as the original, it is the same consciousness.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I’d have to think that Mind/consciousness transfer/moving could one day be possible.
    Copying is pointless; as this article says, the copy is not the same as you. It is a different consciousness. MOVING consciousness into technology is what we should focus on. People who are thinking about this field/issue should FORGET about copying, entirely. And focus only on the possibilities of moving.

    Consider how dynamic consciousness is. It’s feeling of self moves from moment to moment with the progression of time. It is constantly changing, and no single cell in the brain is responsible for our consciousness.
    Consciousness is instead, the result of the networked communication of the cells, which are only the medium, and to some extent maybe the memory storage.
    If that is true, then transfer/moving it MUST be possible, at least someday.

    Look at certain cases, when people experience severe brain injury… Sometimes, in some cases, that person continues on after injury, just fine, exactly how it would, although it’s rare, even in the case of severe injury. As long as enough of the brain remained uninjured, that person manages to stay conscious and living, for the most part just as they were. (Of course this is rare, and depends on the type of injury.) What this shows us, is that the brain has the ability to move functions to other areas of the brain. And to some degree, it can shift the network of consciousness to different locations.

    Maybe it could be possible, to trick the brain into shifting itself into a technology, out of the original brain. Shifting the consciousness, moving it, transfer. So forget copying… If we can create a medium for consciousness, and get the brain to move there, without relying on the physical biological brain… Maybe one day.

    Another question to ask yourself, are you the same you from yesterday? You lose consciousness every night. How do you know that yesterday’s consciousness is still there today? Maybe we need sleep, because consciousness is SO dynamic, that it cannot last for very long in a single stretch/run, without “resetting”. If that is true, then maybe the nature of consciousness actually works well with copying. Who knows… Maybe as long as you have the same memories, consciousness follows those memories.
    Maybe consciousness IS the result of those memories. Maybe that is why we do not remember being conscious as babies, because we have not yet formed enough memories for that consciousness to become self-aware.

    It’s all very interesting ideas… I hope one day it’s possible. Might make mankind immortal.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I want reassure those concerned about the personal identity issue. Don’t worry, the self does not exist.

  1. June 19, 2013

    […] “The other question is concerned with identity. Some people argue that, if a copy of a conscious mind…” […]

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