Exploring Digital Immortality: Will The Human Brain Be Up Uploadable?

Photo courtesy of Arenamontanus via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic.

Depending on who you ask, the possibility of uploading your brain to a computer is either a crazy theory, or a scientific inevitability.

Also known as WBE (Whole Brain Emulation), this process would be capable of transferring mental content into a computational device, or vice versa.

The concept of uploading your brain, which could mean preserving a person’s consciousness after death, is a proponent of what some call technological singularity: a hypothetical moment in time when AI will surpass human intelligence, changing civilization entirely.

Who believes it?

Google’s chief engineer Ray Kurzweil, for one, believes that this singularity and the digital immortality it implies are closer than we think, according to Reuters.

Kurzweil, author of “The Singularity is Near,” reasons that the rapid growth of biotechnology and life expectancy predict a “tremendous transformation of health and medicine” within the next 10-20 years.

By mid-century, he expects humans to become “increasingly non-biological to the point where the non-biological part dominates,” with software-based humans living on the web, projecting their bodies from the net.

This would be easier to dismiss if it were only Kurzweil who believed it — but he’s not. Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku’s book “The Future of the Mind” makes very similar claims.

According to the Telegraph’s review, Kaku, though skeptical of Kurzweil’s rapid timeline, argues that despite obstacles, freeing your mind of its physical body by uploading your brain is well within the laws of physics.

Memory uploading, in fact, has already been achieved with mice. Kaku predicts that the ability to upload sets of knowledge could drastically change the economy. Given how AI technology is poised to replace half of U.S. jobs in the near future, this could be a breakthrough solution.

Why it could be true

On the surface, the theory of uploading your brain digitally may seem crazy to even the sanest individual. But if Moore’s Law is to be believed — and so far, it has been frighteningly accurate — computers have and will continue to double in computing power every two years.

Kurzweil estimates in his book that this doubling will lead to drastic scientific advancement and complete brain simulation capability.

Brain mapping is already a forefront of scientific research, with the White House’s proposed BRAIN Initiative and Europe’s Human Brain Project working toward understanding and mapping the human brain, the first step in simulating it completely.

Research could potentially unlock a future where dreams will be recorded, thoughts and emotions will be sent through a neural Internet, and spies can intercept brainwaves.

Why it’s problematic

While many futurists believe uploading your brain will be possible, there are still reasons that it may fail. For example, the human brain may not actually be computable, despite our attempts — neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis certainly thinks so.

Then there is the issue of consciousness, theories of which we’ve discussed on Curiousmatic here. Specifically, the question of how the mind generates subjective experience has yet to be solved, and perhaps never will be.

One concern is that the quality of consciousness could change dramatically without a body attached to it, perhaps beyond recognition, and there may be no certainty of originality versus copy.

This, along with mind-body dualism and other theories, ethical concerns  surrounding testing, legal concerns regarding rights of a bodiless consciousness, and the possibility of hacking, could make for some serious roadblocks on the thorny path toward digital immortality.

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Jennifer Markert