How uploading our thoughts to a computer becomes possible

June 27, 2023

(Nanowerk News) The idea that our minds can live on in other forms after our physical bodies die has been a recurring theme in science fiction since the 1950s. Recent television series such as Black Mirror and Upload, as well as several games, demonstrate our continued interest in this idea. The concept is known as mind uploading.

Recent developments in science and technology are bringing us closer to a time when thought uploading could move from science fiction to reality.

In 2016, BBC Horizon screened a program called The Immortalin which a Russian millionaire reveals his plans to work with neuroscientists, roboticists, and other experts to create technology that will allow us to upload our minds to computers to live forever.

At the time, he confidently predicted that this would be accomplished by 2045. This seems unlikely, but we are making small but significant steps toward a better understanding of the human brain – and the possible ability to mimic, or reproduce, it.

Whole-brain emulation is one potential route to uploading thoughts. Detailed brain scans and their activities will allow us to reproduce a person’s biological brain, and possibly mind, on a computer.

Several approaches

The most promising technique is “scan and copy”, in which preserved brain structures are scanned in detail, for example using electron microscopy techniques. It will collect the necessary data to generate a brain work copy.

So, what are the chances that whole-brain emulation, and thought-uploading potential, will be achieved? In a report published in 2008 (Whole Brain Emulation – Roadmap; PDF), researchers at the University of Oxford describe whole-brain emulation as “a matter of great engineering and research, yet one that seems to have a clear goal and, apparently, can be achieved by extrapolation of current technology”.

However, others are skeptical of its underlying assumptions and in particular its two main principles. Central to the whole-brain emulation proposition is the separation of mind from body.

However, this is controversial, as many believe it is “materialized” brain and it works as is because of it relation to other body parts and the environment we perceive and interact with.

Thought uploading also assumes that thoughts are the result of what the brain does. Our mind, and especially consciousness, is often thought of as something larger and more ephemeral than the functioning of the biological brain.

This controversy means that the philosophical and scientific challenges of whole-brain emulation and thought-uploading are actively debated by academics, yet there is little awareness among the public that these discussions are ongoing and unresolved.

For my PhD thesis, I’ve explored how aware the public is about thought uploading and what they think of the idea when they study it, such as whether they want their thoughts uploaded to a computer or to another body and what the benefits are. and possible risks.

During my studies, I have used several research methods including longitudinal interviews – interviews with the same subject over several years – and web storytelling that depicts two uploaded characters.

Modify the brain

Neurotechnology, or “methods for directly recording or modifying human brain activity”, is advancing rapidly. Examples of neurotechnology such as the brain-to-computer interface and implantable device, the Stentrode, made headlines earlier this year for enabling severely paralyzed patients to control the computer by thinking and to perform online activities such as shopping and sending email.

Such developments, together with advances in artificial intelligence (AI), allow us to better decipher brain waves. In the future, they might allow us to “write” or modify brains.

As a result, we need to implement guidelines and laws to ensure that our human rights and nerves are protected. This area known as “neurorights” is currently a hot topic in academic circles.

No one knows for sure how long it took to emulate the human brain. This could take 100 years, with thought uploading being another big leap. While this may seem like a lifetime, we need to remember how fast technology has advanced in the last decade.

For example, we first used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) fifty years ago. However, earlier this year, a research team led by Duke University scanning the entire brain of a mouse at the highest resolution ever – 64 million times sharper than before. Today, whole brain emulation and thought uploading possibilities are mostly in the scientific domain.

However, as we are already beginning to see, such developments have the potential to change what it means to be human and, therefore, those outside the world of science must have a voice.

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