How close are we to charging your mind?

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Mind uploading, technically known as “whole brain emulation,” is the idea that you can digitize a brain (and presumably the mind) and have that mind live on inside the computer long after the body is dust. . But how realistic is this idea?

Who wants to live forever?

First, why would anyone want to do it? The obvious answer is that many people are interested in extending their lifespan, in order to continue to exist as a conscious being when their body and brain die. If you believe in some kind of life after death, then this is not a problem for you. But even so, the idea of ​​preserving the mind for the foreseeable future is inherently attractive.

In addition to this rather self-centered motivation, there are other interesting potential applications for this kind of theoretical technology. Maybe we want to preserve our smartest people, so they can keep coming up with brilliant ideas. Perhaps it’s a way to achieve strong AI without having to crack the secret of how consciousness works. It could be a way to send the human mind into space without the need for big, slow ships or life support systems. These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg, so suffice it to say that there is more than enough interest to fund serious research in this area.

However, just because you have the money and manpower to solve a problem doesn’t mean you’ll get anywhere. There are some serious obstacles on the road to digital immortality.

Problem 1: What It is To the mind?

At first glance, this sounds like a silly question. However, even though all of us (supposedly) have minds and thoughts, we don’t know much about what a mind is or how it works. We have learned a lot about how human psychology works, how neurons work, and how specific substructures of the brain work, or at least what they do. But all these puzzle pieces do not add up to any real understanding of the mind.

The reality is that there are some fundamental mysteries about the mind-body relationship. For example, is it enough to emulate only the brain? Do we need to emulate the whole brain? Can a mind operate without a body? Does the body also have to be emulated?

To keep its mind intact might require simulating a lot of the flesh-and-blood baggage it was designed for, and altering a digital mind so it doesn’t need those things arguably means it’s no longer a faithful reproduction. That’s before we deal with the fact that we don’t know what aspects of our brain are important or how the brain works at a low level.

Problem 2: We are going to need a bigger computer

Computer servers in a data center with dark RGB lighting.
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It takes a lot of computational power to create simulations. The exact amount of power you’ll need depends on what you plan to simulate. It could turn out that a large part of the brain simply doesn’t have to be simulated in great detail for everything to work, or it could turn out that all the information about the state of each brain cell is important. There is a huge gulf in the computational power needed between those two extremes, but even at the low end, the computational needs are enormous.

The Blue Brain project is a real-life research project with the goal of simulating the brain of a mouse. The project began in 2005, and by 2019 the research team announced that they had completed mapping the entire cortex of a mouse and were preparing to conduct virtual EEG experiments. Despite using the Blue Gene supercomputer, the model of the mouse cortex had become too heavy to simulate. You start to see how far we are from simulations of the human brain if even a mouse brain demands more power than we can muster.

Problem 3: And we (might) need a better microscope

Digitizing a brain means scanning it in some way. The most accurate scans are the destructive ones, where a brain is treated and cut into very thin slices, which are then reconstructed. Clearly, this is not good news for the owner of the brain!

Even then, it’s still not clear whether those extremely high-fidelity scans contain all the information you need to upload a snapshot of a mind. Noninvasive scanning methods, like fMRI, don’t have anywhere near the detail of these destructive scanning methods, but that technology is getting better all the time.

If the biological structure of the brain is indeed essential to uploading a mind, then we will have to advance a few orders of magnitude in our ability to scan and capture those structures. It may turn out that the way our minds work requires information about things that happen at the subatomic level, in the realm of quantum physics. If that turns out to be true, it becomes even more difficult to imagine a technology that can capture the necessary data.

Problem 4: It is copying, not uploading

A woman's face next to a laser-projected digital reproduction.
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An important drawback, and one that may not have a solution, is that uploading the mind would be a way of copying and not transferring. In other words, no matter what you do, your current consciousness will die when your brain does. The charged mind is a copy. He’ll think it’s you and he’ll think exactly like you would. It would have all of his memories and experiences, assuming the technology works. However, your subjective experiences and consciousness will end. Even if the mental uploads are done after his natural death, the original is gone.

Whether this really matters is a question for philosophers. But if the mental upload that can be done on a living brain without ever destroying it becomes real, it would mean that you and the digital copy of you would exist side by side. The two would immediately begin to diverge into different individuals.

When will the mental load be real?

With any issue that doesn’t have a clearly defined scope, it’s impossible to put a timeline on things. A loaded mind may never happen, or there could be a breakthrough next year. There are also many different variations on the mental load theme that don’t require whole-brain emulation. Similar to Amazon’s infamous experimental feature for Alexa, we already have AI chatbots that learn to mimic people, living or dead, by reviewing all of their available data. This knockoff might trick someone into thinking the bot is the original, meeting some rudimentary “mindloading” standards, but it’s clearly not what people are looking for here.

Considering that we expect major advances in both computing power and artificial intelligence systems that could help solve some of the toughest problems on the road to mental workload, it wouldn’t be surprising to see something similar during the 21st century. But at the same time, it would be surprising if it remained permanently in the world of science fiction. Only time will tell.

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