If there is a Holy Grail in the technological search for longevity and immortality it is uploading. Unfortunately, while uploading will work (in a way), it won’t work for you.
The idea of uploading is basically that every human mind is simply the activity of an individual brain. If we could scan that brain, map all its connections down to the finest level, we could then reproduce that structure in another medium—some form of computer hardware that would have the same functional organization as the original brain and whose activity would produce the same mind. Same mind, new hardware. The benefit of the new hardware, of course, would be that it’s far stronger, far more durable, far more resistant to injury and infection, and is perpetually open to spare parts replacement. Instead of our minds succumbing to the biological breakdown of brain matter, we could instead live on safely and securely in a silicon upgrade.
The belief that brains make minds is probably right. The belief that what is important about brains is just the way they are organized—how they process, transmit, store, and create information—is probably right. The belief that other materials besides water, fat, protein, carbs, and salts could turn out thinking states if properly structured is probably right. The belief that copying your brain will save your mind is probably wrong.
What’s wrong is not a mistake in the science, not a mistake in the technology, but a mistake in the metaphysics. It’s a problem with understanding what is preserved when you copy something. Fans of uploading want to scan a brain’s organization. Ok, that’ll work. They think that if we organize computer hardware to match the original brain’s architecture, the computer will produce a mind with cognitions (memories, feelings, beliefs, etc.) that match the original brain. Ok, that’ll work. They do not think that the computer hardware is the same exact object as the original brain. Ok, that’s right. But they do think that the computer’s mind is the same exact thing as the original mind. Wait a minute.
Why think that the new computer is obviously not the same exact object as the brain you scanned but think that the new mind is the same exact mind you started with? Why think that copying won’t preserve the identity of the brain but will preserve the identity of the mind? If you copied a song from a friend’s computer to a CD you wouldn’t think that the sound waves you hear are the very same sound waves your friend’s speakers make. You would think your CD player produces sound waves that are just like your friend’s computer. We might use the term “same” song, but we know its copies all the way down.
Typically, people describe uploading as “transferring” a mind from one place to another. Over and over in uploading discussions, there is some version of this: If you copy a brain’s structure, then what happens is that the mind “in” the original brain will “move” to the computer. Notice how the language here is all about something moving from place to place. Even though uploading proponents would likely say they don’t think minds are immaterial objects (like ghosts or souls), but rather are brain activity, the language they use belies this functionalist position. Instead, talking about minds “moving” and “being transferred” and “traveling across information channels” is exactly the way one would talk about an object in motion from one location to another. It matches exactly the way a religious believer might say a soul has “left the body” or “gone to heaven” or “entered a new form.” It treats the mind as a specific, locatable thing that is “in” a current brain able to be moved over to a new type of brain.
This way of talking isn’t just casual metaphor. In fact, it is crucial to think this way for uploading to work. After all, uploading isn’t about creating artificial intelligence. It’s about saving and preserving a specific mind. It’s about personal identity. If the uploading procedure doesn’t actually transfer you, then whatever its other appeals, it won’t save you, won’t help you get a longer and safer life. Unfortunately, I don’t think uploading can save you.
The technology of uploading could copy your brain. But the mind the new brain produces will also be a copy. It will be a real mind. It will have memories and dreams and desires and it will have exactly similar memories and dreams and desires as yours. But so what? Your goal in going through the uploading process wasn’t to make a copy of you that could go on with its own life—it was to save yourself. In spite of the language uploading enthusiasts use, your mind will not “travel” across the room to the computer. The reorganized computer will start producing a new mind. That mind will have exactly similar features as you, but won’t be you. You will be right where you started. The fact that you could be staring at the computer to which your mind was supposedly “transferred” shows that.
Now, lots of uploading descriptions include the slow destruction of the original brain that is being copied. As each neural connection is scanned and copied in the computer, that part of your old brain is destroyed. The result is supposedly that you wake up in the new brain and the old brain is all gone. But that doesn’t help. Destruction makes no difference to identity. The new mind is in exactly the same relation to the old mind regardless of whether the old mind is allowed to survive. Destroying the old mind just makes it less obvious that the new mind is new. If a mind really were transferred during uploading, the old body—even when completely unharmed and neural system still functioning normally—should be mindless. No need to destroy it.
What’s happening here is that the view of the mind as an immaterial object—like a ghost or a soul—is sneaking into the definition of uploading. That’s understandable. All languages use metaphors and many times we don’t even realize it. But in this case, the actual outcome of uploading depends on the metaphor being real and that’s a problem. When we talk about minds being “transferred” from a brain to a computer we are using metaphors of objects, motion, and place—just like when tell someone to “put your ideas into words” or “get your thoughts across to the audience.” But ideas aren’t really inserted into words and thoughts aren’t really moved across rooms. Neither are minds. When we copy a brain, we get a mind. But it’s a new mind, just like the brain is a new brain.
Ironically, my problem with uploading (and I really do wish it worked) is not some old-fashioned magical and mystical attachment to a spiritual notion of minds. Quite the opposite. I think the old-fashioned spiritual notion of minds is haunting the idea of uploading. Although very materialistic and technological on the surface, uploading treats minds as moveable immaterial substances. But if minds aren’t like that, they can only be copied, not moved. And if they are like that, do you really need machines to help find them new homes?
Patrick D. Hopkins, an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, is a philosopher and ethicist who combines a life-long love of science fiction with academic scholarship on very real-world issues of science and technology.
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