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How Uploading Works

This article was adapted from a lecture given by Marshall Brain at the 2nd Annual Workshop on Geoethical Nanotechnology on July 20, 2006 in Lincoln, VT.  Marshall an author, public speaker and founder of HowStuffWorks, offers an understanding and explanation of the pace of technology change how he believes in two to three decades, ‘mind uploading’ will work.  [Video: Streaming Windows Media DSL/Cable or Dialup] [Video: Google version (Mac compatible)] [PowerPoint slides] [Audio (mp3)]

I might not actually have free will. When I raise my arm, I might not have actually done that; part of my subconscious might have done that and caused me to raise it.  I perceive it is free will but it may not be. Even though I have perceived there is one me and I think of myself as a single person, there might actually be multiple things behind me that are being integrated into an illusion that I am me.  Now I’m supposed to talk knowing that I’m hallucinating an illusion and whatever else. I have to put all that aside and go back to my normal mode of thinking which is:  I am one person with one consciousness.  I do have free will and I am not hallucinating. I talk to a lot of people and do a lot of stuff that is fun in the way of educating people, such as with the website: How Stuff Works. One thing I know about talking with the general public is that no one is thinking at the level that is being thought of here and no one is sitting around in their living rooms watching television and thinking, wow, in 20 or 30 years, I can have my brain uploaded.  That is just not in the public consciousness. I have to work at a little bit different level when trying to help people understand the pace of technological change.  To help people understand the pace of technological change, I can’t use computers because most people don’t have a real good grasp of computers.  I can use airplanes because everybody understands airplanes. If you look back to 1903, and at the moment this happened in normal society, there were no skyscrapers and there were not cars yet because the model-T was not invented until 1909. wright brothers
Image 1: Wright Brothers There wasn’t air conditioning, refrigeration, lighting was still - some of it was electrified but a lot of it was kerosene.  The concept of the galaxy had not been invented yet so if people looked at the stars, no one thought of galaxies yet because that does not get invented until 1920. This rickety, wooden, fabric thing takes off, off the ground, and flies for 200 feet.  And if you were to say to people in 1903, hey, we just had the first airplane, now think about this, 50 years from now, there’s going to be a giant aluminum version of this, except that it’s going to be about three football fields long and it’s going to be able to fly faster than the speed of sound and it’s going to be able to carry 70,000 pounds of bombs around, all the way to the other side of the world, and drop them on foreign nations if it wants to.  That will all happen in 50 years. They would have just thought you were nuts and yet 50 years later the B-52 bomber, which is able to fly halfway around the world and drop 70,000 pounds of bombs on people, actually happened. b2
Image 2: B-52 Bomber Now, 15 years, and not 50, is the pace of technological change.  That is phenomenal and as Ray Kurzweil suggests, the pace is accelerating. Paradigms are shifting at a faster and faster rate.  It is hard to predict the future, but one thing that I’m pretty sure of, and something that I try to talk to people about, is that we all are going to want out of our human bodies. 
Image 3: Predicting the Future We are all inhabiting human bodies right now.  We all, though we don’t realize it or consciously think about it every moment of every day, we all want out of our bodies.  We would like to discard these vehicles that we currently use for transportation and we would like to replace them with something better. We can actually look at market forces that will drive us out of our bodies and understand that is a way of understanding a little bit about uploading and what will drive that. What will drive us out of our bodies?  I can tell you one thing is travel. Travel can be inconvenient: flight connections, security probes, and all the things involved with traveling. The experience of travel is one thing that will drive us out of their bodies but for a lot of people another thing that will drive us out of our bodies is video games, the desire to experience video games much more intimately that we do today. Here is an image of video game technology in 1982 versus video game technology in 2005.  In 25 years we went from Pac-Man, which is four colors on a black screen, to an immersive 3-D environment.
Image 4: Video Games What would this screen look like in 2030?  If we went that far in 25 years, what will a video game look like in 25 more years?  And that’s mind boggling.  What will I look like? If we stay inside our bodies, it will not look that much different.  It can get a little higher resolution but you can get much better than HALF Life II in terms of resolution.  They offer us all these different experiences that we would all like to have, but look at some of these experiences, you can play football, you can kill people in realistic battle situations and you can go back to ancient Rome.
Image 5: Immersive Video Games There are lots of cool things you can do but the problem is you have to do it with two thumbs and most of us don’t want to experience football and Ancient Rome with two thumbs.  We want to experience them with our full complement of physical senses and muscles.  We want to actually participate in these events. This is a rapidly evolving technology.  I believe it is either on the cusp of or already has overtaken the movie industry.  It has nowhere to go but forward except for this problem: the notion that you are going to control and experience with your thumbs is nuts.  That is one thing that will drive us out of our bodies.  And it will drive us out of our bodies in one of two ways.  Either we will install hardware that will let us emulate or connect into these virtual environments and control and feel them or we’ll realize we don’t need our bodies anymore. One way or the other will get us out.  The second reason is porn.  We all see the effects of porn in our society and I can offer you an interesting and sometimes shocking piece of data to show how popular porn is.  I would say we all use Google.  Google represents 2.7 percent of all Web traffic, followed by Yahoo! and MSN.  Search is about five percent of network Internet traffic and we all use that. Porn is over three times more Internet traffic than all of search.  It’s insane how popular porn is and we don’t realize it, maybe because it’s not something people talk about.  But that statistic cannot be denied. That is an astounding statistic.  The way people experience porn right now is through still images or grainy videos and that stinks.  It’s just not how people want to experience porn.  It is a very, very poor stimulation of what people want out of porn. That’s the second thing that will drive us out of our bodies.  The third thing is this horrible problem our bodies create with longevity.  I was on this flight, wishing I wasn’t inside my body, and I’m sitting in my seat, which is the aisle seat.  There is a quite large woman sitting next to me who got there before me and just put up the arm rest. We’re squeezed in a two pack on the airplane.  She’s about 80 years old and she used to work at IBM. I got to know her very well on this flight. She lives near Orlando, but is flying up to visit her niece who lives in Burlington,  VT.  She said to me at the end of the flight, “I really appreciate you being here today.”  And I said, “Why is that?”  And she replied, “Well, my husband of 53 years passed away and this is the first trip I’ve ever taken without him.” What do you say to that?  She talked through the whole flight and I talked with her and we had a very nice time, but I didn’t realize I was taking the place of her now deceased husband, That’s just shocking to think that I was in that role, for one thing.  And for another thing, think how horrible that is, a person she’s been with for 53 years just vanished out from underneath her for no reason.  Death is an insult; it’s just ridiculous. There are all these different ways for us to die.  We could go to the bathroom and fall down the steps or we could get into an accident as we’re driving back to a hotel or the hotel could burn down while we’re sleeping; there are so many ways for us to die.  When we die we don’t have a backup system or anything like that. Getting out of our bodies is one way to improve longevity. All of these forces, plus having to use the restroom and all of these other things, are going to drive us out of our bodies as soon as we have the opportunity to leave them.  Lots of people would leap at the chance to get out of their bodies if they could go plug into a virtual world.   What is going to happen?  You can imagine me trying to get through airport security with a toy brain in a soda bottle.  It’s a fake brain. It’s a toy and I actually brought the little packaging so I could show them it was just a toy brain. This is what the next phase of technology will be, I think. I don’t think we’ll get to uploading fast enough.  I think we will instead just discard our bodies, take our brain, and put them in containers that provide oxygen, nutrients, antibiotics and whatever else to keep us going. Then later we’ll get to uploading.  The advantage to putting our brains in bottles is, first of all, we eliminate the whole trauma thing from falling down and getting in car wrecks and stuff. Next, there will be far less disease exposure because, it can be kept in a sterile facility and our bodies open us up to lots of diseases that our brains don’t necessarily have to participate in.    The problem is that we will connect to virtual environments by living in bottles and have a lot more fun but the neurons still die. The estimate is about 30 million of your neurons die every year as you go through life. We are going to want to store our brain in a permanent medium.  That is where this whole idea of mind uploading [1] comes from. Back up our consciousness and run it on another medium where we don’t have 30 million neurons dying every year. Here are the basic facts on the brain, it’s a liter and a half, it consumes 20 watts, it has 100 billion neurons, 100 trillion synapses, it’s got a lot of atoms, maybe ten to the thirtieth atoms and it uses this basic component called a neuron, for its technology.
Image 6: Human Brain The problem is how do you store this and then execute it in some other medium besides the current one?  How do we take the patterns that are in it? The patterns are stored in at least three ways: the connections between the neurons, the formation of new synapses through experiences and then, microtubules.
Image 7: The Neuron
Memory could be stored somehow but I don’t think we even know how all memories are stored.  We somehow take all that physiology, put it into some kind of computer medium, and then we have to figure out how to execute it, which may happen in two steps. There are maybe ten to twenty different commonly discussed possible ways to do this.  One is where they take the top of your skull off and they just probe your cortex with an electrode and you get really vivid memories of things that have happened in your life. Those memories play on your visual cortex and there are memories that play on your auditory cortex.  So, one idea is to somehow probe the brain, basically scan through it memory by memory, and record images and sounds off the visual and auditory, and record it. That would be low fidelity but it would be a way of capturing the movies out of your brain. The second way is neuron simulation of some sort.  You have to somehow get inside the brain, probably destructively, and look at every single neuron and see how is it connected to all the other neurons around it, how are the synapses weighted, how are the synapses connected, and somehow tease that out of the structure.
Image 8: Uploading Approaches
The two main ways of doing that have been proposed is either slicing the brain very gently and just scanning it in some way or injecting some kind of a nanotechnology entities into it that can look at and figure out how to emulate each neuron and either kill off that neuron and replace it, as that opportunity is available, or somehow stand alongside it and eventually have an image of every neuron in the whole brain that’s being transmitted out by these nanobots. Or, you go the whole distance and you somehow look at every single atom in this object and you store the type of atom, its location, it’s bonding to neighboring atoms, someone mentioned (cork spin), and somehow take an atomic image of this. Then the question is: how would you do that?  No one has a really good idea right now but this Star Trek transporter room idea does offer one technology for doing that because it is already taking your entire body and turning it into an electromagnetic wave that can be transmitted to a planet surface. That gives you an example of how speculative the technology is.  No one has a good way of conceiving of how you would take something apart atom by atom and then simulating it into the atomic level and running it.  The thing that is so interesting is that all of these things are probably possible, perhaps within 40 years. In some form of this in some way within 40 years, that’s extremely hard to imagine, yet probably true in the same way. Going from the Wright Brothers’ airplane to the B-52 was hard to imagine in 50 years. I think back to that nice woman who was sitting on the airplane with me. In perhaps 40 years, that problem won’t exist anymore.  That is an amazing thing if it actually happens.


1. Mind Transfer/Mind Uploading - In transhumanism and science fiction, mind transfer (also referred to as mind uploading or mind downloading, depending on one’s point of reference), whole body emulation, or electronic transcendence refers to the hypothetical transfer of a human mind to an artificial substrate. January 23, 2007 3:47PM EST

Marshall Brain is a fellow of the IEET, and the author of The Day You Discard Your Body, Manna and the founder of

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