Red Pill or Blue Pill? A Hypothetical Future with Mind Upload |

Mind Upload

We’re definitely no strangers to having a digital mirror version of ourselves, be they in apps, online games or on social media. But what if we can back up our minds and upload our “self” so that we can live on even after death?

Our minds, or “soul,” can be defined as the data file and software of the brain, so hypothetically, you can transfer all the data into some server, in essence creating a stored version of “you” somewhere. This process is called “mind uploading.”

The science of the brain and of consciousness increasingly suggests that mind uploading is possible – there are no laws of physics to prevent it – and the idea is bringing to life the feasibility and morality of “immortality.”

What is mind uploading?

The human brain is made up of billions of individual neurons connected to other neurons; every time a neuron fires, electrochemical signals jump between them, creating information that enables the brain to process input and execute commands. Many neuroscientists believe that who we are – our personalities, emotions, even consciousness – lies in those patterns.

Among some futurists and within the transhumanist movement, it’s believed that in a few decades, humans will be able to upload their minds to a computer, transcending the need for a biological body. Back in 2013 Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google and futurist, predicted that people will be able to “upload” their entire brains to computers and become “digitally immortal” by 2045.

While there’s no real tangible evidence of mind uploading working yet, the idea of it is a central conceptual feature of numerous science fiction novels, films, and games. 

Mind upload in science fiction vs reality scenarios

Theoretically, once the brain is digitised, the simulated mind could be stored in one of two ways: within a simulated world, or in the body of a robot, cyborg, or other humans. Whether consciousness is transferred into a machine or in a body, both worlds would feel equally real – perhaps the better term is the “foundation” world and the “cloud” world.

A number of sci-fi works tackle both these scenarios, giving us insights into what a future of mind uploads may look like.

One of the first (if not the first) sci-fi to deal with mind uploading and human-machine synthesis can be found in Arthur C. Clarke’s 1956 novel The City and the Stars. Set one billion years in the future, the minds of inhabitants are stored as patterns of information in a Central Computer in between a series of 1,000-year lives spent in cloned bodies. 

The Cloud World

Can humans live in a perpetual simulated environment? In the San Junipero episode of Black Mirror (2016), we see how a mind is uploaded into a simulated world as a way of life extension in paradise, where the mind is no longer connected to a living body.

San Junipero, S3 Ep4; Black Mirror

This scenario is perhaps the most alluring version of mind upload, where the deceased can live on digitally. Imagine Grandma enjoying her time in a simulated playground, idealised as a sort of human-made heaven. Occasionally, she can even join in on irl family dinners – as her sim – via a video conference on the big screen. 

If humans do get to live in digital form after death, imagine the sheer number of data there’ll be – where would you find enough server farms to store them? A chilling probability lies in The Matrix (1999) where the humans live in a simulated world while their physical bodies are used as “batteries” for the machines that run them.

In the dystopian sci-fi thriller The 100 (2014-2020), the idea of humans living as consciousness has been brought forth twice in the series – first through a simulated society called City of Light which is accessible after a silicon Chip is swallowed, and the second is through a concept called Transcendence in which humans exist as energy beyond their mortal forms. In both cases, humans are spared from the pain of living physically, with a permanent backup to our “mind-file” as a means for human culture to survive a global disaster by making a functional copy of human society in digital form.

The City of Light as seen in The 100

Of course, many would question how each person would “live” digitally – will they be in a digital heaven or will they still be shackled by their socio-economic status? Will there still be crime – especially because it’s human nature to experience greed, perversion, and all things that make us immoral?

The Foundation World

The most popular reason for mind upload is the ability to insert the digital consciousness into another body – be they human, robot, or a cyborg. So, rather than living in a virtual world without a physical body, humans of the future can actually look and feel alive.

In Altered Carbon, human consciousness is contained in a “cortical stack” – a storage device the size of a palm – that can be perpetually transferred between sleeves (bodies). The sleeves are either naturally born, genetically/cybernetically modified, or artificially created to grant enhanced abilities. 

Altered Carbon’s Cortical Stack

Upon the death of a sleeve, only the rich can choose a high-grade or custom-made body, while the poor only have access to whatever’s available, which is usually of inferior health or old age so they only get re-sleeved once before their mind goes into storage. In this future, only the rich get to live forever.

This idea is perpetuated in films like Self/less (2015), where the wealthy are able to “shed” into new bodies that turn out to be people whose memories are overwritten, while in The 6th Day (2000), a billionaire manages to illegally make a clone of himself in order to keep his wealth.

Transferring consciousness into another body isn’t so different from mechanising the body – both have the goal of prolonging (and improving) life. Ghost in the Shell (1989-) portrays a future in which humans can replace body parts with machines, which in essence, makes them less human.

Motoko Kusanagi, Ghost in the Shell

Are these ideas the way forward?

In theory, if the information and processes of the mind can be disassociated from the biological body, they are no longer tied to the individual limits and lifespan of that body. This could be a good thing for many reasons – we could be causing less pollution to the earth, and diseases won’t exist.

In addition, the brains of some of the smartest people can be preserved into the future – for example, they could be on interstellar space explorations as either a robot or software, avoiding the perils of zero gravity, the vacuum of space, and cosmic radiation. Better yet, if we can store human consciousness as data, we can theoretically transfer them to a world that’s light years away in seconds.

A future where humans are parked in a computer system or in an engineered sleeve does sound enticing, because if it’s anything that future dystopia teaches us, it’s that the world will only get increasingly poisonous and dangerous for humans to live in, causing widespread infertility in the process (think Children of Men or The Handmaid’s Tale). The way to preserve mankind may be to actually prolong “life” in another format.

The Handmaid’s Tale

However, as with all things, the debate on this type of technology is always about who gets to have the privilege of using it. Will we still be shackled by our social status even after death? Many dystopian sci-fi have discussed the possibilities of only the rich being capable of becoming immortal; would they still be interested in descendents to carry on a legacy if they can prolong their own lives?

Perhaps one of the biggest issues of mind transfer is that it’s essentially a software, which means brain emulations can be erased by computer viruses or malware. Assassinations may come in the form of a cyberattack. Or, like Sgt Motoko in Ghost in the Shell, the brain could be hacked to do the bidding of an attacker. If getting bank accounts hacked is commonplace in today’s world, imagine the level of damage the hacking of human lives would be in the future.

However, despite the many warnings and possible outcomes of mind uploading in the future, many transhumanists look forward to the development and deployment of mind uploading technology.

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