Will we be able to upload our minds?

I’m pretty much a subscriber to the computational theory of mind (broadly speaking), which holds that the mind is information in the brain. If this theory of mind is accurate, then there should be no barrier to someday uploading a copy of our mind into a computer, providing we can find a way to record it.

This is, of course, a controversial notion. There are many people who swear that uploading will never be accomplished. They list a lot of reasons, from the fact that the mind is inextricably entangled with the workings of the body, to the impossibility of ever making a fully accurate representation of the brain, to religious beliefs about mind / body dualism (which you won’t see me address in this post).

Regarding the notions about the mind being tangled with the body, I suspect the people who express these sentiments are underestimating what our ability will eventually be to virtualize these kinds of mechanisms. Sure, our mental states are tied to things like hormones, blood sugar level, the state of our gut, and many other body parameters. But many of these parameters are driven by the brain. And I don’t really see any reason why we wouldn’t eventually be able to simulate its effects on a virtual brain.

On being able to ever fully accurately store the full contents of the brain, a lot depends on how far down in granularity we have to go to record a mind with fidelity. If the connectome, a recording of all the synaptic connections in a brain, represents our mental state, then we’re in business. On the other hand, if securing a mind requires going down to the molecular, atomic, or even quantum level, as many people presuppose, then things would look pretty unlikely for ever being able to copy and upload a mind.

So, does recording the mind require going down to atoms and the like? I think most neuroscientists would caution that we just don’t know yet, although I haven’t seen any buy into the idea that quantum mechanics plays a role. Not enough is known yet about exactly how neurons, synapses, and glial cells work. How important is the exact strength of a synaptic connection or the capacity of a particular neuron? With what precision does it have to be recorded?

And how resilient would a mind be to a coarse grained version of itself? Suppose we do record a mind state, but not necessarily at quite the detailed level of the original. Would the copied mind be functional? I suspect we won’t know for sure until we try it. Should we attempt it until we know for sure how it would work? To say that there are ethical issues here would be a major understatement.

And if we think this technology might someday be possible, should we be attempting to record people’s connectome when they die? One way to do this would be serial slicing, which involves recording the brain state post-mortem, although it’s not known how effective this would be with current technologies. Might we see a day where insurance companies are required to pay for this procedure if patients desire it, just so they’re mind state is recorded in case the technology is ever developed? Should we all consider cryonics in case a better method of capturing brain data is later developed?

Finally, I’ll say that even if we can’t upload our minds, it pays to remember that if nature can do it, there’s no a-priori reason why we won’t eventually be able to do it.  That means that we’ll eventually be able to build brains.  The only question will be whether or not we can build them as a copy of an existing one.

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