Saying that mind uploading will never be possible is unwarranted

There is currently no consensus on how closely...
There is currently no consensus on how closely the brain should be simulated. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This question came up on Quora: 3 What percent chance is there that whole brain emulation or mind uploading to a neural prosthetic will be feasible by 2048? – Quora.

After seeing a number of skeptical responses, many claiming that mind uploading was inherently impossible or even incoherent, I posted the following reply:

I think mind uploading by 2048 is unlikely, but confident assertions that it will never happen strike me as illogical.  And if it is possible by 2048, it is unlikely to be done by those who fold their arms and say it is impossible.

Every indication that we have points to the mind being a physical system within the brain.  As such, there is no limitation in principle that should prevent us from eventually modelling and duplicating that functionality.  It may be centuries in the future, but there’s nothing in our current understanding of the laws of physics that prevents it.

One of the previous replies compared this to the problems with faster than light travel.  In the case of the speed of light we have a real obstacle in the laws of physics.  Until we find a similar actual roadblock for the mind, such as perhaps discovering that mental activity is dependent on quantum phenomena, there is little ground for saying it is impossible.

Concerns about whether the duplicated mind is a person or the same person, or whether it is really conscious, will no doubt trouble philosophers and spiritualists for ages.  But it doesn’t represent a scientific or technological barrier.

Am I missing anything with my answer?

16 thoughts on “Saying that mind uploading will never be possible is unwarranted

  1. There’s definitely no laws of physics that prohibit it, although I could see mind uploading being unfeasible because we can’t “scan” the brain and nervous system of a person at the necessary detail to do a passable simulation. That type of stuff isn’t subject to a Moore’s Law equivalent right now.


    1. Good point. I suspect that scanning would be invasive and destructive, i.e. fatal, at least at first. The most plausible sounding technique I’ve read about involves freezing the brain (taking care not to allow crystals to form), slicing it into nano-scale thin layers and then scanning those layers. A lot here would depend on how reliable the information in a post-mortem brain would be.

      Which means that few people who aren’t on their deathbed would be interested. The silver lining is that there wouldn’t be an original mind still around calling into question who is the “real” person. (Although the ability to digitally clone the copied mind might still leave that as an existential issue.)

      It’s possible that nanotechnology, such as “neural dust”, might eventually allow for non-destructive scans but, if possible, that might be centuries away.


    1. Good point, but it would seem to make it a far more difficult proposition, particularly if mental encoding reaches down into realms we may not yet understand (lower than “elementary” particles, if there is a lower). I personally think this is unlikely, but have to admit we haven’t ruled it out yet.


  2. For me, it comes down to consciousness. I’m only interested in uploading my mind if it preserves my consciousness. This then turns the feasibility question into one about what causes consciousness. That’s a big can o’ worms 🙂


    1. Consciousness always is 🙂 But here’s a related question. Suppose the uploaded version doesn’t perfectly preserve your conscious, but mostly does so. Is that sufficient?

      Consider that your current consciousness isn’t a perfect copy of your consciousness from yesterday and, assuming you slept last night, there has not been conscious continuity from then to now. How closely does the new consciousness have to match the one across the break in continuity before we conclude it’s the same person?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am skeptical. Each brain is unique – remember a brain is plastic and even physically shaped by the experiences of the person. Also, downloading static information is meaningless in this context, since consciousness can only exist in a living brain. There are no physical laws that prevent downloading all the information, but biological reality makes it impossible – it would sort of be like the Heisenberg principle: once you identify exactly what a data point is you will no longer know what it means. Consciousness is about continuously integrating and updating. Tapping into the information would actually alter it.

    Also, the ‘information’ that physicists collect is not the kind of information that swirl around in our minds. The only way to mirror the brain is to reproduce it, and I can’t see that happening.


    1. Hi Liam,
      I perceive that you make a number of assertions:
      consciousness can only exist in a living brain
      “biological reality” makes copying the information in a brain impossible
      information collected by physicists is different from the information in our brains.

      None of these strike me as particularly self evident. I’m wondering if you’d be willing to elaborate on why you think they’re true.


  4. SelfAwarePatterns wrote:

    “Hi Liam,
I perceive that you make a number of assertions:

    consciousness can only exist in a living brain

    “biological reality” makes copying the information in a brain impossible

    information collected by physicists is different from the information in our brains.

    None of these strike me as particularly self evident. I’m wondering if you’d be willing to elaborate on why you think they’re true.”

    Hi SAPatterns, I will give it a go:

    “..information collected by physicists is different from the information in our brains” – Physicists collect objective data from which information is extracted when predictable patterns are identified. Their ‘information’ refers to objective reality as they understand it. By referring to ‘information’ swirling around in our heads I simply sought to remind us of the utter subjectivity of information in consciousness. It has yet to be shown that when I contemplate an apple my brain-state will be identical to that of another person contemplating the same apple. So there could be a huge (insuperable?) problem with correlating the downloaded objective information to actual thoughts in the brain, it might take an eternity. (The original subject did relate to whole brain emulation or mind uploading.)

    “.. “biological reality” makes copying the information in a brain impossible” – At this point we are only beginning to understand how the brain works. One cannot emulate something one doesn’t understand. Depending on how it is counted there are a 100 billion neurons in the brain, as well as anywhere between 1 and a 100 trillion synapses across which various neurotransmitters are continuously released at resting, activated or inhibited levels. So trillions and trillions of synapses must be mapped in 3D in relation to neuronal bodies which may have connections to local neurons and/or neurons in other centers of a uniquely shaped and sized brain. We also know almost nothing of the specific intracytoplasmic processes of the various types of neurons and supporting cells. Little is impossible until shown to be such, but, more likely, the question will probably not be interesting anymore by the time technology would be capable of such a feat, if ever. Other solutions to diseased, aging or degenerating bodies should have been found since that would be much easier.

    “.. consciousness can only exist in a living brain” – To be more accurate: human consciousness can only exist in a living body. The question of the article is really whether human consciousness can exist in a machine or whether it can be transferred to another body? (No and no.) Machines could simulate human consciousness but by definition could not experience human consciousness. Further, machines could not even have the subjective experience of machine consciousness because, as indicated, machines do not have a living body, i.e. no feelings, no needs, no desires, no loves, no hates.

    Empirically speaking, all living creatures process information and almost all appear to respond purposively to certain stimuli. They thus exhibit to an observer something that could be interpreted as intelligence and consciousness. Us humans discount that possibility because most of these creatures do not even have a single neuron. Perhaps we should rethink this judgement.

    The only subjective consciousness we can speak of authoritatively is our own. In my own case I am aware that many things affect my subjective state: hungry or fed, fearful or secure, alone or in company, healthy or sick, tired or rested. All these BODILY or emotional factors affect my mental state and condition my thoughts and responses. The brain is further modulated by numerous circulating bodily chemicals like hormones. Our bodily autonomic nervous system operates quietly in the background and affects our state of arousal.

    Consciousness is a huge and fascinating subject, and is something that appears most developed in humans by far. In essence it is an awareness of the environment AND of the body. When we talk about it we generally mean our subjective experience of it. A machine could certainly be built that could fool anyone into thinking that it was a conscious being but such a machine would not have real feelings or emotions since it has no body from which they could arise. Emotions and feelings would have to be faked, and that would not be nice.


    1. Liam, I appreciate your detailed response. I think you raise some important cautionary points. There is a lot we don’t yet understand about the brain, and certainly confident assurance that mind uploading is possible is probably just as unwarranted as confident assurance that it’s impossible.

      I would ask you to think about a couple of things though. First, we do know some things about the brain. For instance, we know it works in modules, and that damage to certain parts of the brain consistently causes particular impairments in patients. I’m not saying that this consistent modularity guarantees consistent encoding of the experience of seeing an apple, but I think it implies it.

      Second, you seem to feel that there is a qualitative difference between a biological body and a machine, but isn’t a biological body just an evolved machine? What is the difference between evolved machines and engineered ones? Certainly, right now there is a striking difference in sophistication. But it seems like the history of engineered machines has been to gradually be given abilities previously only doable by evolved machines. Is there any reason to think the brain is different in this regard?

      Thanks again.


      1. SAP, valid points, definitely. These modular areas are supposedly interconnected by a network of cortical neurons, most developed in humans.

        However, regarding our conception of an apple. I actually did a little ‘review’ a while back on the the subject of variation amongst us humans*. One can not be definitive, but it appears that, in some aspects at least, individual variation is surprisingly large. This is from that post:

        “Even among ‘normal’ individuals the ratios of the three different color receptor cells (cones) in the retina can vary sixteen fold! Clearly the pattern of signals being sent to the brain from eyes at the opposite ends of the range of cone densities (sic) would be very different for a given light source.” (It should read ratios.)

        So, two friends looking at the same delicious Honeycrisp apple may receive a widely different set of neural signals from which to reconstruct the object in their consciousness. The two friends may be impressed by the apple and start describing it to each other. No surprise, they agree on every minute detail of the shape and color. The configuration of charges, transmitters and neuronal states must be different, but the descriptions in English are the same. The brain-state is therefore encrypted! This would be an insuperable problem for prospective up-loaders. The key for unlocking the encryption would be different for each brain!

        I think God has made it very difficult for us to forge cheap copies of His Creation.

        * Appearance, Reality & Science, or Illusion, Delusion & DNA. by Johannes Lubbe


        1. Interesting information about the difference in receptor cells, but my reaction isn’t to see that as necessarily an insurmountable obstacle. We already deal with substantial variation in other organs and are slowly learning to deal with it. I anticipate a similar process with the brain, albeit far more complicated.

          I’m optimistic that we can someday understand all of it well enough to duplicate it, either virtually or with an artificial construct. But of course, I can’t prove that anymore than someone can prove that it is impossible. And I think we’re agreed that we’re unlikely to learn which of us is right in our lifetimes.

          Thanks again for an interesting discussion!


  5. Hi ‘SAP’, speaking of consciousness and just in case you’re not following Steve Fleming at *The Elusive Self*, the notification for:

    ‘A theory of consciousness worth attending to’

    … on Graziano’s ‘Consciousness and the Social Brain’ landed in my inbox the other day. Graziano also has a recent NYT piece:

    ‘Are We Really Conscious?’

    It would seem Graziano is attracting some attention(that *was* accidental, honest) catching the eye of Adam Rutherford at least who tweeted Bruce Hood about it – now back to Mlodinow and the unconscious for me 🙂


    1. Thanks amanimal! I had seen the NY piece due to ausomeawestin writing about it, but didn’t know about Steve Fleming’s blog. Just started following it and tweeted his post.

      The attention schema theory of consciousness is definitely one that I think deserves more attention. Glad to see people are noticing it. I didn’t think Graziano’s latest piece described it very well though, which is giving me an itch to take another shot at it. (Of course, I’ve taken several now 🙂 )

      Liked by 1 person

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