The science and ethics of uploading human consciousness

April 20, 2017
by John Websell

A hundred years ago, the world was a startlingly different place in terms of technology; people sent letters to communicate with their friends rather than relying on a fleet of smartphone apps, information was stored within libraries rather than search engines and air travel was still in its infancy. So rapid has our advancement been that today’s technological pursuits would undoubtedly seem like the stuff of science fiction to our great grandparents; things like the subject of ABRS and TEC Partners’s article today – uploading human consciousness.

While there’s still some debate as to the feasibility of the technology, there are, nevertheless, plenty of scientists who firmly believe it will be possible to transfer our minds from one vessel to another at some point in the future. Brain Preservation Research Fellow Michael Cerullo, for instance, thinks all it’ll take for us to achieve this feat is the development of more powerful versions of the tools already at our disposal; for him, it’s just a question of scale.

Assuming for a second that Cerullo’s prediction is correct and it’s only a matter of time before this technology becomes a reality, surely we must first ask the question ‘is it ethical’?

Technological constraints

When trying to figure out how to copy the human mind and transfer it to another biological or artificial body, many researchers use computers as an analogy, implying the process is, broadly speaking, comparable in terms of complexity. However, although we often marvel at the power of the ubiquitous and almighty PC, in actuality, the human brain is far more intricate and advanced than even the most sophisticated supercomputer.

The average brain, for instance, contains a mind-boggling 86 billion neurons forming literally trillions of connections, so, to effectively recreate the mind digitally, scientists will have to figure out a way of mapping this elaborate network; an undertaking that’s far in excess of our current abilities and technology. To make things more complicated still, various experts have pointed out that, irrespective of whether or not we can plot these neural connections in their entirety, understanding and replicating brain functionality is an altogether different challenge; in other words, though it may be possible to reproduce certain physical aspects of the brain eventually, it doesn’t automatically follow that we’ll be capable of emulating human consciousness. To have any hope of performing a task of this complexity, scientists must first discover how the brain operates at the molecular level and at present, basic information such as the number of molecules in the brain is unknown to us.

Speaking of human consciousness, Duke University neuroscientist Dr Miguel Nicolelis argues that the sheer intricacy of our minds, combined with the role experience plays in the development of our minds, prohibits replication; regardless of the computing power dedicated to solving the problem. After all, experience and the way we interpret the world around us is subjective and cannot be measured nor artificially generated: “those changes (to our brains) whatever they are, are built on the unique neural structure that already exists, each structure having developed over a lifetime of unique experiences” writes psychologist Robert Epstein.

Yet, despite the monumental challenges facing researchers, work is being done to try and overcome these obstacles, supported by people and organisations across the globe. The European Union, for one, has invested over €1 billion into the Human Brain Project in an effort to create a complete replica of a mouse brain (along with specific parts of the human brain) by 2023. Another exciting project is the $6 billion American programme which has even loftier goals, namely, to try and find treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer’s; they’ve already made some interesting advances toward this end, having recently successfully imaged the activity of the thousands of neurons that comprise the nervous system of the hydra (a genus of diminutive invertebrates native to the tropics, not the multi-headed monster from Herculean legend).

Ethical concerns

Though it’s clear we’re likely decades, if not centuries away from seeing the human mind uploaded and transferred at will, scientists are keen to discuss the ethics as soon as possible simply because of the extraordinary nature of the technology.

At the moment, given our lack of understanding of exactly how the brain works, various experts argue it’s impossible to know how we’d react to switching organic bodies every time our current form became old and decrepit, let alone if we’d be comfortable living a non-biological existence in a mechanical body or as an incorporeal being in cyberspace. In turn, this gives rise to various philosophical questions pertaining to the human condition; in particular, some have asked if you could truly you consider a person truly alive if their mind was stored on a computer or would this individual become indistinguishable from a computer programme? Others are equally concerned our very identity may be lost during the uploading process.

Similarly, as transferring the human mind would, in theory, make it possible to split one’s consciousness across multiple locations and thus effectively cloning it, Cerullo (whom we mentioned earlier) thinks we might have to re-evaluate our conception of consciousness or expand our definition at the very least. “We are driven to accept the possibility that personal identity can branch into multiple copies, each maintaining a continuity of consciousness with the original”.

Meanwhile, sceptics fear generating multiple copies of a single consciousness in this manner will lead a class of ‘clones’ that we use to carry out the laborious tasks that we ourselves are unwilling to perform. Sure, the economy would grow as replicated intelligence’s began to supplant human labour, however, Carl Shulman of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute has warned this would precipitate a simultaneous decrease in wages for those people who continue to work regardless.

But, of all the moral objections proffered whenever a transformative technology like this is discussed in the scientific community, the most common is the idea that uploading human consciousness would be another example of Homo sapiens playing God. Obviously, effectively eliminating death using technology would fundamentally alter life in a way never before possible, however, at its heart, this is a scaled up version of a practice humans have long indulged in – moulding the world around us to suit our needs and desires.

The practical impact on society would be significant too, specifically as regards population density. If no one died and was able to continue living once their original physical body had deteriorated, where would we house future generations? Even if we managed to colonise multiple planets throughout the galaxy at some point, there’s always the risk we’ll simply end up filling these worlds as well; swarming the cosmos like a plague of locusts, consuming each new planet we colonise. To mitigate this problem, we could put regulate procreation, though any such legislation would likely be viewed as an infringement on our civil liberties.

Problem for another day

Worrying as the associated ethical quandaries might be, given the inherent technological challenges, the chances of an individual popping down to the hospital for a mind transfer within the next few decades are unimaginably slim.

Therefore, we’re in an enviable position where we can watch the technology develop, enjoying the numerous advancements and gadgets that will inevitably result as a by-product of research into the subject, whilst considering the ethical implications of uploading human consciousness from a purely theoretical, philosophical point of view secure in the knowledge that, for me or you, the practical issues probably won’t affect us or our children.

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