If You Upload Your Mind to a Computer—Are You Still You?

41,325 64 Loading

One of the most mind-bending far future predictions you'll hear from some futurists is this: Eventually, the technology will exist to copy your brain (every bit of data that makes you, you) onto a computer.

Technical details and exact predictions aside (the concept is still firmly science fiction) mind uploading makes for a fascinating and disturbing thought experiment. If you had the power to upload yourself, would you?

Living in a computer might not be so bad. We’d likely be able to make the digital realm a really nice place for our digital selves. All the enjoyable parts of life would still be available (and more). Think the Matrix without robot overlords or glowing pods of goo. Which is a central point. We wouldn't have bodies in need of goo anymore.

Separated from a body doomed to slow down, break, get diseases, and eventually die, the only limit on this new digital existence would be the health of the computer itself. And not just a single machine. Our information could be spread over a vast network of computers, independent of any one. We could live as long as we like.

Sounds like a good deal right? Sure. But here's where it gets a little squirrelly.

Let's say I opt to upload my mind to a computer: Would it be me that wakes up online? Or would it be a facsimile, perfect in every way except one—that it isn’t me. That is, if I'm still alive, I don’t suddenly have a split-screen sense of “me-ness.” And if I'm dead, well, that’s it. I'm just dead. Even though the digital facsimile goes on living.

I've not read a completely convincing argument one way or the other. This is partly because we don't have a clear scientific theory to explain what gives us our sense of "me-ness." It's still a mystery. But the topic has been long discussed in philosophy, and Tim Urban has a great post on the subject. I highly recommend it.

Also, I imagine some of you have thought about this in depth. (Star Trek fans, I'm looking at you.)

In any case, for the more visually inclined, here's a great science fiction short film on the topic: "The Final Moments of Karl Brant." Few things beat philosophy and sci-fi on a lazy Sunday. Enjoy!

Image Credit: gregw/Flickr

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 64 Responses

  • Matthew Szymczyk January 25, 2015 on 11:06 am

    UK series, Black Mirror, tackled this subject a bit in a great episode called “Be Right Back”….definitely worth checking out and series is on Netflix…

    • adrianmelic Matthew Szymczyk December 12, 2015 on 6:02 am

      Yep. One of the best episodes.

  • Bourjoi January 25, 2015 on 11:59 am

    The content of my brain is only part of who i am. Wherever you dump it won’t be much. Not one of us is a fixed I. Everyone of us is an ongoing expriment. In art we call that work in progress. And not very much achieved at that. 😉

    • Lexi Price Bourjoi February 9, 2015 on 8:57 pm

      That’s actually an incredible point. Never even thought of it that way but it definitely changes things. I was originally going to comment that if there is technically no “me” or “I”, no viewer, but if they can manage to transfer that which provides us a sense of experience then for all intents and purposes, we’ll feel like we had the experience of being uploaded.

      To consider instead that we’re a constantly evolving, growing, piece of progress makes it that much more difficult to pinpoint the “Me-ness” that would be uploaded at all.

      That all said, I’m more of an epiphenomenonist (is that even a word?) where the brain causes mind, along with thoughts, feelings, desires, actions and sensory data. All these things are output so there is no causation mechanism in a feeling or a desire or a thought.

      Thoughts can’t control the body. Feelings can’t control behaviors. The brain causes these things first, they are end results…so we can’t transfer thoughts and feelings anymore than we can transfer old, pre-existing light. When the brain goes, thoughts and feelings, behavior and desires go out like a light. Shut off.

      Unless they figure out how to take the brain parts that *cause* feelings and desires and upload that to some viable substrate, this is a wasted effort. Mind can’t be uploaded. The stuff of the brain that causes mind can be though…but as you – Bourjoi points out in your comment, what exactly of “us” would be uploaded? They’d have to upload the memories and the stuff of the brain that triggers output response of feelings, desires, thoughts, senses and actions, and the part that allows us to perceive experience…and then how much of ‘us’ will ever be uploaded or transferred if we’re all still a work in progress?

      Much as I don’t see how it’ll be done as long as they focus on it as uploading a mind which can’t actually be done, I hope there is some aspect of it that allows us to transform who we are from the earthly body to some other avatar sort of thing. I love this concept all the same.

  • chrisscott January 25, 2015 on 2:24 pm

    Once we are connecting our biological brains to computer networks the original brain is just a tiny component of a much larger system. If I lose a single neuron do I cease to be me? Do I even notice? The loss of the biological component of the greater “me” will be of comparable insignificance.

  • TheLastSaneManOnTheFaceOfTheEarth January 25, 2015 on 2:29 pm

    When it comes to common sense I’m probably smarter than anyone reading this right now. I boil things down to the essentials instead of cluttering my mind with smartass mindgames and myriads of information.

    The answer everyone is seeking is clear, and I’m as certain as can be.

    NEITHER digital nor biological immortality is objectively a “true” or “right” path for any individual. Both pursuits can be philosophically deconstructed to the point where there is simply no RATIONAL reason to pursue either.

    That’s because “nihilism” is, in a way, true. There is no purpose in life, inherently. That means you have complete freedom to choose what goals, and what purposes you pursue (Or your “brain”, or your “personality” has that freedom …).

    For me, I’ve set my goal to achive maximum longevity & happiness. But if you choose to pursue pain, unhappiness, and ultimately death – that’s your freedom and it’s not inherently wrong or right, it just is. Just as you just ARE. You’re a clump of molecules moving and interacting in a way to create what we call “homo sapiens”, “brain”, “personality”, “You”. That’s all you are. Molecules assembled through random processes facilitated by the laws of physics governing in this universe. “You” is just a word. Coincidental as the universe itself. No magic. Just a clump of matter that thinks that it “exists”.

    You can choose whatever you want to define as the word “you”. You can define it as your information and personality. Or you can define it as your atoms, and your physical brain. There is simply no “true” definition, because reality, words, feelings, it’s all completely subjective and “un-true”.

    Ok, that’s a bit hard to grasp at first – So here comes a more practical argument, and of course 100% subjective, AGAINST the euphoric hope for “digital immortality”:

    For all you know, you currently have billions of identical twins in paralell universes. But if you’re honest, you’ll admit that you couldn’t care less about what lives they live or don’t live. Or do you care? Would you sacrifice or risk your own life, to save any one of those infinite “parallel” twins, who have the same personality and memories?

    Yeah. Didn’t think so.

    So we’ve established that there is nothing inherently valueable – from your standpoint – in having a seperate entity in existence somewhere else (e.g. a mind-twin in a parallel universe, or a mind-copy on a computer in your basement). That’s simply because you are human, and humans are egoistic. AND THAT IS OK.

    On the other hand, our body’s molecules are finishing a cycle of complete replacement every ~7 years (so almost no molecules from back then are left), on which’s basis many techno-utopian charlatanes claim we are not our matter, and therefore “must” be information. That’s like saying “A” seems wrong, so “B” must be true – a logical error. Or just deliberately misleading people to gain power and traction and sell books.

    Again – there is nothing inherently valueable about information, ones’s and zero’s. Or a piece of music. Or a book. Or a movie. Or your digital mind-copy. If you choose to associate positive sentiments with those things being in existence, that’s you’re choice.

    So allthough, in a way, nihilism is “truth” – the logical start and endpoint of all philosophy – if all existence is absurd, so is nihilism itself. Again – that means you can CHOOSE what path you pursue – the least absurd one, if you like.

    I personally hope, that for most “sane” humans that’d arguably be to maintain their own brain, and not die for a software-copy. And indeed there may still be ways to become biologically “immortal” and endowed with godlike capacities and happiness in a Matrix-Style-happy-eterniverse, but that’s another story and not one that Kurzweil&friends would like to hear.

    Either way, it’s your choice.

    • kiriri TheLastSaneManOnTheFaceOfTheEarth January 26, 2015 on 5:19 am

      Surprisingly, for once I absolutely agree with everything said in a comment here, well, apart from the being smarter than me 😀
      Let me add to the momentum with a little thought experiment. Imagine you could replace all parts of your brain, no matter how small or large, with computer chips. Would you still be the same person if you added some augmentive chip like a math-module to your brain? You’d think so. Now think farther, what if you replaced 2% of your brain with a chip each year. When would you stop being “you”? After some time you will behave and think very differently than before. But you’d still think of yourself as the same being, just like you’d say “That’s me!” to a photo of you as a child, even though your behavioural pattern or even your physiology now is probably nothing like what it was back then.
      What humans define as their consciousness is in fact a nearly infinite amount of conscious states that fade into each other. The you from a second ago is not the you you are now. Or if it is, the you now is the same as you in your childhood, just because due to the gradual interpolation between your conscious states you cannot differentiate between them.

      I personally would therefore upload my mind slowly to make the change imperceptible compared to all the other changes that happen to me every moment of every second of my life.

      I should note that this is a religious topic. Consciousness is imaginary, just like all other definitions humans have ever come up with. They are all relative at most 😉

      • TheLastSaneManOnTheFaceOfTheEarth kiriri January 27, 2015 on 1:28 pm

        Thank you, I’m glad we can agree on some points.

        You probably guess by now that, seeing as I strive to pursue the “least absurd path”, my subjective intuition would see no value having my braindata digitally immortalized and flying from one computer to another, since that is intuitively the same as creating some random twin in a paralell universe.

        Therefore maintaining a physical brain (even if augmented) would seem the least absurd pursuit.

        I guess for many people being exposed to 2045-esque propaganda combined with classic esoteric “Soul” and “Transcendence” chatter can gradually change one’s intuitive feelings on that.

        One would think it’d be obvious that any BIOLOGICAL human who is – just as an example – being eternally tortured, right after his braindata has been copied onto some harddrive, would swiftly abandon his previous ideas and shout out the following words of wisdom under extreme agony “OH LORD HOLY CR*P STOP IT THIS IS HELL. I WAS A COMPLETE RETARD THINKING A MINDCOPY IS AS VALUEABLE AS MY ORIGINAL LIFE. OBVIOUSLY ONLY THE ORIGINAL MATTERS, F*CK THIS TRANSCENDENCE BULLCR*P HOW COULD I BE STUPID, PLEASE JUST GET ME OUTTA HERE”.

        If anything, pain and pleasure are what life would be all about, anything else is a tool. “Desire is the father of all thought.”

        • TheLastSaneManOnTheFaceOfTheEarth TheLastSaneManOnTheFaceOfTheEarth January 27, 2015 on 1:41 pm

          (or you could turn it around, and have the digital copy being tortured. It – too – would eventually discard any initial solace it took in the knowledge that somewhere out there there’s a biological copy of him living the good life.)

      • Maria Korolov kiriri February 5, 2015 on 10:18 am

        Kiriri —

        I’m with you. It’s the gradual route for me.

        If someone simply duplicates my brain and puts it online — that’s nice, now I have a virtual twin sister. But, as anyone with siblings is well aware, you don’t actually share a mind — no matter how close you might be!

        This is the same reason why I’ll never step into a Star Trek-style teleporter unless it’s set to “copy” instead of “transmit.” I don’t mind if there’s a clone of me running around on some distant planet — as long as the original me stays intact!

        But if there’s a process of gradual replacement — first, some chips in my brain to augment my processing power, add the ability to connect to networks, etc… Then, slowly, move systems to the cloud. Memory storage. Vision and sound processing. Math.

        Keep everything nicely firewalled and isolated from the rest of the Net, so I still feel human. Use the existing sensory pathways for input and output, for example, — and also to prevent viruses getting in.

        As physical processes shut down, I’ll be spending more and more of my time living through my virtual avatar, anyway, until I’m spending all my time online and my body is just being kept alive by life support, at which point pulling the plug should be a lot easier.

        But the whole question of “me” is super creepy. What about those people with brain damage who have two halves of their brain not talking to each other, and each half knows stuff the other doesn’t know? Which one is the “real me”? If the brain gets better and the two halves start talking to each other again, which of the “me’s” disappears? When you go to sleep, is the person who wakes up the “same me” as the one who went to sleep? Or a totally “new me” who just thinks they’re the same “old me”?

        • Lexi Price Maria Korolov February 9, 2015 on 9:18 pm

          Ah Maria! Fancy seeing a familiar face at the Hub! (Serenity Sinclaire, Kitely)

          I read an online novella called The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, back in 2005 and that was my Snow Crash moment. That solidified my unending, increasing interest in a virtual world and avatars and the like, which led almost directly to Second Life and eventually Open Sim. I read HB daily, by the way.

          And that story has never left. It’s kept me interested in the entire concept of mind uploading, providing the problems I also pointed out can be adequately resolved. I hope that I will be around, still alive, to have the transfer, copy, whatever it’ll ultimately be called. I don’t need the body if Avatars are available.

          I think I’d be one to be able to make a smoother transition out of body to digital state.

          My question to you Maria is this – and one you could surely appreciate – what happens when someone evolves the dreaded Copy Bot! It’ll take digital copyrights protection to a whole other level, doncha think! 😉

          • Heidi Outlaw Lexi Price October 20, 2016 on 9:21 pm

            The copybot…great point! Dreadful things.

    • Robert Joyce TheLastSaneManOnTheFaceOfTheEarth January 28, 2015 on 12:36 pm

      Your arrogance is unwarranted as well as unseemly. Everything you say is based on the assumption of a materialistic universe as well as the assumption that the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is the truth, even though there is no evidence for it.

      The idea that there is nothing to the universe except matter and energy cannot be proven. It is a belief system which grew up alongside modern science and so, is often mistaken for science itself. We interpret the findings of science according to our world views. Materialism is not science, it is a world view.

      My own particular world view includes an infinite frame of reference which avoids the problem that Materialism has which is that no meaning, value or purpose can be assigned to anything, as you say, nihilism rules.

      I feel sorry for the poor Materialists.

      In the end though, I agree with you that making a copy of yourself is problematic in itself. Even if your copy were to become aware, it would not be YOU. This can easily be proven with a simple thought experiment.

      Let’s say you make a copy of your self. Let’s say it is functioning. If this is really you, why not just put the barrel of a gun in your mouth and shoot your brains out? Why, because the copy isn’t you. It’s a copy. Thinking that your awareness will somehow transfer to your copy is magic thinking and completely incompatible with the Materialistic world view.

    • Toby LaPenn TheLastSaneManOnTheFaceOfTheEarth January 29, 2015 on 6:54 am

      While you do make some decent points, I’d hardly identify you as smarter than anyone here, you missed the most important point that no one brought up.

      Sure, you could upload your entire brain, but what does that get you? Where does that get you? How does it connect you? it might make a version of you immortal, but yeah, you’re right, why would you care if another you is immortal?

      Which is why this whole thing is silly to begin with. No rational person is going to pursue this, because the idea is to connect with a digital world, which they would not do by simply uploading their mind.
      The uploaded mind is someone else who is identical to you except for biology, but you’re not connected.

      The more likely case for any of this is a “half-way” approach that results in everyone getting more out of the whole concept.
      We are already doing it, though most people ignore it and don’t even notice it.

      We are all cyborgs to some degree. We are regularly connected to the internet, uploading and downloading information through a physical interface which passes sound and light for our consumption. We turn around and push information back into the interface using touch, sound and light.
      Right now this interface is very loosely coupled, but many people would struggle to survive without their digital interface in their left breast pocket.
      People schedule their entire lives on line, memories, dates, plans, they connect with people and make new friends, rejoin with old ones.

      The line that separates our digital selves from our biological selves is slowly deteriorating. With embedded chips on our scalps that allow us to send and receive information from the digital world, that line will fade even further.

      It’s fairly likely these interfaces will connect with the audio/visual centers in our brains, even touch and other parts of our minds.
      As you can digitize and save more and more of your experience, the line will continue to become so blurred that it will eventually just fade out of existence and you will not need to upload your mind.
      You will already be there, you just didn’t notice it happen.

      • Matt Rose Toby LaPenn July 26, 2015 on 10:10 pm

        YES, YES. The big picture! Been telling people this forever. We are the AI.

        I think people are have a problem with remaining an individual… You are not, even now like you said, we are just logic boxes with inputs and outputs. People affect us and vice versa.

        My thought experiment is our brains and consciousness is like a cloud, if it mixes too much with other clouds is ceases to be the same thing.

    • Kano180 TheLastSaneManOnTheFaceOfTheEarth January 31, 2015 on 5:09 pm

      I think you missed the point a bit. This isnt about freedom or ego or making choices or parallel universes or technology. This article is about the philosophical question: what is ‘me’? Can there be more than one ‘me’? A lot of what you were saying helps the discussion, ie many copies of ourselves in actual existence (many-worlds theory) what implications does that have on the notion of ‘me’? Can there truly be more than one me? If you had 2 exactly identical men (one copied from the other) down to each atom and asked them who is the original one they would both argue (and truly believe) that they are the original. This article and peoples coments (including yours) only raises more questions in my mind – the concept or possibility of multiple ‘me’s is far from being solved. I think its possible to have multiple ‘me’s. I think perhaps the concept of time is key to answering this question.

    • QuincyNoijez TheLastSaneManOnTheFaceOfTheEarth February 18, 2015 on 8:29 pm

      This text is meaningless. This is an absurd and contradictory post. An excellent example of scientific nihilism, which inevitably has something to do with an implied eugenics like sense of superiority. The usurpation of “the word of god”, or logos. This is where “logic” comes from in the English language. Binary, nor anything else mathematical or scientific, could ever be explained without language. I dare you or any other scientist or mathematician to explain or learn anything without language. It’s not possible. It is the buffer that rebukes and will always limit knowledge while imprinting our flaws into whatever we create.

      If everything is nothing and has no meaning, how could nothing be a part of everything and your post have any meaning at all? You’ve explained nothing very well 🙂

    • Anders Åslund TheLastSaneManOnTheFaceOfTheEarth August 28, 2015 on 6:14 am

      I stopped reading when you said all molecules are replaced every seven years. I assume you mean cells – molecules are way too small and numerous for us to know anything like that – in which case it is wrong. Neurons in the cerebral cortex are NEVER replaced.

    • David Wolf TheLastSaneManOnTheFaceOfTheEarth December 10, 2015 on 4:26 pm

      Theoretical discussions like this are great fun. Possibly even more fun is seeing how some of these concepts play out in a novel, such as (ahem) the one I wrote called Mindclone. The technique I used to create a Mindclone was an ultra-high res brain-scan, with the “connectome” uploaded to a special computer that created an equivalent structure. The scan doesn’t kill the donor, so the resulting revenant and the human get to interact, with interesting consequences. If you’re curious, here’s a link with more plot details and some reviews. https://booklaunch.io/davewolf141/547e1a37b2d202e520cff4c6

    • Bob Johnson TheLastSaneManOnTheFaceOfTheEarth May 5, 2016 on 6:50 pm

      “That’s because “nihilism” is, in a way, true. There is no purpose in life, inherently. That means you have complete freedom to choose what goals, and what purposes you pursue (Or your “brain”, or your “personality” has that freedom …).”

      you’re almost there, requiring merely a tweak or two. Life has a purpose. Human life has a purpose. We pursue that purpose daily. We cannot not pursue that purpose. We’re designed for that very purpose.

      On the other hand the world has no meaning, but it has a purpose. The purpose of the world and the entire universe is to have no meaning. If it had an inherent meaning, we couldn’t give it meaning.

      Here’s Wisdom:

      “Nothing in my world is real. The meaning of everything is the meaning I give it. I am who I say I am, and my experience is what I say it is.”

  • palmytomo January 25, 2015 on 3:20 pm

    – It’s on a scale of truth and value…
    IN AS MUCH AS you are stored in a host in a way that you to remember your experiences, perceive, your surroundings and yourself, autonomously process information normally (including weighted valuing of things, known as ‘feelings’), and express yourself, then THAT MUCH will you regard yourself as ‘me’ and so will others who you engage with.
    – The best way I know to grasp this is to watch the YouTube video ‘Kara robot’, because it will make you feel empathy with Kara even despite knowing she’s made of metals and plastics.
    Being ‘alive’ or ‘human’ or ‘me’ is very much ‘in the emotional eye of the beholder’.
    – We’ve already demonstrated our willingness to endow non-biological beings with those attibutes – stuffed toys, even cars are affectionately given names and treated accordingly.
    Bruce Thomson in New Zealand.

    • zvibenyosef palmytomo January 26, 2015 on 12:01 pm

      The feeling of being alive is subjective. Just because a real human may feel empathy for a collection of metal and wires assembled to resemble another human, does not mean that the feeling is reciprocated.

  • Curt Welch January 25, 2015 on 6:21 pm

    The idea that a person is somehow separate from the body is an illusion. A myth. We aren’t. We can’t go to heaven, ghosts aren’t real, and we can’t be “moved” into a computer, and still be a human. Uploading is the tech version of the religious belief in heaven — and both are equally stupid and impossible. If we take a picture of a person does that make the person move into the film? Of course not. If we carve a stone statue of the person, does the person move into the stone? Of course not. If we make a 3D video recording of the person, then the video looks and acts very much like the person, but is it the person? Of course not. So if we just keep improving the resolution of our copies by making it look and act even more like the person, by building an AI robot, have we the moved the person into the machine? Of course not. It makes no difference how accurate the robot is, it’s not the original person.

    Even if we had star trek replicator tech that could make a perfect atom for atom copy of the person, the copy is still not the original person — it’s just a very good copy. We have not moved the person from the first body into the copy, we just MADE A COPY of a person.

    Even when we work with computers, and create files on one machine, and them “move them” to another,we haven’t actually moved the file at all. It’s a metaphor — a figure of speech we use. What happens is that we force the second computer to reconfigure its memory, to be A COPY of the way the memory is configured on the first computer. We DO NOT MOVE THE FILE from one computer to another. We just make a copy of it. Then we delete the first copy. Or not delete the first copy.

    If one day we could make highly accurate copies of humans down to the atomic level, then life would be very different for us. We could be copied and there could be multiple versions of ourselves walking around. But in no case, would the copy, be the original — even if the copes were so good, no one could tell which was the original and which was the copy — even if all record of which was which was lost, we still haven’t moved the person from one to another, we just made copies.

    If someone wanted a copy of them made, and if they had an accident, wanted the copy to take over the rights of the original, then maybe society would allow that, but the copy would not be the original.

    • Thomas R. Johnson Curt Welch January 25, 2015 on 6:45 pm

      In a court of law a copy has the same legal affect as the original – unless the copy is shown to be inaccurate or is not a fair representation of the original. We will have thorny legal problems if this technology comes into fruition….

      • Rukur Thomas R. Johnson January 27, 2015 on 3:44 am

        Courts like government are stupid when it comes to bleeding edge technology. Just look at how courts deal with the internet.

        There morons.

        Don’t bring a court into a real debate.

    • JoseLuis Malo Curt Welch January 25, 2015 on 8:22 pm

      So if we print out an organ with stem cells based on our own DNA, in order to replace its failing counterpart, is the new copied organ not part of us anymore? What about the Parkinson’s patients that have part of their brain replaced with a tiny computer, is that piece of electronic no longer part of them? Or is it just one way street where if you put in an organ then it’s part of you but if you take it out it’s not a piece you anymore?

      Sorry but I disagree, in the future when humans have millions of nanobots all over their brain making them effectively merge with machines, and having the ability to interface with the cloud, they’ll also have the choice to leave their body partially or completely to experience V.R.

    • JoseLuis Malo Curt Welch January 25, 2015 on 8:42 pm

      BTW, there is no such thing as the original person. The body replaces cells including parts inside the neurons on a regular basis. Our pattern that makes up our persona is the only thing that remains from month to month.

    • TheLastSaneManOnTheFaceOfTheEarth Curt Welch January 26, 2015 on 3:16 am

      Exactly, Curt. Your arguments are more practical than mine. But you’ll still be bothered by people refering to molecular exchange of our bodies cells etc, which is when you might want to be aware of the nihilism argument outlined in my longer comment.

      Even “continuity” of self is just another buzzword thrown around by technoutopian charlatanes. A good counterexample is, that in fact I am not even the same person I was 5 seconds ago. Atoms of moved, been sweated out, breathed in, brainconfigurations and thoughts have changed, my “conscious” thought may be very different from back then. This argument can – too – be made in favour of nihilism.

      • JoseLuis Malo TheLastSaneManOnTheFaceOfTheEarth January 26, 2015 on 6:41 am

        Can’t we have a civilized conversation instead of calling people names? So people are not the same than they were 1 second ago, who and what are they but a constant state of slight change of the previous form that was a moment ago? What difference does it make to make a copy of a person when that individual has been in a constant state of slightly changed copies all their lives from 1 second to the next one? The general pattern remains enough of it to be recognized by others and to recall memories of the past.

    • Rukur Curt Welch January 26, 2015 on 4:36 am

      What we or any animal with a brain is a electrochemical meat cocktail floating in fluid, feed information and nutrients / energy to sustain itself. The fact that we think and learn it only out of a primal urge to live to propagate the species.

      Our mind is not our own. There are many things we get just from our evolution to this point.

      If you created a copy of your brain it would have to be a simulation because computers do not work like brains. Granted if you did then the simulation would be a most likely be very interesting to observe. Our brains do many things for our bodies and in a machine I guess you would have to simulate the rest of the body too so the brain wouldn’t get mentally ill.

      We are not just memories. Fear , Love all set off body wide electrochemistry. Reading a story is not the same as experiencing it.

    • zvibenyosef Curt Welch January 26, 2015 on 12:04 pm

      Actually the technology exists today, cloning. animals such as sheep have been accomplished successfully. Though it has not been done successfully with humans yet, I suspect there may be ongoing attempts being conducted secretly.

    • zvibenyosef Curt Welch January 26, 2015 on 12:30 pm

      How can you be so sure that consciousness cannot separate from the physical body, do you have proof? A recent series on TV called “I Survived, Beyond and Back” documented several cases of people who died, and experienced leaving their bodies, and eventually returning. Many described things they could not possibly have seen with their physical eyes or heard with their ears, lying on a gurney with their hearts stopped and no brain activity. They described conversations between the attending physicians, and their actions, like the doctors having to find a vein in the leg when none suitable could be found elsewhere due to severe injuries. A gentleman whose heart stopped after a heart attack, described watching them search through his belongings looking for proof of medical insurance, then removing his glasses and placing them in bottom drawer on the left hand side of a trolley. He recognized the person who had removed his glasses, and told him so later. One young lady reported leaving her body, and travelling out of the emergency room down a corridor to the waiting room. She saw her distraught family sitting around, and overheard a conversation, which she later recounted to them. To their astonishment it was accurate word for word.

      • Lexi Price zvibenyosef February 9, 2015 on 9:45 pm

        Those cases are intriguing but fall short of reality. The reason we can know that nothing escapes the body or consciousness separates is because we know how the brain works and consciousness is a state of awareness, not a physical thing that has any mechanism to exit or act independently of just being. Kind of like light. You can flip the switch on and off and turn the light, the illumination on and off…but the illumination doesn’t go anywhere.

        We don’t leave our bodies because there is no “we” in there. All your thoughts and ideas and self awareness feels loudest in your head…that’s where your brain is located and it’s the brain that causes the awareness of self. There is no actual “self” or soul or spirit or anything else. Brain damage easily causes “self” to not know who it is, to be unable to perceive correctly things going on in the environment, and even to not recognize body parts. With a probe, we can be disconnected from our bodies and fully experience being out of them but there is no “we” that went anywhere. A probe basically zapped a neuron or group of them and off went the self awareness feature.

        This is the reason “mind uploading” is impossible. You are your brain…so if they work out a brain transfer somehow and can take all that stuff of brain and put it in some other body, it’s still you…in a different outfit.

        If they take that stuff and work out how to digitize it and put it on a digital substrate, then it’ll still be you but your body would be a computer or whatever thing they put it on.

        If you take your brain out of your head, you’re dead, game over. There’s no additional part of “you” that flies out and enters other bodies or goes to some otherworldly place. When your brain is done, you are done. Lights out.

        • Lexi Price Lexi Price February 9, 2015 on 9:48 pm

          Basically our bodies are shell vehicles to transport our sex cells and the brain is the control center that makes it happen.

  • Maxime Joanis January 25, 2015 on 8:51 pm

    I’m pretty sure it has to do with continuity of consciousness… When we can have the digital model be updated in real time so that your digital self has the memory of having transferred to digital… (not a snapshot taken 2 months ago) you’re then still pretty much yourself. That’s probably obvious that the digital model would have to be “turned on” at the same moment as your biological self is “turned off.” That way, the digital copy doesn’t start creating its own memories before the final transfer. That way, when the digital self is “turned on,” you have exactly the same mind as when your biological self was put to sleep. You “wake up” and that was the last time you ever had to “sleep.” You can even let the transferred person sync some dreams before shutting down the biological self and starting thoughts in the digital one.

    • TheLastSaneManOnTheFaceOfTheEarth Maxime Joanis January 26, 2015 on 3:19 am

      Even “continuity” of self is just another buzzword thrown around by technoutopian charlatanes. A good counterexample is, that in fact I am not even the same person I was 5 seconds ago. Atoms have moved, been sweated out, breathed in, brainconfigurations and thoughts have changed, my “conscious” thought may be very different from back then. This argument can – too – be made in favour of nihilism. There is no clear definition of “You”, it’s just a construct that “You” can choose to interpret however you like (see my longer comment above).

  • Kevin Crosby January 26, 2015 on 12:28 am

    Yes and no, especially when it’s done top secret instead of open source.

    My old paper about brain implants was credited in 2005 as the basis for the Wikipedia article on the subject, but my history with cybernetics dates back to childhood when a government agent told me I’d have to keep a sharp eye out and keen ear open to my surroundings in order to be an effective spy, so I replied, “Can’t you just put a camera in my head?”

    These days, civilians are becoming so-called “eyeborgs” filming their environments with some sort of camera prosthesis or another, but in 1975 the CIA’s Acoustic Kitty would eventually become less classified than Acoustic Kiddy when human subjects volunteered to replace the animal cyborg spies during the early brain mapping experiments.

    I hate keeping secrets, but I still have some I don’t talk about. And when I do bring this up with smart people, they mention how other organs in our body besides our brain also do some thinking for us.

  • DumbSwede January 26, 2015 on 8:27 am

    I would say yes – it would still be you, however with many caveats. First of all I believe in the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and ascribe to the Mathematical universe hypothesis by Max Tegmark. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathematical_universe_hypothesis

    So already our existence and consciousness are fragmented although we are essentially unaware of it. At every instance an essentially infinite number of copies of you splinter off and start to lead slightly different lives based on the minute changes between their respective universes and which given enough time and additional splintering diverge significantly due to butterfly effects.

    The chemicals that your brain is made of are constantly being replaced, so every few years your body and brain are made of completely different atoms and molecules. So your persistence of consciousness is not tied to the actual material you are composed of. If we replaced portions of your brain with identical neurons all at once, instead of slowly as happens naturally, at what percentage of replacement would you suddenly not be you? The new you would have all the same thoughts and perceptions. Obviously replacing one neuron would not lead to the death of self. There seems to be no reason to expect replacing them all simultaneously would be any different (though I have to allow for the possibility of some slow degredation of what it means to be you along a spectrum).

    Now if we allow that consciousness in not tied to the actual atoms and original neurons then replacing them with a simulacrum would create a you that perceives it is you. Is this you you? It thinks it is you. If this replacement is done without destroying the original, then in essence you have been duplicated and the patterns that are your consciousness have a 50/50 chance of being in the old you or the new artificial brain load you (assuming the copy is of high enough fidelity). Both perceive they are you. You might argue the original is you and the copy can make no such claim – however if the original is destroyed during the copying, in essence your consciousness has continued in its new artificial (most likely silicon) substrate. Since we have already demonstrated it is not the original material and atoms that define our consciousness and existence, then the pattern that lives on in-silico is you.

    • Rukur DumbSwede January 27, 2015 on 3:56 am

      The chemicals and cell replication are just measure to our thought process.

      What are our goals. To survive and to breed. If we fail at them we go extinct. After that we are irelevant.

      We have spare time on our hands now thanks to writing and success. Our failing now is hubris.

      We are not special. We are not beautiful and unique snowflakes. We are the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We’re all singing, all dancing crap of the world.

      • Robert Joyce Rukur January 28, 2015 on 12:44 pm

        OH, what a nice world view you have. You might want to work on that a little bit. Just a reminder: the idea that there is nothing in the Universe but matter and energy can not be proven. Materialism is simply a belief system.

        • Rukur Robert Joyce January 28, 2015 on 7:15 pm

          “the idea that there is nothing in the Universe but matter and energy can not be proven.”

          Proven or disproven. My world is what I learn nothing more.

        • Lexi Price Robert Joyce February 10, 2015 on 4:01 pm

          That’s not his world view or a bad cynical attitude. That happens to be factual reality. We’re all reproductive animals whose sole function and reason for being here is to reproduce…adapt, reproduce. We are not the Masters of the Universe, that’s all egoism. We’re not here to be rock stars and we don’t have soul mates. We’re not a monogamous species, Mother Nature built us for lots of sex, lots of partners and lots of off spring…and then we die off and the next generation takes over. We are solely carriers for our sex cells. THAT is the extent of our “specialness” and to think otherwise is pure egoism and failure to accept reality.

          When someone points that out and your reaction is to suggest they’re being cynical or have a negative world view, it is you that really doesn’t grasp your function as a human.

          None of that needs to slap your ego and make you feel all worthless. It’s just what you are, kind of like getting bent out of shape being a Homo Sapien instead of a rocket scientist and pouting, or calling somebody cynical when they tell you you’re just a naked ape. If you don’t feel special, that’s all in your own head…has nothing to do with what’s going on between your legs 🙂

  • Ted Cooper January 26, 2015 on 2:10 pm

    “If You Upload Your Mind to a Computer—Are You Still You?” is a silly question which only makes sense to people who (1) think their brains and their bodies are separate things, and (2) identify themselves as the information in their brains.

  • zvibenyosef January 26, 2015 on 3:08 pm

    The author put the disclaimer “the concept is still firmly science fiction”. I would go even further, and say it is fantasy. Before there can be a discussion about transferring consciousness to a collection of wires and transistors, we need to understand what consciousness really is. I will admit readily, I do not have the slightest idea.
    Reading through the many comments here, the majority consensus appears to be in favor of a purely physical mechanical explanation for consciousness. This would be a necessary first step before one could even consider the possibility of somehow transferring consciousness. It must be something physical which can be transferred by some physical process.
    We experience our consciousness, as if we are actually inside our heads, so the logical conclusion must be that consciousness resides in the brain right? It is the most likely receptacle of this thing we call consciousness. However there are many anecdotal accounts where consciousness has been experienced outside of the body. The most common is called a Near Death Experience, or NDE. The following are common elements of the NDE experience. During an NDE people describe leaving their body, and viewing it from above. They become aware of a tunnel. They race through the tunnel at a great rate of speed, toward a bright light at the end. They emerge from the tunnel into pleasant scenery, and are greeted by relatives who are no longer on the physical plane. Some recall having access to great insights into the nature of the universe and the purpose of their lives. Then they return through the tunnel, and re-enter their bodies. Many are confused by the experience, and reluctant to tell anyone about it. There are many thousands of documented cases of NDE.
    Past Life Memories is another category of experience, which cannot be explained by a physical interpretation of consciousness. There is another series on television called “The ghost Within My Child”. The children in this series all report having memories of things they could not have experienced in their short lives. One child recalled being a gunner on a plane in WWII. He accurately described the type of plane (Corsair) and the name of the ship from which it flew (Natoma)


    There are enough accounts of NDE and Past Life Memories to discount the possibility they are all hallucinating or lying. In addition there are many more categories of things for which cannot be explained, such as premonitions of real events, and psychics who can communicate with those on the other side. All these things are called “Supernatural”. I reject that word, because anything that happens, is by definition natural. There is no such thing as the supernatural. The word supernatural is a cop out, used as a label applied to things we do not understand, and cannot , so they can be dismissed as irrelevant. Just because we do not understand something does not mean it is an illusion, or the product of a diseased mind.
    All this to say, consciousness can and does exist independently of the physical brain, so that transferring it in the way imagined by science fiction is highly unlikely.

  • Hwwj January 26, 2015 on 5:29 pm

    The “continuity” idea that Tim Urban settles on has its own problems.

    (i) Imagine that a mad scientist kidnaps you, gives you an anasthetic that electrically isolates all your neurons, rendering tham all dormant, lets it wear off, and frees you. No big deal, as this is what real general anasthetics do, and you’ve probably been given one at least once in your life already.

    (ii) Now imagine that the mad scientist kidnaps you, and puts you in a device that, while you’re conscious, systematically picks through your brain cells one at a time, scans each one, creates a simulated copy of it inside a computer, and then patches its living neighbors to the copy so that overall function proceeds as before, then discards the original brain cell. Eventually all your brain cells are replaced by the simulated ones, at which point the mad scientist disconnects your body from the still-running computer-simulated brain and installs the computer in a robot. At no point was there a loss of continuity of brain function. Is the robot you?

    (iii) Now imagine that instead of discarding the scanned brain cells, the mad scientist saves them up and at the end of the process reassembles them back into the same arrangement that they had before. He puts the reconstituted brain back into your original body and wakes it up. Lets call the body B and the robot R. Which one is you, B, or R?

    (iv) Now imagine that instead of removing the brain cells after scanning them, the device just leaves them in place but isolates them electrically with an anathestic to prevent crosstalk when neigbor cells get patched into the simulation. The process otherwise proceeds exactly as in (ii), and at the end of the process the entire biological brain is dormant and the simulation is disconected from the body and the computer installed in a robot. He then lets the anasthetic wear off and the original brain wakes up inside the original body, neither having been physically altered in any dramatic way at any point save for the application of the anasthetic. Again let’s call this person B, and the robot R.

    Now let’s imagine that the mad scientist has just kidnapped you and outlined what he has in store for you as per (iv). He then cheerfuly notes that he will keep both B and R captive for twelve hours following the conclusion of the experiment, after which he will permit one of them to go free while the other he will horribly torture and murder.

    You get to choose, in advance, which one will live. R will have complete continuity of consciousness with the present you. B will have no less continuity than was present in scenario (i).

    You have one hour to make your choice. Choose carefully…

  • Michael Sumrall January 27, 2015 on 7:54 am

    I upload myself into a computer.

    I upload myself into a second computer.

    Which one is me? Both? Neither?

    The sense of self is constantly changing and evolving. Nobody is the same person today they were yesterday, or will be tomorrow. Uploading our personality into a computer will allow not only for virtual immortality, but the ability to explore multiple paths when faced with a life decision. Each retaining a sense of self, but evolving in very different ways post separation. Twins, separated not at birth, but at an arbitrary point in life.

  • Tagel January 27, 2015 on 11:15 pm

    This thought experiment seems brain in a vat argument.

  • scifirealm January 28, 2015 on 7:03 pm

    This is exactly like the movie Transcendence.

  • Toby LaPenn January 29, 2015 on 11:14 am

    I’ll point out, that I didn’t read all the comments before writing this. However I also want to point out. Everyone here is talking about how you can’t separate mind and body. They are absolutely right. They don’t seem to consider though that it’d theoretically be possible to create a simulation of a human body in which you would implant the necessary values for various chemical and electrical factors.
    You couldn’t upload the content of what most people refer to as the brain and get a person. The brain, mind and body, are three words for the same physical object.

  • Andiroo January 29, 2015 on 5:22 pm

    The finest book written about this subject is Mind Children by Hans Moravec (a CMU Robotics guy at the time). He was onto this over 20 years ago and it is still an amazing read. Check it out.

  • cck February 2, 2015 on 9:19 am

    If it’s a copy then it isn’t me. The copy will likely think it’s me because it will have all the same memories but it is a new person.
    I want to personally experience the future (100s or 1000s years from now) if possible. Uploading my brain’s content will not help me do that. On the other hand I would likely never know. Is the person waking up in the morning the same person that goes to sleep in the evening? I’d like to say “yes” – but I couldn’t know.

    So before we can answer the question we must first decide: What is “me” or “i”, etc….

    • Christopher Youngblood cck February 2, 2015 on 3:58 pm

      This is substantially the Star Trek-teleporter (STT) problem with a slight difference.

      The STT says that the teleporter destroys Kirk in one location and assembles a new Kirk on the teleporter pad. Is the new Kirk the same as the old Kirk? The difference is that in the digitizing-consciousness problem, we end up with two entities–the first is the old person and the second is the new person.

      Just as with the STT, both the new and old are “you” to the extent that no observer could distinguish the two. But unlike with the STT, the copy would have a stake in invalidating the old guy’s claim to authenticity.

      In any real-world trial, the copy’s efforts would fail in some respects and succeed in others.

      Any legal claims to property or duty would fail. The new guy would not owe a duty to the old guy’s kids, parents, or wife. In the event of the new guy’s death, his property would not pass to the old guy’s parents, spouse, or children absent an innovation on inherentance law.

      But the new guys would have, in other respects, the superior identity claim. For instance, after ten year’s time, the new guy’s memories would be preferred in terms of their accuracy. The new guy would be more capable of performing tasks the old guy had been good at doing. For instance, digital Napoleon would likely be a better war planner than organic Napoleon. Digital “me” would outperform organic me in identifying my preferences. And so on.

      What the author seems to want to know is, at bottom, how do we avoid the conflicts that would arise between the new guy and the old guy. The answers have been proposed above, but I’ll rehearse them here.

      First, don’t have two live copies of one person that are both conscious at the same time. Second, implement the duplication through a process of massive integration (create a digital pons) rather than through an instantaneous reproduction. And three, deal statutorily with the “thorny” issues before the implementation of any casual brain-emulation device.

  • Christopher Youngblood February 2, 2015 on 4:04 pm

    I should add, the thorny legal problem of fraud should be worked out legislatively. That is, if the new guy was created to avoid duties owed by the old guy, the new guy should probably be held liable. Because such a showing would probably be easy to make, a simple legal framework would likely solve the problem.

  • Christopher Youngblood February 10, 2015 on 12:47 pm

    To the extent that the following is troubling, I think the solutions above are pretty good salves, but heresit–

    We might (commenters to this thread) have missed the toughest problem. We’ve been looking at moment 1, the moment of digital instantiation. We’re cataloging parities and contrasts between the organic and the digital at that moment. But the distinctions at that moment *pale* in comparison to the distinctions ten minutes later, and I can’t conceive of what resemblances would persevere.

    It raises the question, how much of “me” is defined by my limits? How much of “me” is about who I’ll be tomorrow?

  • Brad Haaf February 25, 2015 on 8:17 pm

    you are your experiences.. you have these experience’s via senses. If you have no senses how can you create new experiences or even remember an experience without the translation of sense’s. A person with slight chemical imbalance …. no chemical’s, no urges, no needs.. guess depends on how well we can simulate sensory input to computer based brain. Talk about reducing your self to basic’s Who am I ? may be harder than ever to answer lol

  • Prasad N R March 1, 2015 on 12:06 am

    Unless biologically connected, the part of cognition is perhaps a highly debated concept when it comes to electronics- a heap of circuitry built out of a heap of sand perhaps ‘resisting’ the part of cognition. Programming these circuitry obfuscate the underlying circuit implementations thus making the job harder. However, with the addition of some other bio-chemical elements, it may certainly be possible.

  • chrismichael April 3, 2015 on 7:08 pm

    A really simple mind experiment that baffles me. Suppose someone mapped every particle that comprises me (from head to toe). Suppose then that particle map was rebuilt one particle at a time. So in essence the outcome is a particle copy of me. Clearly the particle replica of me wouldn’t replace me. Clearly i would still exist separately. So by simple deduction i must be made of something more than just particles. But if every particle in me has been replicated it follows that the ‘something more’ that i am must be something that is not particles. But in the scientific world everything is a particle (or read energy), No matter how many new particles get found or how they interact it wont change the outcome of the experiment. Therefore science must be missing something rather fundamental. There must be something that defines my existence that isnt a particle (and it isnt explained by anything that scientists are currently researching)?

    • Anders Åslund chrismichael August 28, 2015 on 6:09 am

      “So by simple deduction i must be made of something more than just particles.”

      Why? What you are describing is a clone. An impossibly perfect one, but still a clone. It would be just like you. In fact, it would think it _is_ you. Your deduction is based on the premise that your “you” somehow would be affected by your building a copy of yourself. It won’t. You will just have two “you” that are separate from each other but both think they’re you.

      You are basing your deduction on the assumption that just because you can’t experience two “you” at the same time, your mind must be something else than matter – when in fact your thought experiment rather suggests that your “you” most definitely is matter and nothing else.

      From the moment your other “you” awakes and is alive, it will start to diverge from the “you” that is you. It will go on to get its own memories and emotions, and soon enough, you will not even be physically identical. It will get scars that you don’t have, or it will buff up and become much more muscular or it will get fat and lazy. Does that make it any less “you”?

      Why must there be something that defines your existence that isn’t matter/energy? What does it mean to you if there weren’t?

  • Matt Rose July 26, 2015 on 10:32 pm

    Time is a factor of consciousness. Everyone is hung up on instantaneous transfer of consciousness.

    • Tathar Matt Rose October 20, 2016 on 7:19 pm

      I absolutely agree on this point, and it appears several others in the comments do as well. The only way “mind uploading” could work, as opposed to simply creating a copy, is if it was first connected to your organic brain, and then over time, you would wait for the two to integrate into a seamless whole. At that point, if your organic brain were to die, it would be more akin to brain damage than destruction of self. The Brainet article is an important one for its implications on this subject, and I would hope that the research does go further and help to answer this question.

  • Gary Feierbach October 22, 2016 on 8:58 pm

    A few observations:
    1. I’ve written on the technical aspects of this subject but not so much on the philosophical. This is partly because it seem to engender strong and not very reasonable discussion. Here goes, anyway.
    2. If a copy of you is made in another medium (silicon) it will be a copy and not you. You consciousness will not migrate to the new copy via some spiritual force and leave you; it will have its own but it will be a copy of yours realize on a new substrate.
    3. The new copy will the think it is you until it comes to the self-realization that it is a copy in another medium. Then it will start to diverge from you but will self-identify as mostly you. All your memories will be carried forward.
    4. An often used example is, the wake up in the morning case. When you wake up in the morning, after 8 hours sleep, how do you know you are you. At that instant, it is your memories and the feeling of your body. After you look in the mirror you hopefully get confirmation. If you don’t recognize what you see in the mirror it will probably come as a shock. Imagine Richard Norris, the person who got a face transplant. Probably a good person to interview on this subject. Again they will have to rely on their memories and general preferences to know that they are the same person. But really, no one is the same person from one moment to the next. We are all plastic, we change.
    5. Another way this is commonly approached is replacing parts of you with electronic parts, think electronic cochlea, retinas and hippocampus. Is that person still that person? How extensive will that change have to lose his conscious identity?
    6. Still another example would be an surreptitious brain transplant between identical twins done after they went to sleep and when they wake they will not know the difference. That is, until one wonders what happened to the scar on her leg only to find that her sister has the scar. They will insist the the scar must have gotten on the other’s body by some unexplained process since they will both feel that they are in their own bodies. On the other hand, going to a mechanical body is bound to feel quite different so she will feel like she transitioned to a highly-able prosthetic body. This means the synthetic human will think she is the original but will quickly diverge from her former self.

    In general, An uploaded mind will almost instantly know it is a copy but will carry much of the consciousness thought processes of the original. Its self-identity is bound to change quickly by adapting to abilities and constraints offered by the appliance it resides in be it a virtual world or a robotic body.

    We live in interesting times!

  • Gary Feierbach October 22, 2016 on 9:08 pm

    Sorry for the typos.