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Is an Uploaded Mind the Person who was Uploaded?

Updated on April 11, 2014

Man becomes machine?

If you copy your mind is the copy you?
If you copy your mind is the copy you? | Source

Do you want to live forever?

Mankind has been seeking a way to cheat death as long as we have written records. Gilgamesh searched in vain for immortality. Explorers pursued the Fountain of Youth for millennium, some probably died in the process. Legends of zombies and vampires have served as cautions that immortality may not be all it's cracked up to be. Religions have promised an afterlife since the dawn of time. Some futurists are now speculating that a form of technological immortality might be right around the corner. They think that a human mind might be “uploaded” onto a computer, as software. The hope is that these “digital people” will retain their identities, memories and personalities, thus serving as an immortal extension of the original person. Is living forever as simple as copying a mind? It depends on how you define a person.

What makes you, you?

The question of what makes you, you may seem obvious at first glance. You, the person reading this are obviously yourself. But how do you prove who you are to someone else? Our modern world is full of concepts of identity that would have seemed odd a generation ago. Identities are stolen, people are impersonated online, entire false persona are created by blending lies with other peoples photographs. So, how do you prove you are the unique real you in a potential sea of online doppelgangers, identity thieves and hacks to your social media accounts? Most of the methods we use to identify someone rely on physical characteristics. Appearance, fingerprints, D.N.A. so how do we apply such identification to a digital person.

Are you just the electrical impulses in your brain?

Subject ready for EEG recording at the phonetics lab, Stockholm University photo by Petter Kallioinen
Subject ready for EEG recording at the phonetics lab, Stockholm University photo by Petter Kallioinen | Source

Just a collection of electrical impulses?

The futurists who advocate uploading will contend that you are not any of those things used to verify your identity. They believe that you are the electrical and chemical impulses in your brain. They further contend that duplicating those impulses in a computer will create a duplicate you. Does this contention stand up to scrutiny? In nature identical twins start out as two halves of the same embryo. Differences in environment, even within the womb, cause them to develop into quite different individuals. Will the environmental differences between a biological human and his/her electronic copy not lead them to evolve into different people as well? How can differences not develop between an individual who is still experiencing the world as flesh and blood and one who exists solely in a computer? Though they might begin as a product of their experiences leading up to the upload process from that point on their experiences will diverge. How much divergence is needed before they are regarded as separate people? Then there is the significant legal question of how two separate entities could be considered a single person. What happens if they disagree on disposition of property or entering into a contract? If the law ever regards two such beings as a single person will it be necessary for the legal system to provide means for the two parts to divorce themselves from each other? If someones mind is uploaded immediately before their death it might appear to their loved ones that they are still around in a different form. Is that perception accurate? How can a copy made at the time of death be a continuation if a copy made before death might create a new person?

Can we really separate mind and body?

The fact that an uploaded mind will most likely diverge from it's original is only one problem with the concept. Another is that reducing a person to just the electrical patterns of the brain misses things. Much of our emotional makeup comes from hormones. An uploaded person would need digital analogs of adrenalin, serotonin, and a host of other chemicals. These digital hormones would have to be tied into both the conscious and subconscious mental processes of the uploadee for them to experience normal emotions. Additionally some memories, specifically those related to physical activity are, believed to be, stored in patterns of growth of the peripheral nervous system. For an uploaded person to truly have all their emotions and memories would require digitally copying not just the brain but almost the entire nervous and endocrine systems. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Human Memory

The Starry Night by Vincent Willem van Gogh
The Starry Night by Vincent Willem van Gogh | Source

Vs computer memory

Starry Night at Mount Everest photo by Matt Wier
Starry Night at Mount Everest photo by Matt Wier | Source

Can a computer copy how human memory works?

Human and computer memories work differently. Computer memory stores things in discrete files. As long as you know the appropriate file names you can retrieve any single isolated bit of data with perfect accuracy. Human memory though is fuzzy, lacking detail and interconnected. A familiar scent can bring back recall of other times it has been experienced and all those memories are interconnected. Often people can find it difficult to remember something unless that memory is stimulated by the right environmental cues. While it may be possible to duplicate the way human memories are stored in electronic form (and must be for uploads to work) duplicating how it works requires more than just copying the mind. Human memory can be triggered by scent, touch or taste, all senses we cannot currently give a machine. Will an uploaded persons mind be able to work the same way without those senses? An entire virtual body and a virtual world to interact with is a possible solution as are touch sensors in robotic hands and chemical sensors to serve as a nose and tongue. Unfortunately we are a long way from duplicating the kind of sensitivity the human body has in a machine.

What do you do with an artificial intelligence that can remember a human childhood?

Maria Valeria of Austria circa 1870
Maria Valeria of Austria circa 1870 | Source

A computer remembering being human

For all the differences between an uploaded mind and the original, the upload will remember what it was like to be an organic human. With a cybernetic link, an upload could even be connected to and share senses and memories with it's living original. Under such a link it might be appropriate to think of the uploaded copy as part of the living person. If the upload and it's linked organic counterpart are considered a single person, what happens if they become disconnected by choice, accident or death? Is an uploaded copy that was connected to it's organic counterpart up to the point of the counterparts death a continuation of the same person? If they aren't then how will society regard them, or a copied mind that didn't share it's consciousness with the original? Are they to be considered a person or property? Will we treat them as humans because they remember being one of us? Will we treat them as machines because there is nothing organic there regardless of what they remember?

Can a computer have a soul?

Then there is the question of the soul. Many who advocate uploading deny the existence of any immortal part of themselves. They don't believe in an afterlife, so uploading is the only way they see for their existence to continue after the death of their body. To others the soul is measured by memories and habits of thought that would be transferred to an upload. To these people the soul must be shared with or, after death, transferred to the upload. Whether there is such a thing as a soul or if it can be transferred to an electronic copy of a persons mind is not something that can be analyzed or discussed objectively. After all, if one could detect or measure that part of people that continued after death we wouldn't need to seek immortality.

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    • T R Brown Author profile imageAUTHOR

      T Richard Brown 

      4 years ago from Orem, UT, USA

      Ultimately every afterlife technological or metaphysical is a matter of faith. If you firmly believe an upload of your mind makes you immortal even seeing your uploaded copy diverge from your meat self will not persuade you that the upload isn't you. If you believe an upload is just a copy no evidence to the contrary will persuade you otherwise. Everyone must decide what they believe for themselves. The philosophical debate simply provides an informed context for the decision.

    • dirrogate profile image


      4 years ago

      good article, but does not thoroughly make it's case.

      For instance..

      "... A familiar scent can bring back recall of other times it has been experienced and all those memories are interconnected. Often people can find it difficult to remember something unless that memory is stimulated by the right environmental cues.."

      What you're describing is sensory cues that can easily be assigned to "digitized memories". What's then needed by an AI 'brain' (or uploaded if brain if you prefer) is to provide real-time sensory input from the environment to this AI brain (temperature, sound, smell, taste, touch, sight are already digitizable)

      The reason I say the article don't make a thorough case, is because yes, there are un-answered questions to an uploaded brain scenario which the article does philosophize on and is a valid subject of on-going discussion/debate in the science world.

      As for the age old "are uploaded brains we just a copy of the real brain" and the consciousness-soul debate...

      ...Why think of the future transcendence of the human mind as a mere copy of the biological wet-ware of the 20th century?

      ‘Evolution of consciousness’ – I prefer exploration of that idea… to today’s primitive thinking practiced by some “futurists” that make them proclaim uploaded minds are: “mere copies”


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