“I propose to consider the question, ‘Can machines think?’”
If we can map the brain in all its fine detail and reproduce it on a computer, perhaps we can upload people.
As data residing in the cloud, life could extend on forever, the world we experience could consist of any conception from within our wild imagination, and ‘thinking‘ as we have come to know it might be extended and supercharged as it’s given access to more resources than our brain can provide.
Just how farfetched is this idea?
Computers are not yet powerful enough, and those that come closest are nowhere near fast enough.
Japan’s supercomputer—K Computer—managed to simulate a network of 1.73 billion neurons connected by 10.4 trillion synapses back in 2013.
However, there are upwards of 80 billion neurons in the human brain, with each capable of having thousands of connections.
What’s more, the K Computer required 82,944 processors and 40 minutes of processing time to simulate only 1 second of the brain’s processing time. That is, it was 2,400 times slower than a brain.
We are also not sure how far down we have to go in terms of detail—will simulating neurons and their connections be sufficient? Or do we have to map the brain down to the level of subatomic particles?
Chances are, computers will become fast enough. The K Computer was the fastest in the world back in 2012. Now it is the 8th fastest. With the looming rise of quantum computing and the continued growth in the power of computers, the incredible processing power of the human brain seems not out of reach.
While consciousness still eludes us, we are less in the dark about it’s workings and whereabouts than ever before. Prominent leaders in fields such as neuroscience, physics, and technology, believe our brain stores the mind and that a computer can run the same process.
While this is no conclusive description of consciousness, it seems we have at least narrowed the search area down to a three-pound lump of tissue between your ears.
If consciousness does in fact lie within the details of the brain, and a computer could one day mimic these same processes in fine detail and in real-time, it is unlikely we would even need to know how or why consciousness forms.
By mapping the brain and running it on a computer, we will either find a conscious entity peering out from behind the screen, or an incredibly complex program lacking the inner substance that’s so familiar to us all—of course, could we possibly tell the difference?
Let’s go ahead and assume that we find out consciousness can in fact exist in digital form—the next step is uploading ourselves. How do we achieve such a leap?
Making the Leap
Mapping the brain in fine detail and reproducing it on a computer is looking like it will be the first method of mental transference. There are already current attempts to map the brain including the Human Connectome Project and the BRAIN Initiative.
Of course, this seems an awful lot like copy and paste—the end result is going to be a clone of your mind, not the actual you. Yes it will have all your memories, your sense of self, your way of processing the world and would convince everyone you know what it were you. But you are still in your body, watching everything unfold in front of and outside of you.
While the continued existence of our likeness might be enough for some, the preference is of course for the self we know and love to make the transition.
What if we replace each part of our brain slowly? We could swap our biological pieces for mechanical parts that, thanks to their complex programming and ability to interact with our remaining biological parts, could function in the same way.
Once every part has eventually been replaced, we would have our digital brain occupying the space as our original brain—however, because we are then composed of data, perhaps from there we can leave our body and enter the cloud via the internet.
This idea feels better because our sense of self is likely to remain somewhat continuous. But this may not mean that we, the ones that occupy the biological brain and make the decision to start are process, are the same selves that remain at the end of the process.
The Ship of Theseus thought experiment gets at this idea—you have a ship, and after some wear and tear, you have to replace a few boards in the hull. We largely consider the resulting ship the same as before. Then some more time passes, and you replace a few more pieces—still the same ship.
Eventually, however, you have replaced everything. Along the way your sense that the ship was your ship has remained. But we find all your discarded parts and use them to put the original ship back together. Now you have your old, worn and torn ship, floating—or sinking, perhaps—right beside your new, continuously upgraded ship—which is yours?
Back to the brain—everything has slowly been replaced, through it all your sense of self has remained largely continuous. But we saved all your biological parts and have put them back together. Now you are staring at your original self… who are they? Who are you?
A third option may be to expand into a mechanical cortex until our biological self shrinks to such an insignificant aspect of our mind that we decide to just faze it out.
The technology to connect mind and machine is gaining traction, giving hope to the idea that we will be able to extend upon our current mental faculties with those currently reserved to computers—this may go beyond direct mental access to a calculator and into such ideas as seeing in more than 4 dimensions, experiencing new senses, and thinking in ways so foreign to us that we currently cannot even comprehend them.
As our digital faculties grow in number and in power, it seems reasonable to assume that more of our thinking will be done in this realm. If we can essentially sway back and forth between our digital and biological beings, perhaps we could eventually decide to escape the original brain for good.
Again, our original brain will contain our original consciousness. But because we have at least felt like the continuous evolution of our consciousness, and now occupy a mind that is vastly superior to the original, perhaps we won’t be so concerned about which is which.
The Illusion of Self
Each of the above scenarios cannot eliminate the disconcerting idea that our original self won’t be the one making the trip to digital nirvana.
But then we must consider life as we now know it—the brain is changing all the time, every experience and thought that resonates through our neuronal circuitry alters the brain in subtle ways.
It goes without saying that we are vastly different now than we were 10 years ago. Perhaps, we are a different version of ourself after each night sleep, even after every moment of every day. Every change effectively ends the original and welcomes an updated version.
We are only a moment, an instance of consciousness that flutters in and out of existence so quickly we are blind to it. If our sense of self is an illusion, and the mere feeling of continuousness is enough to satisfy any notion otherwise, perhaps a gradual transition to machine-hood is all we need.
All that being said—if you could, would you transfer your mind into a computer so that you could live forever on the cloud? Let me know in the comments.
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