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Mind uploading

In transhumanism and science fiction, mind uploading (also occasionally referred to by other terms such as mind downloading, mind transfer, whole brain emulation, whole body emulation, or electronic transcendence) refers to the hypothetical transfer of a human mind to an artificial substrate, such as a detailed computer simulation of an individual human brain.



Thinkers with a strongly mechanistic view of human intelligence (such as Marvin Minsky) or a strongly positive view of robot-human social integration (such as Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil) have openly speculated about the possibility and desirability of this.

In the case where the mind is transferred into a computer, the subject would become a form of artificial intelligence, sometimes called an infomorph or "noömorph." In a case where it is transferred into an artificial body, to which its consciousness is confined, it would also become a robot. In either case it might claim ordinary human rights, certainly if the consciousness within was feeling (or was doing a good job of simulating) as if it were the donor.

Uploading consciousness into bodies created by robotic means is a goal of some in the artificial intelligence community. In the uploading scenario, the physical human brain does not move from its original body into a new robotic shell; rather, the consciousness is assumed to be recorded and/or transferred to a new robotic brain, which generates responses indistinguishable from the original organic brain.

The idea of uploading human consciousness in this manner raises many philosophical questions which people may find interesting and disturbing, such as matters of individuality and the soul. Vitalists would say that uploading was a priori impossible. Many people also wonder whether, if they were uploaded, it would be their sentience uploaded, or simply a copy.

Even if uploading is theoretically possible, there is currently no technology capable of recording or describing mind states in the way imagined, and no one knows how much computational power or storage would be needed to simulate the activity of the mind inside a computer. On the other hand, advocates of uploading have made various estimates of the amount of computing power that would be needed to simulate a human brain, and based on this a number have estimated that uploading may become possible within decades if trends such as Moore's Law continue.[1]

Theoretical methods

True mind uploading remains speculation: the technology to perform such a feat is not currently available. However, a number of methods have been suggested to carry out mind transfers in the future.

Blue Brain Project and computational issues

On June 6, 2005 IBM and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne announced the launch of a project to build a complete simulation of the human brain, entitled the "Blue Brain Project".[2] The project will use a supercomputer based on IBM's Blue Gene design to map the entire electrical circuitry of the brain. The project seeks to research aspects of human cognition, and various psychiatric disorders caused by malfunctioning neurons, such as autism. Initial efforts are to focus on experimentally accurate, programmed characterization of a single neocortical column in the brain of a rat, as it is very similar to that of a human but at a smaller scale, then to expand to an entire neocortex (the alleged seat of higher intelligence) and eventually the human brain as a whole.

However, it is important to note that according to Henry Markram, lead researcher of the BBP, "it is not [their] goal to build an intelligent neural network."[3] On the same page, when asked if he believes a computer can ever be an exact simulation of the human brain, Markram replies exactly as follows:

This is not likely nor necessary. It will be very difficult because, in the brain, every molecule is a powerful computer and we would need to simulate the structure and function of trillions upon trillions of molecules as well as all the rules that govern how they interact. You would literally need computers that are trillions of times bigger and faster than anything existing today. Mammals can make very good copies of each other, we do not need to make computer copies of mammals. That is not our goal. We want to try to understand how the biological system functions and malfunctions so that this knowledge can benefit mankind.[4]

Advocates of mind uploading often point to Moore's law to support the notion that the necessary computing power may become available within a few decades, though it would probably require advances beyond the integrated circuit technology which has dominated since the 1970s. Several new technologies have been proposed, and prototypes of some have been demonstrated, such as the optical neural network based on the silicon-photonic chip (harnessing special physical properties of Indium Phosphide) which Intel showed the world for the first time on September 18, 2006.[5] Other proposals include 3-dimensional computers based on carbon nanotubes (researchers have already demonstrated individual logic gates built from carbon nanotubes[6]) and also perhaps the quantum computer, currently being worked on internationally as well as most famously by computer scientists and physicists at the IBM Almaden Research Center, which promises to be useful in simulating the behavior of quantum systems; such ability would enable protein structure prediction which could be critical to correct emulation of intracellular neural processes.

Present methods require use of massive computational power (as the BBP does with IBM's Blue Gene Supercomputer) to use the essentially classical computing architecture for serial deduction of the quantum mechanical processes involved in ab initio protein structure prediction. If necessary, should the quantum computer become a reality, its capacity for exactly such rapid calculations of quantum mechanical physics may well help the effort by reducing the required computational power per physical size and energy needs, as Markram warns would be needed (and thus why he thinks it would be difficult, besides unattractive) should an entire brain's simulation, let alone emulation (at both cellular and molecular levels) be feasibly attempted. Reiteration may also be useful for distributed simulation of a common, repeated function (e.g., proteins).

Ultimately, nano-computing is projected by some[citation needed] to hold the requisite capacity for computations per second estimated necessary, in surplus. If Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns (a variation on Moore's Law) shows itself to be true, the rate of technological development should accelerate exponentially towards the technological singularity, heralded by the advent of viable though relatively primitive mind uploading and/or "strong" (human-level) AI technologies, his prediction being that the Singularity may occur around the year 2045.[7]

Serial sectioning

A likely method for mind uploading is serial sectioning[8], in which the brain tissue and perhaps other parts of the nervous system are frozen, sliced apart or ablated layer by layer, and then analyzed.

Laser ablation can now be done automatically (although this introduces incompatibility issues of heating, and thus cracking the ice, possibly of vitreous type given today's standard cryonics methodology).[ref?]

Sectioning can be done by diamond knife as in a conventional cryo-ultramicrotome, and scanned at high resolution, perhaps with a transmission electron microscope or scanning electron microscope. Research is also currently underway[9] to automate the collection and microscopy of serial sections, which is currently a very slow and labor intensive process.

The scans would then be reconstructed 3-dimensionally and uploaded by means of an interpretation algorithm to appropriate emulation hardware (i.e., an artificial brain).

There are uncertainties with imaging sections by current microscopy techniques. Simply reproducing the structures visible by electron microscopy, may not allow replication of the function of a brain, since the function of brain tissue is determined by molecular events, particularly at synapses. However, with only SEM resolution it still may be possible to infer neuron function from it's visible structure alone.[9] Sophisticated immunohistochemistry staining methods may also be required to reveal the protein signatures representative of neural function, and are detectable using Confocal laser scanning microscopy.


A more advanced hypothetical technique that would require nanotechnology might involve infiltrating the intact brain with a network of cell-sized machines to "read" the structure and activity of the brain in situ, much like current-day electrode meshes but on a much finer and more sophisticated scale. This might even allow for the replacement of living neurons with artificial neurons one by one while the subject is still conscious, providing a smooth transition from an organic to synthetic brain - potentially significant for those who worry about the loss of personal continuity that other uploading processes may entail. This method has been likened to upgrading the whole internet by replacing, one by one, each computer connected to it with similar computers using newer hardware.


Another theoretically possible method of mind uploading from organic to inorganic medium, related to the idea described above of replacing neurons one at a time while consciousness remained intact, would be a much less precise but much more feasible (in terms of technology currently known to be physically possible) process of "cyborging". Once a given person's brain is mapped, it is replaced piece-by-piece with computer devices which perform the exact same function as the regions preceding them, after which the patient is allowed to regain consciousness and validate that there has not been some radical upheaval within his own subjective experience of reality. At this point, the patient's brain is immediately "re-mapped" and another piece is replaced, and so on in this fashion until, the patient exists on a purely hardware medium and can be safely extricated from the remaining organic body.

However, critics contend[citation needed] that, given the significant level of synergy involved throughout the neural plexus, alteration of any given cell that is functionally correspondent with (a) neighboring cell(s) may well result in an alteration of its electrical and chemical properties that would not have existed without interference, and so the true individual's signature is lost. Revokability of that disturbance may be possible with damage anticipation and correction (seeing the original by the particular damage rendered unto it, in reverse chronological fashion), although this would be easier in a stable system, meaning a brain subjected to cryosleep (which would imbue its own damage and alterations).[citation needed]

Brain imaging

It may also be possible to use advanced neuroimaging technology to build a detailed three-dimensional model of the brain using non-invasive methods. A candidate is Magnetoencephalography. This possibility, however, could run into physical limitations concerning the resolution that can be achieved. Very high-resolution brain imaging (down to the nanometer) is currently available, but it would require destroying the brain by means of a serial sectioning scan as described above.

Viral mapping

Another recently conceived possibility is the use of genetically engineered viruses to attach to synaptic junctions, and then release energy-emitting molecular compounds, which could be detected externally, and used to generate a functional model of the synapses in question, and, given enough time, the whole brain and nervous system.


It has also been suggested (for example, in Greg Egan's "jewelhead" stories[10]) that a detailed examination of the brain itself may not be required, that the brain could be treated as a black box instead and effectively duplicated "for all practical purposes" by merely duplicating how it responds to specific external stimuli. This leads into even deeper philosophical questions of what the "self" is.

Copying vs. moving

With most projected mind uploading technology it is implicit that "copying" a consciousness could be as feasible as "moving" it, since these technologies generally involve simulating the human brain in a computer of some sort, and digital files such as computer programs can be copied precisely. It is also possible that the simulation could be created without the need to destroy the original brain, so that the computer-based consciousness would be a copy of the still-living biological person, although some proposed methods such as serial sectioning of the brain would necessarily be destructive. In both cases it is usually assumed that once the two versions are exposed to different sensory inputs, their experiences would begin to diverge, but all their memories up until the moment of the copying would remain the same.

By many definitions, both copies could be considered the "same person" as the single original consciousness before it was copied. At the same time, they can be considered distinct individuals once they begin to diverge, so the issue of which copy "inherits" what could be complicated. This problem is similar to that found when considering the possibility of teleportation, where in some proposed methods it is possible to copy (rather than only move) a mind or person. This is the classic philosophical issue of personal identity. The problem is made even more serious by the possibility of creating a potentially infinite number of initially identical copies of the original person, which would of course all exist simultaneously as distinct beings.

Philosopher John Locke published "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" in 1689, in which he proposed the following criterion for personal identity: if you remember thinking something in the past, then you are the same person as he or she who did the thinking. Later philosophers raised various logical snarls, most of them caused by applying Boolean logic, the prevalent logic system at the time. It has been proposed that modern fuzzy logic can solve those problems,[11] showing that Locke's basic idea is sound if one treats personal identity as a continuous rather than discrete value.

In that case, when a mind is copied -- whether during mind uploading, or afterwards, or by some other means -- the two copies are initially two instances of the very same person, but over time, they will gradually become different people to an increasing degree.

The issue of copying vs moving is sometimes cited as a reason to think that destructive methods of mind uploading such as serial sectioning of the brain would actually destroy the consciousness of the original and the upload would itself be a mere "copy" of that consciousness. Whether one believes that the original consciousness of the brain would transfer to the upload, that the original consciousness would be destroyed, or that this is simply a matter of definition and the question has no single "objectively true" answer, is ultimately a philosophical question that depends on one's views of philosophy of mind.

Because of these philosophical questions about the survival of consciousness, there are some who would feel more comfortable about a method of uploading where the transfer is gradual, replacing the original brain with a new substrate over an extended period of time, during which the subject appears to be fully conscious (this can be seen as analogous to the natural biological replacement of molecules in our brains with new ones taken in from eating and breathing, which may lead to almost all the matter in our brains being replaced in as little as a few months[12]). As mentioned above, this would likely take place as a result of gradual cyborging, either nanoscopically or macroscopically, wherein the brain (the original copy) would slowly be replaced bit by bit with artificial parts that function in a near-identical manner, and assuming this was possible at all, the person would not necessarily notice any difference as more and more of his brain became artificial.

Emulation and Simulation

A computer capable of simulating a person may require microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), or else perhaps optical or nano computing for comparable speed and reduced size and sophisticated telecommunication between the brain and body (whether it exists in virtual reality, artificially as an android, or cybernetically as in sync with a biological body through a transceiver), but would not seem to require molecular nanotechnology.

If minds and environments can be simulated, the Simulation Hypothesis posits that the reality we see may in fact be a computer simulation, and that this is actually the most likely possibility.[13]

Ethical issues of mind uploading

There are many ethical issues concerning mind uploading. Viable mind uploading technology might challenge the ideas of human immortality, property rights, capitalism, human intelligence, an afterlife, and the abrahamic view of man as created in God's image. These challenges often cannot be distinguished from those raised by all technologies that extend human technological control over human bodies, e.g. organ transplant. Perhaps the best way to explore such issues is to discover principles applicable to current bioethics problems, and question what would be permissible if they were applied consistently to a future technology. This points back to the role of science fiction in exploring such problems, as powerfully demonstrated in the 20th century by such works as Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Dune and Star Trek, each of which frame current ethical problems in a future environment where those have come to dominate the society.

Another issue with mind uploading is the question as to whether an uploaded mind is really the "same" sentience, or simply an exact copy with the same memories and personality. Although this difference would be undetectable to an external observer (and the upload itself would probably be unable to tell), it could mean that uploading a mind would actually kill it and replace it with a clone. Some people would be unwilling to upload themselves for this reason. If their sentience is deactivated even for a nanosecond, they assert, it is permanently wiped out. Some more gradual methods may avoid this problem by keeping the uploaded sentience functioning throughout the procedure.

Mind uploading in science fiction

Main article: Mind transfer in fiction

Uploading is a common theme in science fiction. Some of the earlier instances of this theme were in the Roger Zelazny 1968 novel Lord of Light and in Frederik Pohl's 1955 short story "Tunnel Under the World." A near miss was Neil R. Jones' 1931 short story "The Jameson Satellite", wherein a person's organic brain was installed in a machine, and Olaf Stapledon's "Last and First Men" (1930) had organic human-like brains grown into an immobile machine.

Another of the "firsts" is the novel Detta är verkligheten (This is reality), 1968, by the renowned philosopher and logician Bertil Mårtensson, in which he describes people living in an uploaded state as a means to control overpopulation. The uploaded people believe that they are "alive", but in reality they are playing elaborate and advanced fantasy games. In a twist at the end, the author changes everything into one of the best "multiverse" ideas of science fiction. Together with the 1969 book Ubik by Philip K. Dick it takes the subject to its furthest point of all the early novels in the field.

Frederik Pohl's Gateway series (also known as the Heechee Saga) deals with a human being, Robinette Broadhead, who "dies" and, due to the efforts of his wife, a computer scientist, as well as the computer program Sigfrid von Shrink, is uploaded into the "64 Gigabit space" (now archaic, but Fred Pohl wrote Gateway in 1976). The Heechee Saga deals with the physical, social, sexual, recreational, and scientific nature of cyberspace before William Gibson's award-winning Neuromancer, and the interactions between cyberspace and "meatspace" commonly depicted in cyberpunk fiction. In Neuromancer, a hacking tool used by the main character is an artificial infomorph of a notorious cyber-criminal, Dixie Flatline. The infomorph only assists in exchange for the promise that he be deleted after the mission is complete.

In the 1982 novel Software, part of the Ware Tetralogy by Rudy Rucker, one of the main characters, Cobb Anderson, has his mind uploaded and his body replaced with an extremely human-like android body. The robots who persuade Anderson into doing this sell the process to him as a way to become immortal.

The fiction of Greg Egan has explored many of the philosophical, ethical, legal, and identity aspects of mind uploading, as well as the financial and computing aspects (i.e., hardware, software, processing power) of maintaining "copies". In Egan's Permutation City and Diaspora, "copies" are made by computer simulation of scanned brain physiology. Also, in Egan's "Jewelhead" stories, the mind is transferred from the organic brain to a small, immortal backup computer at the base of the skull, with the organic brain then being surgically removed.

The Takeshi Kovacs novels by Richard Morgan was set in a universe where mind transfers were a part of standard life. With the use of cortical stacks, which record a person's memories and personality into a device implanted in the spinal vertebrae, it was possible to copy the individual's mind to a storage system at the time of death. The stack could be uploaded to a virtual reality environment for interrogation, entertainment, or to pass the time for long distance travel. The stack could also be implanted into a new body or "sleeve" which may or may not have biomechanical, genetic, or chemical "upgrades" since the sleeve could be grown or manufactured. Interstellar travel is most often accomplished by digitized human freight ("dhf") over faster-than-light needlecast transmission.

In the "Requiem for Homo Sapiens" series of novels by David Zindell (Neverness, The Broken God, The Wild, and War in Heaven), the verb "cark" is used for uploading one's mind (and also for changing one's DNA). Carking is done for soul-preservation purposes by the members of the Architects church, and also for more sinister (or simply unknowable) purposes by the various "gods" that populate the galaxy — such gods being human minds that have now grown into planet- or nebula-sized synthetic brains. The climax of the series centers around the struggle to prevent one character from creating a Universal Computer (under his control) that will incorporate all human minds (and indeed, the entire structure of the universe).

In the popular computer game Total Annihilation, the 4,000-year war that eventually culminated with the destruction of the Milky Way galaxy was started over the issue of mind transfer, with one group (the Arm) resisting another group (the Core) who were attempting to enforce a 100% conversion rate of humanity into machines, because machines are durable and modular, thereby making it a "public health measure."

In the popular science fiction show Stargate SG-1 the alien race who call themselves the Asgard rely solely on cloning and mind transferring to continue their existence. This was not a choice they made, but a result of the decay of the Asgard genome due to excessive cloning, which also caused the Asgard to lose their ability to reproduce. In the episode "Tin Man", SG-1 encounter Harlan, the last of a race that transferred their minds to robots in order to survive. SG-1 then discover that their minds have also been transferred to robot bodies. Eventually they learn that their minds were copied rather than uploaded and that the "original" SG-1 are still alive.

The Thirteenth Floor is a film made in 1999 directed by Josef Rusnak. In the film, a scientific team discovers a technology to create a fully functioning virtual world which they could experience by taking control of the bodies of simulated characters in the world, all of whom were self-aware. One plot twist was that if the virtual body a person had taken control of was killed in the simulation while they were controlling it, then the mind of the simulated character the body originally belonged to would take over the body of that person in the "real world".

The Matrix is a film released the same year as The Thirteenth Floor that has the same kind of solipsistic philosophy. In The Matrix, the antagonist Neo finds out that the world he has been living in is nothing but a simulated dreamworld. However, this should be considered as virtual reality rather than mind uploading, since Neos' physical brain still is required to reside his mind. The mind (the information content of the brain) is not copied into an emulated brain in a computer. Neos physical brain is connected into the Matrix via a brain-machine interface. Only the rest of the physical body is simulated. Neo is disconnected from this dreamworld by human rebels fighting against AI-driven machines in what seems to be a neverending war. During the course of the movie, Neo and his friends are connected back into the Matrix dreamworld in order to fight the machine race.

In the series Battlestar Galactica the antagonists of the story are the Cylons, sentient computers created by man which developed to become nearly identical to human beings. When they die they rely on mind transferring to keep on living so that "death becomes a learning experience".

The 1995 movie Strange Days explores the idea of a technology capable of recording a conscious event. However, in this case, the mind itself is not uploaded into the device. The recorded event, which time frame is limited to that of the recording session, is frozen in time on a data disc much like today's audio and video. Wearing the "helmet" in playback mode, another person can experience the external stimuli interpretation of the brain, the memories, the feelings, the thoughts and the actions that the original person recorded from his/her life. During playback, the observer temporarily quits his own memories and state of consciousness (the real self). In other words, one can "live" a moment in the life of another person, and one can "live" the same moment of his/her life more than once. In the movie, a direct link to a remote helmet can also be established, allowing another person to experience a live event.

Mind uploading advocates

Followers of the Raëlian religion advocate mind uploading in the process of human cloning to achieve eternal life. Living inside of a computer is also seen by followers as an eminent possibility.[14]

However, mind uploading is also advocated by a number of secular researchers in neuroscience and artificial intelligence, such as Marvin Minsky. In 1993, Joe Strout created a small web site called the Mind Uploading Home Page, and began advocating the idea in Cryonics circles and elsewhere on the net. That site has not been actively updated in recent years, but it has spawned other sites including, run by Randal A. Koene, Ph.D., who also moderates a mailing list on the topic. These advocates see mind uploading as a medical procedure which could eventually save countless lives.

Many Transhumanists look forward to the development and deployment of mind uploading technology, with many predicting that it will become possible within the 21st century due to technological trends such as Moore's Law. Many view it as the end phase of the Transhumanist project, which might be said to begin with the genetic engineering of biological humans, continue with the cybernetic enhancement of genetically engineered humans, and finally obtain with the replacement of all remaining biological aspects.

The book Beyond Humanity: CyberEvolution and Future Minds by Gregory S. Paul & Earl D. Cox, is about the eventual (and, to the authors, almost inevitable) evolution of computers into sentient beings, but also deals with human mind transfer.

Raymond Kurzweil, a prominent advocate of transhumanism and the likelihood of a technological singularity, has suggested that the easiest path to human-level artificial intelligence may lie in "reverse-engineering the human brain", which he usually uses to refer to the creation of a new intelligence based on the general "principles of operation" of the brain, but he also sometimes uses the term to refer to the notion of uploading individual human minds based on highly detailed scans and simulations. This idea is discussed on pp. 198-203 of his book The Singularity is Near, for example.

Hans Moravec describes and advocates mind uploading in both his 1988 book Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence and also his 2000 book Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind. Moravec is referred to by Marvin Minsky in Minsky's essay Will Robots Inherit the Earth?.[15]

Mind Backup

A potential application for mind transfers involves "backing up" a person's mind; that is, creating an exact replica of the person's mind which would be activated upon said person's death. The implications for such a technology are featured in science fiction novels Newton's Gate and the Revelation Space series.

See also

  • artificial intelligence
  • brain-computer interface
  • brain transplant
  • Cyborg
  • Exocortex
  • Immortality test
  • Simulated Reality
  • soul
  • Taylor algorithms (fiction)
  • teleportation
  • Turing test
  • virtual reality
  • Simulation Hypothesis
  • Technological Singularity


  1. ^ Notes on The Singularity is Near. Retrieved on 2007-09-23.
  2. ^ Herper, Matthew (June 6, 2005). IBM Aims To Simulate A Brain. Forbes. Retrieved on 2006-05-19.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Blue Brain Project FAQ
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ More, Max; Raymond Kurzweil (February 26, 2002). Max More and Ray Kurzweil on the Singularity. Retrieved on 2007-01-19.
  8. ^ Merkle, R., 1989, Large scale analysis of neural structures, CSL-89-10 November 1989, [P89-00173]
  9. ^ a b ATLUM Project
  10. ^ Egan, Greg (1995). "Learning to Be Me", Axiomatic. ISBN 1-85798-281-9. 
  11. ^ Strout, Joe (2/09/97). The Issue of Personal Identity. Retrieved on 2006-05-19.
  12. ^
  13. ^ Bostrom, N. , 2003, Are You Living in a Simulation?, Philosophical Quarterly (2003), Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243-255.
  14. ^ Roos, Dave, Eternal Life Through Cloning, Retrieved 31 March 2007.
  15. ^ Marvin Minsky: Will Robots Inherit the Earth?
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Mind_uploading". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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