It’s been talked about often over the past years, but as advances in artificial intelligence, understanding how our brains work, and computers become faster and smarter, means that it could be decades rather than centuries before we will be able to upload the complete contents of our brain to a computer. We’d be storing memories, personality, abilities and knowledge.
But then we die. Even with all the advances in medical sciences there is a limit to how long life can be prolonged unless a cure for random cell mutation is found. Yep, cancer is likely to get us all in the end- it’s the ultimate backstop to stop us living forever.
But if you have all your brain’s content stored on a computer, the possibilities of how one can retrieve them after death become intriguing. If your body was cryogenically suspended just before you succumbed to an incurable disease, it could be revived in the future when a cure had been discovered. In that way you could back in your old skin with your noddle intact and resuming your life where you left off. Or, if your body is no longer available (someone switched off the freeze control in the cryogen suspension chambers dammit) then future computers may be able to actually use the information on them from your brain to give you an existence within the computer. That may sound like Tron on a bad day, or a permanent dream-like state for the mind without a body, but at least you’d have consciousness of your existence. Communication with the outside world would be as simple as how a computer now communicates with us today- text, images, sound, you name it. There are even likely to be sophisticated programmes in existence whereby you can “see” yourself and interact with the real world (or a damn good copy of it). A virtual life programme for you. Not only that, you would still have all the computing power of your brain, but massively racked up with all the computing power of a future computer. You could learn, experience, expand… as near immortality without sterility as you could imagine.
Far-fetched? President Obama is spending a cool $1 billion to map the brain in its entirety, while the European Union announced it would fund a $1.3 billion effort to build a human brain in a silicon substrate. First we have to find out where our memories exist and how they are stored and accessed in the brain when required.
David Chalmers is one of the world’s leading philosophers of the mind. He has written some of the most influential papers on the nature of consciousness. He is director of the Centre for Consciousness at Australian National University and is also a visiting professor at New York University. He’s no slouch or frizzy-haired boffin on Cloud Nine.
Chalmers addressed a conference in New York called Singularity Summit, where computer scientists, neuroscientists and other researchers were offering their visions of the future of intelligence. Some speakers spoke of the possibility of a time when we would understand the human brain in its fine details, be able to build machines not just with artificial intelligence but with super intelligence and be able to merge our own minds with those machines.
The leap may be just as great as the one imagined in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein: Prometheus Unbound. Just as no-one knew whether life had been bestowed to the creature after being subjected to lightning, and what sort of life, and whether it would be grateful, we wouldn’t know whether an uploaded system of your brain into a machine, body or computer would be conscious, a zombie, or mad as hell!
Chalmers didn’t see why an uploaded brain couldn’t be conscious. He opined that there’s no difference in principle between neurons and silicon.
Watch this space, and don’t forget to leave a note where to find your memory stick…