What Does It Take to Upload Your Mind Into Digital Immortality?
Since we invented computers, we’ve been coding our dreams. Need a personal assistant? Say, ‘Hey Google.’ Fancy a transportable movie theater? Netflix got you. Want to slay some nasty vampires? Download The Witcher.
Zeros and Ones seem to hold enough power to grant any wish — and eternal life is no exception.
The idea is simple. Just like you upload pictures to cloud storage, you’d host your mind on a computer. What could you do there? Plug yourself into a spaceship to explore the universe, ride dinosaurs in a simulation, and watch your family tree flourish over millennia.
Cool, right? That’s only a glimpse of where Mind Upload can lead you. But to get there, you’ll have to overcome many obstacles. Ironically, the most challenging one derives from a very ancient question.
What is the human mind?
No one seems to know for sure. At best, we can define a mind by what it does: a bunch of abilities that allow you to be conscious, think, dream, and feel. Mind-upload boils down to creating a digital copy of these functions.
To design this copy, you’ll need to navigate three assumptions that revolve around the pink walnut-shaped organ resting between your ears.
Assumption #1: You are (in) your brain.
Physicalism is a theory that suggests every piece of your mind is physically present in your brain. In other words, all your thoughts and feelings are the result of chemical reactions happening inside your skull.
Though the idea sounds sexy, we still can’t prove it. Why? Concrete proof requires an in-depth inspection of your brain’s structure — which is somewhat like dissecting every inch of a country's map. Picture a country like the United States, only millions of times bigger.
There are 100 billion brain cells dancing inside your head, and each brain cell is a small city. These tiny cities are connected through tons of highways. Scientists call these highways synapses and claim each city has 10,000 of them.
Got the view? Now, let’s throw some trucks on the highways.
The trucks drive from one city to another to carry shipments back and forth. What’s in the shipments? Chemical substances and electrical signals that help brain cells communicate. Depending on the communication traffic, your brain’s cities and highways can expand into metropoles with busy roads or shrink into tiny villages with abandoned ones.
In short, your brain is a hypercomplex 3D map that reshapes itself continuously. That’s why proving physicalism right is no easy task — I mean, good luck fully analyzing every truck, highway, and city.
Okay, so what’s the alternative? Assume physicalism is correct, skip the analysis, and replicate the map without asking questions.
The next step is about how to do it.
Assumption #2: You can create a 3D model of your brain.
In 2019, scientists attempted to create a 3D brain map — and they struggled for two reasons.
One: classic technologies such as FMRI aren’t precise enough to capture the highways and trucks we saw before. Two: there are way too many cities to scan at once. That’s why the researchers had to rely on some next-level high tech scanners and start small. Very small.
First, they took a piece of a rat’s brain the size of a grain of sand. Still, the grain was big enough to contain 100,000 cities (brain cells).
Second, they cut this brain-grain into 25,000 extremely thin slices, then displayed them under five electron microscopes.
Time out, one second here.
You ought to know that an electron microscope can detect objects that are roughly a million times thinner than one human hair. I told you, next-level high tech.
Okay. Let’s resume.
These brain scientists ran the high-tech microscopes without interruption for five months. The process gave birth to 100 million images, and assembling these images into a 3D model took another twelve weeks. The whole data set occupied 2 million gigabytes.
If you want to host these images for free on Google Drive, you’ll need 134,000 different accounts.
In case you forgot, these 2 million gigabytes represent a grain of a rat’s brain. For yours, you’d need 2 billion gigabytes — or 2 million petabytes if you want to sound fancy.
Since this number is too big to conceptualize, imagine a dozen buildings filled with giant hard-disks. Got the view? Let’s add some details.
But more details mean more data, so instead of a dozen storage buildings, picture an entire city. Once you build the latter, you’ll be left with one final requirement.
Remember, the current brain scan technology requires you to cut your brain into thin slices first. It would be tricky to do it and breathe at the same time. Even if you sign a scan-my-brain-after-I-am-gone paper, you won’t be sure to make it to the digital afterlife. You still need a final digital touch.
Assumption #3: You can transform your brain scan into an algorithm.
Scans are like pictures. They represent something in a given moment — they don’t move nor evolve. Videos don’t do the trick either since they’re barely a recording. To bring your brain’s digital copy to life, you need to make it dynamic and autonomous — like artificial intelligence.
Luckily, algorithms do just that. Hold up, what’s an algorithm anyway? It’s a set of actions that lead from point A to point B according to specific rules and instructions.
Fancy definitions aside, algorithms are something you use every day — particularly in your kitchen. When you cook an apple pie, you’re following an algorithm called a recipe. Even simpler, adding sugar to coffee is also an algorithm.
Now, what do algorithms have to do with your mind?
Turing, what? “[A Turing machine is] a hypothetical machine that can simulate any computer algorithm, no matter how complicated it is.”
In other words, the theory claims we can replicate a human mind using algorithms like the sugar-in-coffee one — only much more sophisticated.
But once again, we’re not even close to having tangible proof. As we saw before, we’re still struggling to scan a static image of a brain grain, let alone translate its functions into code.
Don’t lose heart, though.
There are other options. One of them is to create a smart autonomous algorithm —like Google and Alexa — based on a simplified version of your mind.
Wait, what was a ‘mind’ again?
Digital immortality may take more than a lifetime.
Though the three assumptions seem plausible and theoretically attainable, our technologies are still lagging far behind. At least for now.
That being said, the science of mind upload is real and worth pursuing.
Along the way, we might get better at scanning our bodies to detect illnesses. Maybe we’ll discover one hack or two about getting smarter and happier, and perhaps one day, we’ll even understand what consciousness is.
Until then, make sure to enjoy the real you because your eternal digital copy is still loading.