If you could transfer your mind into a body that needs no sleep, suffers no pain, is made entirely of replaceable parts, and might allow you to live forever, would you? Add to the bargain a vastly improved IQ and the ability to retain everything you learn. It's the promise of mind uploading -- the transfer of a human mind into a computer -- and it may be feasible during the lifetime of today's teens. The implications are profound, and reach into every aspect of who we are and what we are capable of.
Two research projects now ramping up promise to vastly increase our knowledge of the human brain. The E.U. recently announced massive funding for the Human Brain Project, which aims to use computers to simulate a complete human brain. In the United States, we have the Brain Activity Map Project, a Human Genome Project for the brain.
Both projects are marvelously ambitious. If the Human Brain Project fully achieves its goal, our species will have created a mind on par with its own -- a computer sufficiently sophisticated to think and feel as we do. The project's ten-year timeline is aggressive, but it's just a matter of time, it seems, before we invent a computing platform that can host a conscious mind.
Meanwhile, brain-mapping researchers are advancing techniques to expose its inner workings. Put the two together, and you have the potential to map an individual's entire mental state, encode it, and transfer it to a computer-based brain.
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Hosting a person's mind on a computer unleashes a staggering new set of capabilities. Our very concept of what it means to be human is about to change.
Want to be in two places at once? Create a copy of yourself. The two of you can go your separate ways and merge memories when it's over.
Don't want to die? Take a snapshot of your mental state and store it somewhere safe. In case of disaster, you have the ultimate life-insurance policy: the ability to restore from backup.
Trying to kick a bad habit, and wishing you had a little more willpower? Upgrade your prefrontal cortex.
The possibilities are the stuff of science fiction, but they aren't all rosy. Not everyone will be able to upload, due to limited computing resources, and it's not difficult to imagine a new kind of divide between haves and have-nots. The affluent ruling classes will presumably be the first to upload. For them, the problems of the biological world could soon be forgotten. Drought, disease, declining biodiversity -- none of these can reach the ivory towers of a virtual existence, so long as the computing centers are safe. In theory, a computer brain needs nothing but power and replacement parts. Digital life will have a far narrower set of dependencies on the planet's resources, affording the ruling classes an unprecedented degree of isolation from the worries of the poor. Virtual worlds could become the ultimate gated communities, setting the scene for a class war between the uploaded and those of us left to battle old-fashioned biological problems.
If history is any indication, we will learn to live with such inequities, and the advancement of computer-based brains will continue. Enhancements to memory, analytical thinking, and creativity will allow for levels of intelligence and comprehension we can't conceive of today. As the engineers of our own minds, it follows that we will also be able to repair them. Psychological disorders may be "cured" by technicians, through direct manipulation of the underlying mechanisms. Even base instincts that amplify our vanity, greed, fear, and jealousy may be something we can tone down and fine-tune. Imagine a society free of addiction, abusiveness, and criminal inclination.
Biological evolution is an iterative process, driven primarily by the limiting factors of environment. Are we ready for a quantum leap in human evolution? In transitioning our minds to a machine we created, we will be jumping the tracks of evolution we've been on since life began, nearly four billion years ago. Basic improvements to the structure of life no longer need be generational; they can take place in the individual. This represents a shift from reactive design to directed design -- intelligent design, if you will, where we are the designers.
Science aims to expand our knowledge of self and universe. The pace of discovery is already rapidly increasing... just wait until we jailbreak our brain, the engine of discovery. Learning will accelerate exponentially. We will also escape many physical limitations: space travel, for example, becomes much simpler when the astronauts are on a flash drive. Or better, once you have a server on the other end, you can export your brain to disk and FTP it across the galaxy. Assuming we have good system administrators, immortality could become a reality, preventing the loss of wisdom and understanding that occurs with the passing of each generation.
Those who believe humans have a soul will ask whether a man-made machine can also have a soul. Some religious groups will feel there can be no divinity in a man-made machine, and will forbid uploading. Others may conclude that the soul transcends the flesh, remaining with the individual through his or her reincarnation into a computer-based life form. One could even argue that the essence of a person, captured in patterns that can be conveyed from one body to another, is itself the soul.
I can think of no invention with greater potential to reshape the human experience -- but will we be ready? My concern is not about the technology itself, or whether we're taking it too far. To my mind, the worst outcome would be to turn uploading into a taboo, shutting down mainstream research and leaving this advancement to those willing to defy society and pursue their work in secret. Today's visionaries, spiritual leaders, and science-fiction writers must endeavor to imagine new realms of possibility, engage in open and rational debate, and lay the groundwork for a new set of ethics. The perils are real. But we can't let dramatic fears of a world enslaved by computers create a boogeyman of the same technology that could unlock such boundless potential.