The Shoddy Science Behind Mind Uploading
How outdated views of the mind are driving the movement to digitize our minds
Some Americans are devoting part of their life insurance toward the prospect of outwitting their death. They are entrusting their bodies — or for some, just their heads — to Alcor, a company which specializes in cryonically preserving human bodies, suspending them from death, with the intention to revive them once we have the futuristic technology to restore their health and integrate them into society. Those who have opted to preserve only their heads seek a different fate — an opportunity for their minds to be scanned and uploaded to a machine much stronger and more capable than their human bodies were.
Upgrading our bodies would also enhance our cognitive abilities. According to Ray Kurzweil, a strong proponent of mind uploading, “An emulation of the human brain running on an electronic system would run much faster than our biological brains.” As proponents envision, the procedure would involve scanning all contents of the brain with high-resolution microscopic receptors, constructing a three-dimensional map (or connectome) of the brain and translating it into the neural code that will run on a new machine.
One question we have to ask is: would scanning the brain exclusively for its information construct a complete picture of our cognition? Before we get into questions of whether extracting this data would simulate our intelligence, or who would own this data, we need to tackle this question — why scan just the brain?
Mind-uploaders are content to discard their bodies, but is that wise? Implicit in this vision of mind uploading is the view that our intelligence, our reason, is independent of the body and its limitations. This view of the disembodied mind dates back to antiquity. According to Plato, “the whole body [is] a disturbing element, hindering the soul from the acquisition of knowledge” (from Phaedo, ca. 360 B.C.E.). Today, this view is echoed in the cultural imagination surrounding mind-uploading, as tech visionaries work to “extract” the mind from the body.
This widely accepted view has persisted for centuries despite falling short of evidence. On the other hand, contemporary theories of the brain recognize the body as a prominent factor in shaping our mental lives. “The body,” cognitive scientist Daniel Casasanto writes, “is an ever-present part of the context in which we use our minds and, therefore, has pervasive influences on the neurocognitive activity that constitutes our thoughts.” In fact, many of the frameworks of our thinking derive from our bodies, such as how we come to understand abstract concepts — like numbers and magnitudes, time, and morality — which we cannot perceive with our senses. And considering how embodied experience influences thinking, we can expect different bodies to exercise different thinking. For instance, right- and left-handers performing the same tasks tend to make opposite judgments about the same objects and create systematically different mental images. On the basis of handedness, Casasanto found staggering cognitive differences. Imagine how acquiring new bodily attributes through technology would afford us a radically diverse array of thinking — the ultimate cognitive enhancement.
Of course, the embodied aspects of our cognition complicate the roadmap for mind uploading — namely, the procedure, as scanning the brain alone would not construct a complete picture of our cognition. What’s most concerning, though, is how tech visionaries have justified overlooking contemporary neuroscience. A common criticism of mind uploading has been that we don’t understand the contents of the brain on a comprehensive level to begin simulating it. Instead of acknowledging this fact as a considerable setback, Anders Sandberg and Nick Bostrom have responded to this criticism by noting that creating a database of all raw data of individuals’ brains and making it readable to a computer would eliminate our need to understand the brain. “It is entirely possible,” they write, “that we could acquire full knowledge of the component parts and interactions of the brain without gaining an insight into how these produce (say) consciousness or intelligence.”
Despite Sandberg and Bostrom’s indifference, it’s imperative that we acknowledge our biological realities if we are to transcend them through technology. We need to approach the possibility of simulating the brain by also considering its relationship to the body. Rational thought goes beyond the mind. As we work to create the conditions for artificial superintelligence, we have to ensure our visions to upgrade the mind are not being driven by outdated views of it.