Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Upload What?


I was ignoring a noisy and hyperactive movie ad on TV, when it said something that got my attention. It was a comment about a character wanting to escape by “uploading his consciousness.”

I’ve been seeing this phrase for well over a dozen years. I read it in magazine and newspaper articles quoting scientists, and in books and journals. I’ve heard it often at conference talks.

If fact, the phrase is so common, I’d be very surprised if you’ve never heard it. On the other hand, I’m equally sure you haven’t heard any detailed discussion as to how it could be done. Nor have you heard any serious debates about its plausibility.

What does it mean to upload one’s consciousness? Clearly, the intent is to perpetuate the person in some non-biological digital form. This raises big questions, but I’ll start with what and how.

The first problem with what is, does anyone seriously believe a person is only their consciousness? Do they think they could omit the non-conscious part of their mind and still be a person?

Limiting a person to nothing more than their consciousness is a shortcut to insanity. Minds cannot function without sleep (or dreams). All right, give them the benefit of their intentions and assume they mean all of the mind when they say consciousness.

The how is the bigger problem. Exactly how to specify what it is they want to upload? We know a great deal about the brain, but next to nothing about how the mind arises from the brain.

This is so difficult, it is known as the hard problem. Okay, let’s skip it and just try to upload the brain. Can we digitally replicate a fully functioning brain? (And hopefully mind will follow.)

We know a lot, but most of what we know about the brain comes from monitoring its electrical activity. Close, but no cigar. The brain’s electricity is produced by chemical reactions.

Chemistry, specifically calcium ions, are the clue to the functioning of the majority of our brain’s cells. These are the glial cells, the brain’s white matter. Here, we know very little, because chemical reactions are harder to observe than electrical.

Having great computing power doesn’t mean we can do anything. We can’t digitize what we don’t understand in sufficient detail—not consciousness, or mind, or even brain.

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