Your Mind Uploaded Into a Computer Would Not be You

Original Article

Man, who is born of woman, is short-lived and full of turmoil. Like a flower he comes forth and withers. He also flees like a shadow and does not remain. — Job 14:2

The human immortality movement is all the rage among the hyper-rich and supposedly visionary futurists in Silicon Valley. Their goal? Nothing too audacious—just the defeat of death itself.

Transhumanists, as they are often called, pursue several approaches to attaining, if not exactly eternal life, then an indefinite existence. Some aim at radically extending life expectancy through biotechnology, such as by overcoming cellular aging, manufacturing cloned organs to replace worn-out body parts, and using stem cell therapies. But the most prominent transhumanist immortality proposal these days aims to upload our minds into computers, enhanced with artificial intelligence capabilities, whence we can “live” in the Cloud or as cyberbeings.

The resulting computer program of this “mind uploading” would theoretically be a mental clone of the human being from which it was derived — displaying the same personality, long-term memory, likes, dislikes, and so on. Some world-renowned scientists and futurists fully expect researchers to develop the technology to accomplish this feat in the first half of this century. For example, University of Manchester particle physicist Brian Cox recently posited that a “technical singularity” will soon bring to fruition the age-old dream of killing death. In a story published by the Daily Mail, Cox explained:

Technological singularity is a technique that experts believe could be used in the future to convert someone’s mind into digital data and “upload” it into an immensely powerful computer. This would allow you to live in a world of unbounded virtual experiences and effectively achieve immortality.

This raises the questions of whether it would really be you having these “virtual experiences,” and whether this uploaded mind should be considered “living.” I answer “no” to both.

CUNY professor of theoretical physics and popularizer of science Michio Kaku predicts that we will one day learn to “download the personalities of ourselves or loved ones into computers as an avatar” and “communicate with them as if they [were] still here. They would, in effect, become immortal.” Not so. We would have created very sophisticated memorials, more akin to photographs or videos than to the living selves of the deceased.

Still, tech companies and billionaire investors are putting their money where their predictions are. Google’s Ray Kurzweil has repeatedly claimed that we will be able to upload our minds into computers and achieve immortality, a feat he predicts could happen as soon as 2029. The 2045 Initiative hopes to accomplish the great goal by the year in its name. Founded by Russian tech billionaire Dmitry Itskov in February 2011, the organization believes that by 2025—only seven years from now—scientists will have invented a way for the dead to remain alive in cyberspace. From the Initiative’s website: “Creation of an autonomous life-support system for the human brain linked to a robot, avatar, will save people whose body is [sic] completely worn out or irreversibly damaged. Any patient with an intact brain will be able to return to a fully functional bodily life [in cyberspace].” Ten years later, the Initiative projects, we will see the “creation of a computer model of the brain and human consciousness with the subsequent development of means to transfer individual consciousness into an artificial carrier.” By 2045, the Initiative expects nothing short of the emergence of an entirely new human life form:

This is the time when substance-independent minds will receive new bodies with capacities far exceeding those of ordinary humans. A new era for humanity will arrive! Changes will occur in all spheres of human activity—energy generation, transportation, politics, medicine, psychology, sciences, and so on. . . . One thing is clear however: humanity for the first time in history, will make a fully managed evolutionary transition and eventually become a new species.
Enough. Let’s put our feet back on the ground. You alive, with your mind or personality uploaded somehow into a sophisticated computer software system, is not another living “you.” And most certainly, you dead, with your mind or personality uploaded somehow into a sophisticated software system, is still you dead.

Real life requires a living body. An electronic avatar doesn’t qualify. Nor does an AI robot or other form of “artificial carrier.”

This is easier to comprehend, perhaps, for traditional theists who believe that human beings consist of both soul and body. Surely, the soul as incorporeal essence is not capable of being digitized or uploaded. Without a soul, whatever the computer program might express would merely impersonate life.

This is likewise the case if the materialists are right and there is no soul. The totality of our physical existence is far more than the sum of our measurable thoughts or the pattern of neural synapses firing in the brain. We don’t just think in the way a computer calls up programs. We also feel. Our emotions change our bodies and our bodies affect our emotions as all three affect our life’s course. Such entirely subjective and infinitely complex events would not be replicable by even the most sophisticated AI computer. They can only be partially mimicked. As Duke University neurologist Miguel Nicolelis told the BBC: “You cannot code intuition; you cannot code aesthetic beauty; you cannot code love or hate. There is no way you will ever see a human brain reduced to a digital medium. It’s simply impossible to reduce that complexity to the kind of algorithmic process that you will have to have to do that.”

Bottom line: Seeking eternal life via the uploading of our minds is like searching for the Holy Grail. Even if some sort of thought-uploading can one day be accomplished, the resulting computer programs would no more be you than the animatronic Lincoln in Disneyworld’s Hall of Presidents is the real Honest Abe.

As Solomon put it so wisely, there is a time to be born and a time to die. Let us judge our life not by its length but by what we do with the limited time we are given.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.