If cyberspace were organized into a giant neural computer...
August 7, 2002 12:29 PM   Subscribe

If cyberspace were organized into a giant neural computer... [NYT, reg req] ...one could in theory "upload" a person's mental software into it: thoughts, feelings, memories, the works. - an interesting sci-fi premise by author john darnton complete with a contemporary 'mad scientist!'
posted by sixtwenty3dc (29 comments total)
in another (hardware) memory related article, so called "ultimate memory works at the atomic level, making possible data storage of extraordinary proportions: ...equivalent to storing the contents of 7,800 DVDs in one square inch of material.
if this eventually becomes the mainstay for memory manufacturers, it would be possible to store a lifetime's worth of video (documenting every minute of your life possible, as previously discussed here) not to mention have serious advances in the realms of artificial intelligence and even the possibility of uploading one's consciousness.
posted by sixtwenty3dc at 12:37 PM on August 7, 2002

I tend to view anyone who takes the possibility of "uploading one's consciousness" seriously as a little sketchy. What is it, exactly, that gets uploaded? How much of our brains are actually structural, as opposed to something that can be written in bytes? My significant other, who has some pretty serious experience in neuropsychology responds to this by saying "uh, no." It doesn't matter what kind of hardware capacity we have if we still don't understand consciousness.

As for the massively compressed atomic memory, I'll be happy with molecular memory in my lifetime.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 1:03 PM on August 7, 2002

Yeah, I don't buy this either. You can store the person's information, theoretically, but not that person's awareness. It would be like cloning someone -- it would seem like the person from the outside, but it wouldn't be that person.

Anyway, there's an X-Files episode with a similiar premise, and also a play by Craig Lucas (maybe The Dying Gaul? I can't remember).
posted by Tin Man at 1:12 PM on August 7, 2002

Interesting premise, but not that original. Very similar, in fact, to my punk rock opera "The Illumination of Marshall McLuhan," although I cheated on the transfer issue and had space aliens do that part. (Ah, deus ex machina, where would opera be without it?) I stole the idea from Gibson, who I suspect was inspired by "Spock's Brain."

On preview, that's exactly the problem, monju_bosatsu. Although it must be asked, why can't the structure be represented as well?

The further question occurs to me: how would you know that it's you in there? I have the same difficulty with the Star Trek transporter. Even assuming that what steps out the other end is an atom for atom copy, complete with experience and personality, what happened to the person that was disintegrated? My personal suspicion is that without the continuity of the flesh, a new person is created (even if functionally identical to the old one) and the old one dies.
posted by alex_reno at 1:20 PM on August 7, 2002

I have been dead since December, 1995. Doesn't seem to bother me all that much.
posted by briank at 1:24 PM on August 7, 2002

Your friendly neighborhood crossreference: lots and lots and lots of discussion on mind uploading and related subjects in this thread.
posted by ook at 1:29 PM on August 7, 2002

Arthur C. Clarke has a similar concept in 3001: Final Odyssey, where the 31st Century human race goes around with neural "braincaps" under their wigs to facilitate the transfer of data between people.

"Hi, honey! How was your day at school?"
"Hi, mom! Here; I'll upload you the memories of recess."

posted by brownpau at 1:30 PM on August 7, 2002

Well, thanks for clearing that up, briank. If you can't whup 'em, go down!
posted by alex_reno at 1:35 PM on August 7, 2002

This is a good book on the subject, with a lot of the influential philosophy papers in the field (including Spock's Brain referenced above, as well as stuff by Turing, et al): The Mind's I, edited by Hofstadter and Dennett.

Also just finishing The Age of Spritual Machines by Kurzweil, which has lots of "uploading of brains" stuff.

Note: I was sitting at half.com when I was reading this thread. No preference on my part where you buy it, but I'm sure it's worth the $2.99 price.
posted by zpousman at 1:38 PM on August 7, 2002

This assumes that the brain is just a digital computer, and that we can mimic that structure with digital simulation. Some folks have proposed that the fluctuation of neural gates on the surface of brain cells may be adding an additional level of complexity; the brain may act as a type of quantum computer. If this is the case, we may simply not have the technology to duplicate the functions of a human mind quite yet.
posted by toothgnip at 1:56 PM on August 7, 2002

The transferring consciousness into a vessel or piece of technology theme dates back to at least H.P Lovecraft, with his "Whisperer in Darkness", published in 1931, and probably much earlier. See "Frankenstein", also.
posted by jokeefe at 2:11 PM on August 7, 2002

hmm, this sounds like an x-files episode i saw a few years back ...

*hums twilight time*
posted by ursamajor at 2:17 PM on August 7, 2002

Ultimately the brain is (I'm putting mysticism firmly on the shelf here for a bit) merely composed of atoms. The position and composition of atoms can be recorded, but not in any manner helpful with current technology. Like so many other promising ideas, this one itself gets placed on the shelf of 'things to do when we have nanotechnology working and trustworthy.'

What to do when nanotechnology gets here to make it ACTUALLY you, with no interruption of conscious experience, and not just a mental clone, seems obvious. The simplified version is: cap off every synapse in the mind with small nano-mechanical 'gates' that can allow normal impulse-passing, disallow it, pass an impulse from a remote source, or absorb an impulse and pass it to a remote source. Once this step is accomplished, it becomes trivial to isolate a single synapse, make a 1:1 virtual copy of it on a machine, and forward all synaptic activity to a virtual 1:1 molecular copy residing on a machine. You could even hone your model of arbitrary neural clusters by running parallel checks between expected and actual result on the machine.

The end result is, upon completion of the virtual model the person to be 'uploaded' is presented with an interface which represents the current %age balance of synaptic activity occurring in the flesh and in the machine. He is allowed to adjust this interface to see if 'how' he thinks changes and to make him comfortable with the concept. Eventually the user will change to 100%, at which point input sources to the brain can be safely switched over to a user-customizable 'virtual reality' (gag). The now braindead body can be discarded or interred somewhere nicely cryogenic for future downloading. The virtual mind molecular simulation would of course have to be run on redundant machines with multiple one-minute backups in several locations (preferably a few off-planet and eventually out-system using particle-spin-based communication).

That's a wild and dangerous oversimplification, but it'll do for addressing the objections raised to the basic concept I've seen thus far in the thread save the brain-as-quantum-computer claim.
posted by Ryvar at 2:36 PM on August 7, 2002

hmm, this sounds like an x-files episode i saw a few years back ...

my favorite part of that episode was how the FBI agents could differentiate a T1 line from any other mere cable by simply looking at it on a telephone pole from a distance of 30 feet. They must know that my Airport Base Station is running without encryption too.
posted by machaus at 2:38 PM on August 7, 2002

Somehow mysticism seems more probable than Ryvar's plan.
posted by goethean at 3:39 PM on August 7, 2002

I think toothgnip has it. Our wetware understanding lags millenia behind our computer-related tinkering.

Of course, it could be a great scam: here, let me "upload" you (while your body is supposedly preserved, but really sold for parts). Oops, it's not really you, but just some sham AI that's reasonably good at pretending to be you to fool people for awhile? So sorry, too bad.
posted by beth at 4:31 PM on August 7, 2002

That certainly isn't my personal plan nor one authored by me. Nor is the one linked, but I've read a few different proposals on the topic, and my post is a sort of mishmash of the better answers I've encountered while doing so.

I'm interested, though, in what you specifically find 'improbable'?
posted by Ryvar at 4:49 PM on August 7, 2002

I'll second zpousman's Mind's I recommendation -- lots of interesting essays there with such speculation as, what if we replace one neuron at a time? --> What if we *pretend* to, but actually build a duplicate? Etc.

As for the "what the f IS awareness, anyway" question, there's some cool articles on philosopher David Chalmers' site, of which the one about the "hard" problem is especially insightful.
posted by cps at 5:03 PM on August 7, 2002

Evolved systems, such as the brain, tend to take advantage of all possible beneficial interactions, and we don't yet know what all those interactions are. Until we do, and have the ability to replicate them electronically, a scan of a human brain will just be data, no more conscious than a photograph. Evolution can be incredible subtle, as it is entirely non-prejudicial in choosing how to get things done, and has no qualms about exploiting obscure quantum effects as well as more crude chemical and electrical ones.
posted by Nothing at 5:26 PM on August 7, 2002

Nothing: ultimately those interactions take place between discrete units of which the brain is composed - and which can be isolated. Furthermore, those interactions are purely chemical (even emotional ones) as far as we can currently tell, and the nanotechnology necessary to scan in a mind at the molecular level would certainly allow us to determine if the brain just 'happens' to not adhere to the laws of chemistry for no explicable reason. Until such a phenomenon is observed, there is no reason to assume its presence.
posted by Ryvar at 6:12 PM on August 7, 2002

The most interesting argument I've heard against the "uploading" idea is the "embodied mind" idea. I'm not sure I really understand all of it, but the basic idea is that you can't separate the mind from the body and upload it somewhere else, because the mind does not exist independently of the body. The mind is just the body's way of reacting in real-time to internal and external sensations.

This is not a mystical idea -- you don't have to go over to Chalmers' vague feeling that there has to be a "something else". It's basically the same as Rod Brooks' approach to building robots that have no internal representations -- they are just bodies that interact with the world.

This idea is being approached by different people from different directions. Antonio Damasio takes it from a neuroscience perspective, claiming that emotions are physical responses in the body, and consciousness is just the awareness of these physical changes, kind of a "MetaBody". George Lakoff, who comes at it from philosophy, sounds to me sometimes like he's denying that the mind even exists. In his latest book he says "there are no thoughts that have an existence independent of bodies and brains". Francisco Varela argues from a Buddhist perspective that there is no self , just the awareness of your body and your surroundings.

I'm not sure I agree with all of this, and there's lots more out there that I don't even understand. But it makes sense to me that our software cannot be separated from our wetware and ported to a transistorized body, because there is no software. Ryvar's hard materialist version of uploading would require you to emulate not just the synapses, but also all the body and all its interactions with world. The only simulation that can capture all the details of physical reality in real-time is the physical world itself.
posted by fuzz at 7:02 PM on August 7, 2002

Anyway, there's an X-Files episode with a similiar premise

hmm, this sounds like an x-files episode i saw a few years back ...

Jeez, do people even read through the threads anymore? :-)
posted by Tin Man at 7:11 PM on August 7, 2002

Ryvar, I've given it some thought, and I don't see any obvious problems with that scenario. The technology is a fair way in the future, but if I want to accept a mechanistic explanation of the mind, and I do, I think I have to accept that. How would you tell if half your synapses were being simulated?

And Fuzz, I believe Ryvar's explanation addresses those issues. With nanotechnology, it would be possible to sample the body to such a degree that any non-brain effects could be simulated.

To call the mind software that runs on the brain is, as you point out, likely incorrect. However, to model the brain, and its inputs, is different. In this case we should think of the synapes and the way they fire as data, not software.

Wow, this thread has given the geeky programmer in me all kinds of ideas. An afterlife through science! Who'd a thunk it? And with a convincing explanation, something Gibson and Egan never provided...
posted by alex_reno at 8:44 PM on August 7, 2002

While physicalism has the allure of simplicity, it does have its problems.

My personal suspicion is that without the continuity of the flesh, a new person is created (even if functionally identical to the old one) and the old one dies.

I've also had problems with the idea of a Star Trek transporter. I think I'm leaning towards the idea that it is memory, and not our physical bodies that gives continuity (or at least what we take to be continuity) to our existence. So we may experience moment-to-moment annihilation, but just not be aware of it, or not care, so long as everything seems to fit smoothly together in retrospect. I'm still uncomfortable with the idea of being vaporized and reassembled elsewhere, though.
posted by alphanerd at 9:26 PM on August 7, 2002

If I manage to simulate every atom, subatomic effect, force, and process in your brain, your body, and the room you're in, does that upload your mind to the simulation? And where do you draw the boundary of what you have to simulate? It's meaningless to talk about transferring your embodied mind out of the space and the moment that it currently exists in, because that space and that moment is who you really are.
posted by fuzz at 9:28 PM on August 7, 2002

posted by dopamine at 10:09 PM on August 7, 2002

...does that upload your mind to the simulation?

Within the context of Ryvar's explanation, it would. On the other hand, if you managed to somehow do this without my involvement, you would end up with a copy of me.

Ryvar details a process whereby you could transfer your mind, bit by bit, with a bailout option if you felt it wasn't working. I agree that there is still doubt as to what would happen when you reached 100%. But why would we think that at some particular percentage of simulated synapses, it's no longer the person anymore?

It's meaningless to talk about transferring your embodied mind out of the space and the moment that it currently exists in, because that space and that moment is who you really are.

Asked and answered. However I think that your argument basically boils down to "the flesh is special." Which, if we try kick the ghosts out, it shouldn't be.
posted by alex_reno at 10:31 PM on August 7, 2002

...try [to] kick the ghosts out... D'oh!
posted by alex_reno at 10:37 PM on August 7, 2002

One thing to consider as this thread passes back into oblivion on MeFi, is the following: hold your face up nearly against the screen, and then clunk your head solidly against the glass for me.

Congratulations. You've just killed off a few hundred neurons in your brain from shock. The point? There IS no 1:1 continuity in the brain at any given time, and contrary to previous beliefs it has been demonstrated that neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons) occurs in adult humans. The physical substrate on which our minds exists is ever-changing, losing information to the connection-destroying low-level background electrochemical noise in the mind, and forming new connections as we grasp new topics and fields of study.

As for for 'the space of that moment IS who we are', tell me - do you not go to sleep at night? Do you not wake up with a brain and mind slightly different than when you went to sleep due to your dreams? Of course you do.

Perfect continuity, existence being in the moment, and perfect 1:1 replicas are all concepts that apply only in the theoretical realm. They simply don't exist in the reality of the flesh, so concern over their presence in the digital - while natural - is only warranted to a certain degree.
posted by Ryvar at 11:50 PM on August 7, 2002

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