If there is one thing we learned from recent events, it is that when confronted with death, humans do not merely bow down in defeat. The speed at which coronavirus vaccines are being developed is a testament to this. While we speak of defeating death through vaccines and such, the truth is, we are only delaying the inevitable. Or is it?
Technology researchers are currently eyeing mind uploading as a means to cheat death somehow. However, before you get excited, note that this research area remains muddled with hurdles, controversies, and countless possibilities.
What Is Mind Uploading and How Close Are We to Achieving It?
Mind uploading is the process of scanning a person’s entire mental state and uploading it to a computer. Advocates believe that one’s memories, wisdom, and sense of “self” can be preserved in a computer even as his or her body withers. In essence, you live on—albeit only in the virtual world.
It is not as simple as it sounds, though, because the brain is a complicated organ. The video “How close are we to uploading our minds?” shows just how complex it is.
Achieving mind uploading’s end goal of having versions of humans living in a simulated environment could still be decades away. For now, advocates and believers are focusing on preserving the human brain so that scientists would be able to scan their brains and upload them to a computer one day. Think about it as a high-tech embalming technique that allows scientists to preserve minute details of the human mind.
One tech company that is making noise in this area is Nectome. Aside from winning a US$80,000 prize for doing an excellent job in preserving a pig’s brain, it also preserved a woman’s brain 2.5 hours after her death. While this was a success, the brain was already damaged because of her death.
There is also a waiting list of customers who want to avail of the company’s mind uploading service. These people had to deposit US$10,000 each, so you know how serious they are.
The Gruesome Process
Scientists proved that brain backups could be created with the pig’s and the dead woman’s brains. But to do so successfully, they need the brain to be fresh. So, yes, that means you would die as your mind is preserved. Scientists would need to pump embalming chemicals into your arteries while you are still alive, making the process a version of doctor-assisted suicide.
In fact, Nectome said that it targets terminally ill people to take part in its mind uploading efforts. And so the touchy subject of euthanasia enters the scene.
Euthanasia is only one of the ethical issues surrounding mind uploading. Even when a person is terminally ill, is it right to kill him or her to preserve his or her brain? Sure, they did agree to be euthanized in hopes of getting resurrected in a simulated world. But this hope could be baseless.
Companies like Nectome could fail to deliver on their promise of resurrecting the mind. After all, brain preservation rests in assuming that future scientists could figure out mind uploading. What if they can’t?
But, say, that mind uploading does succeed, and the preserved human brains are given new lives within a computer. Will they be treated as biological human beings and given the same protection and rights? Will they be allowed to own properties, get married, and get custody of children?
These questions and more may sound speculative, but mind uploading is being explored with utmost seriousness. So the ethical issues it presents should also be addressed before it becomes a reality.
Even if scientists scan preserved human brains and upload them, no one can tell what the results would be. Will the uploaded mind and the resulting simulated human be 100% equal to the brain’s owner? Will it feel like waking up after years of sleeping? Or will the simulated human be a new person who lacks the original person’s memories and has his or her thought process?
The uncertainties surrounding this preserve-now-upload-later process and its moral implications have placed Nectome in the hot seat. As a result, its website tagline, “What if we told you we could back up your mind?” has since been changed to “Advancing the science and technology of memory.”
The COVID-19 pandemic amplified the reality of death. Even people in their prime have no choice but to confront it. Some may see mind uploading as a means to live again, even though that future is still very distant and not guaranteed.
For now, what has been proven is that the human brain can be preserved. But whether or not that means creating a backup of your mind and complete mental state is not clear. If you decide to preserve your brain now, you might wake up again centuries from now. Or you may not.