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Mind Uploading

An Argument for the Scientific and Technical Plausibility of Preserving Thoughts Indefinitely

PETER KASSAN’S ARTICLE IN THIS ISSUE OF SKEPTIC argues that the idea of mind uploading is “science fantasy, based on a misunderstanding both of the overwhelming complexity (and our near-total ignorance) of the brain, and of what computer models are.” Do any real neuroscientists believe that mind uploading might be possible? Kassan’s article mentions one that does—me. So I have been given the honor to write this rebuttal.

Any discussion regarding mind uploading must be about what can reasonably be assumed possible in the distant future, not what is achievable today. I am certainly not arguing uploading will be easy, or that it will occur within the next few decades; but I will argue it is a technically achievable, potentially desirable, long-term goal. I will present evidence that current neuroscience models support the possibility. I will cover recent developments in electron microscopy that hint at the technology needed. I will touch on cognitive models that directly support the mind-as-computation hypothesis, and I will delve deep into the consciousness debate. Finally, I will discuss a recently developed method for long-term brain preservation that seems sufficient to support future mind uploading, a fact that makes this discussion not merely academic.

Possible vs. Impossible

Hopefully we can all agree that it is physically possible to one day colonize the planet Mars with vibrant, self-sustaining encapsulated cities. And we can also all agree that such colonization would be incredibly difficult, requiring enormous resources and advancements. If colonization were ever to occur it is reasonable to assume it would take centuries. Reasonable people can disagree on whether Mars colonization is even a desirable long-term goal. They can also disagree on whether the first small self-sustaining colony will be achieved by the year 2050, 2150, or 3050. And they can certainly disagree on how best to prioritize today’s resources with respect to that goal. But it would be unreasonable to level unsupported statements that such colonization is physically impossible, especially in the light of our successful baby steps toward that goal (e.g., landing men briefly on our moon). And it would certainly be unreasonable to ridicule the scientists and engineers (e.g., those at NASA and SpaceX) who, motivated by such lofty long-term goals, have decided to devote their lives to tackling some of the technical obstacles.

Kassan’s argument is analogously structured, asserting that mind uploading is theoretically impossible but backing up his assertion only by pointing out its great technical challenge. His argument ignores the significant “baby steps” that have already been taken (e.g., automated, reliable methods that scan neural tissue at the nanometer scale). Further it ignores the fact that all of today’s neuroscience models are fundamentally computational in nature, supporting the theoretical possibility of mind uploading. Kassan declares “our near-total ignorance of the brain,” a quite inflammatory statement that I find perplexing given neuroscience’s enormous advances just in the past decade. A small counter example: a flurry of papers have recently tested decades old computational models of how memories are formed by genetically tagging (in mice) only those neurons active during a fear memory formation. Optogenetic reactivation of those same “engram” cells was sufficient to recall the memory,1 and to “incept” a false memory,2 and have confirmed long-suspected aspects of the synaptic connectivity underlying memories.3

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About Skeptic

UPLOADING YOUR BRAIN SPECIAL ISSUE: Uploading the Mind to a Computer Mind Uploading: An Argument for the Scientific and Technical Plausibility of Preserving Thoughts Indefinitely by Kenneth Hayworth; Uploading Your Mind Does Not Compute by Peter Kassan; Virtual Immortality: Why the Mind-Body Problem is Still a Problem by Robert Lawrence Kuhn SPECIAL SECTION: What Motivates Extremists? Once Upon a Time: Re-Thinking the Fight Against Extremists by Tina Dupuy; Dealing With Islamism: Trust, Costly Signaling and Forming Moral Teams by Peter Boghossian and James A. Lindsay; Apocalypse Soon?: How Emerging Technologies, Population Growth, and Global Warming Will Fuel Apocalyptic Terrorism in the Future by Phil Torres ARTICLES Paleoanthropology Wars: The Discovery of Homo naledi has Generated Considerable Controversy in this Scientific Discipline by Nathan H. Lents; Charlie Sheen’s HIV Goat Milk Doctor by Harriet Hall, M.D.; Massachusetts: Mass Hysteria Cover Up by Robert E. Bartholomew; Agony and Ecstasy: Were Saint Paul’s Christian Beliefs a Symptom of Epileptic Personality Disorder? by Harry White; In Defense of Anti-Science: Why the Anti-anti-science Movement Has Gone too Far by J. Howard Siegal; The Decline of Intelligent Design: The 10th Anniversary of the Dover Decision and the Demise of Intelligent Design by Donald Prothero COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Flu Shots Facts and Fallacies by Harriet Hall, M.D.;The Gadfly: How Accurate is the “Cycle of Abuse”? by Carol Tavris REVIEW “Sacred Cows: A Lighthearted Look at Belief and Tradition Around the World” by Seth Andrews reviewed by Donald Prothero JUNIOR SKEPTIC: Man-Eating Plants: The Cannibal Tree of Madagascar by Daniel Loxton.