An image from Huxley's "Evidence as to man's place in nature" (Image via)
Humans, if you hadn't already noticed, have stopped evolving. As David Attenborough recently reminded us, our species is the first—by our free will—to remove itself from the process of natural selection, therefore stunting evolution. That, accompanied by Steven Hawking and Elon Musk's theories that robots will supersede human intelligence and become our biggest existential threat, paints a pretty bleak vision of the future.
Neuroscientist Randal Koene has the answer. Instead of allowing robots to become our cold, lifeless overlords, why don't we just become partially robotic ourselves? Koene is currently working on whole brain emulation, the process of being able to upload our minds to a computer. By mapping the brain, figuring out its mechanisms and replicating this activity in code, humans could—theoretically—live on indefinitely.
I recently gave Randal a call to try and get my head around his ideas.
VICE: Hi, Randal. When did you first think: You know what? I'm going to try to upload my brain to a computer?
Randal Koene: When I was 13, I read Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars. Set in the far future, the citizens are immortal. There's a giant central computer that runs the city, which is able to construct and deconstruct people who are stored in memory banks. For me, this was a wonderful exploration of the idea that information is really what distinguishes us, our creations, and our thoughts from the gradual dissipation that is entropy in the universe.
The story was particularly relevant to me at the time because I was keenly interested in exploration and all manner of creative activity. The most frustrating thing was to run out of time. That was, of course, caused by my own limitations; the limited speed of thought and creation, and limited cognitive and physical abilities.
If we think of ourselves as processes interacting with information, this opens up the possibility to transcend those limitations. If you can improve yourself almost arbitrarily then you can push back all boundaries. It took quite a few years to work through those insights and desires enough times to lay bare the feasible approaches to achieving that goal. The thing that makes all of that possible is a "Substrate-Independent Mind."
A SIM is not merely an artificial intelligence, but a re-instantiation of a specific human mind—a human mind downloaded to a computer. Neuroscientists are 99.9% percent convinced that the brain is a mechanism. It is something that computes, something that carries out functions. If you can figure out how it works, you can build a replacement for it. The idea that you can take a small piece of the brain and build a replica for it is very mainstream and well understood. Why not do that with the whole brain? And then why not upload that to a computer so that we can process more data and store it better, the way a computer does, organizing thoughts into folders that we can access whenever we choose?
So, in the future, if we're able to download our brains, will brainless bodies be genetically grown for us? Or will we inhabit a more computer-like environment; a robot, say, or an android?
It would be interesting to inhabit a more virtual world. Or perhaps bodies that aren't built to survive in this environment, but somewhere else, like space. Living on Earth, where we need to breath oxygen, will no longer be necessary. We might have an existence in an environment more like the Cloud.
It's not just a matter of the space we inhabit, but that the biological reasons for mortality vanish. So you could have art projects or science projects that would normally outstrip the lifespan of a normal person.
How do you map the essence of who we are? How do you translate identity to a series of codes?
All of this has something to do with the connectome; the way that neurons connect to other neurons. When you're trying to make a decision, the activity in your brain is being shunted from one place to another. The way these synaptic connections function and the fact that they're made in a specific place will give you a type of memory.
The popular conception of what a memory is differs to the engineering or scientific definition, which is "a previous action that affects a future action." That goes much further than having a memory of the face of your grandmother or what you said two minutes ago.
It goes into all the details of why a concert pianist plays in a certain way, or why an executive would make a particular business decision. The reason is because they have previous experiences alongside a basic layout that's there from their birth, due to their DNA. That does really affect everything about your personality—all the characteristics that make you, you.
Will an uploaded mind be self-aware? Will it have consciousness?
I believe that all of what we manifest—all of our brain activity, everything we experience—is due to the way the brain functions. This includes self-awareness. Being aware of what's going on around you and the way you are and what you are is an experience. An experience is a mechanism, a processing happening inside your brain. So if you make a copy of all of that processing, then I'm convinced that copy will include self-awareness.
A Nao humanoid robot. Photo by Jiuguang Wang via
What about things like humor or empathy?
If you have an exact copy of the entire brain and you aren't leaving out the parts that are involved with emotions, then why wouldn't you have humor, why wouldn't you have empathy? You would have the same sense of humor in your substrate independent mind as you do in reality. Having a sense of humor is just a certain way of processing activity that goes through your brain, just like the concert pianist who plays Beethoven in a certain way.
If I uploaded my mind to my computer, would the real me and my computer be able to share thoughts?
It might be possible in the future. You'd need to have enough access to the brains in both instances to create a channel—something like a radio communication between individual sets of neurons—so you could get an image that someone is seeing to automatically appear as activity in the neurons of the other brain. You can do that sort of thing if you have enough access, which is what my project is all about: getting access.
What's your primary reason for wanting to upload your mind?
I think the main reason is because I believe that humans individually, as well as a species, can benefit enormously from greater adaptability. The way our information technology is developing means there are now vast amounts of data streaming through that we cannot comprehend; only, our machines can.
We'll have another life form that we compete with, be it AI or some alien life that we encounter in our explorations, or perhaps other animals that we uplift by increasing their intelligence. If there are other lifeforms that are thinking, that also have goals and that are changing their environment correspondingly, that changes our environment, too. Keeping up with that by adapting can only be positive.
A humanoid TOSY ping pong-playing robot. Photo courtesy of Humanrobo via
How would this existence out of our organic bodies affect sex and reproduction?
I imagine that we'll still want to create offspring, to create new beings that are in some way related to or derived from ourselves, or from groups of us. Sometimes, sexual reproduction might be the way to go, but sometimes there may be other interesting ways to creatively work with others—or not—to develop a new mind, with new characteristics and new physical forms. I suppose there will be much exploration and discovery involved.
I also imagine that we'll still want to experience connections between humans; bonding or intimacy sensations; shared highs that take us out of our ordinary trajectories of thought and feeling—orgasm. Exploration will probably lead to many more ways to achieve that, and different paths that can be taken, so that biological sex is only one of many options. I think this is already happening to some degree.
I think it's highly unlikely that sex and reproduction, in the broader sense of their definitions, would disappear. It's more likely that a vibrant and adaptable species will discover many more variants of both.
How far away are we from uploading the first mind?
A worm's mind has already been uploaded, but their brains work in a very different way to mammals. But, in ten years, I think it'll be possible to upload the mind of a fruit fly. From thereon, the human brain is a little hard to predict, but I really hope it will be in my lifetime.
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