BRITTA PEDERSEN/AFP/GettyImages
Show Hide image

Could technology hold the key to immortality?

A new movement is asking if uploading our brains to computers could help humans live forever.

The ConversationPeople have always dreamed about going beyond the limitations of their bodies: the pain, illness and, above all, death. Now a new movement is dressing up this ancient drive in new technological clothes. Referred to as transhumanism, it is the belief that science will provide a futuristic way for humans to evolve beyond their current physical forms and realise these dreams of transcendence.

Perhaps the most dramatic way transhumanists believe that technology will transform the human condition is the idea that someone’s mind could be converted into digital data and “uploaded” into an immensely powerful computer. This would allow you to live in a world of unbounded virtual experiences and effectively achieve immortality (as long as someone remembers to do the backups and doesn’t switch you off).

Yet transhumanists seem to ignore the fact that this kind of mind-uploading has some insurmountable obstacles. The practical difficulties mean it couldn’t happen in the foreseeable future, but there are also some more fundamental problems with the whole concept.

The idea of brain uploading is a staple of science fiction. The author and director of engineering at Google, Ray Kurzweil, has perhaps done the most to popularise the idea that it might become reality – perhaps as soon as 2045. Recently, the economist Robin Hanson has explored in detail the consequences of such a scenario for society and the economy. He imagines a world in which all work is carried out by disembodied emulations of human minds, running in simulations of virtual reality using city-size cloud computing facilities.

It’s a short step from the idea that our minds could be uploaded, to the notion that they already have been and that we are already living in a Matrix-style computer simulation. Technology entrepreneur Elon Musk recently revived this discussion by arguing the chance that we are not living in a computer simulation was only “one in billions”. Of course, this is just a technological revival of the idea that reality is an illusion, which has been discussed by philosophers and mystics for hundreds of years.

But there are some serious problems with the idea that we could upload our minds to a computer. To start with, the practical issue: our brains each have trillions of connections between 86 billion or so neurons. To replicate the mind digitally we would have to map each of these connections, something that is far beyond our current capabilities. With the current speed of development of computers and imaging technologies, we might be able to do this in a few decades but only for a dead and sectioned brain.

More than molecules

Yet even if we could create such a “wiring diagram” for a living brain, that wouldn’t be enough to understand how it operates. For that we’d need to quantify exactly how the neurons interact at each of the junctions, and that’s a matter of molecular-level detail. We don’t even know how many molecules are in the brain, let alone how many are vital for its functions, but whatever the answer it’s too many to replicate with a computer.

This points us towards a deeper conceptual difficulty. Just because we can simulate some aspects of the way the brain works, that doesn’t necessarily mean we are completely emulating a real brain, or indeed a mind. No conceivable increase in computer power will allow us to simulate the brain at the level of individual molecules. So brain emulation would only be possible if we could abstract its digital, logical operations from the messy molecular level detail

To understand the operations of a man-made computer, we don’t need to keep track of the currents and voltages in every component, much less understand what every electron is doing. We’ve designed the switching operations of the transistors so there’s an unambiguous mapping from the state of the circuits to the simple digital logic of ones and zeros. But no-one designed a brain – it evolved – so there is no reason to expect any simple mapping of its operations to digital logic.

Dangerous idea

Even if mind uploading is an impossible dream, some might argue that it does no harm to imagine such possibilities. Everyone at some point must fear their own mortality, and who am I to argue with the many different ways people have of dealing with those fears?

But transhumanism’s mixing of essentially religious ideas with scientific language matters because it distorts the way we think about technology. Transhumanism tends to see technology as a way to grant all our wishes. And this is often justified by the argument that technology will inevitably drive human development in a positive direction.

Yet this distorts our scientific priorities and gets in the way of us making sensible choices about developing the technologies we need to solve our very real current problems. Brain uploading is a great premise for speculative fiction, but it’s not a good basis for talking about the future.

 

Richard Jones is the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation at the University of Sheffield.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

John Moore
Show Hide image

The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.