Horizon CDT Research Highlights

Research Highlights

Creating minds in data; what are the implications of cybernetic immortality?

  Angela Thornton (2019 cohort)

The hypothetical concept of creating a digital replica of an individual human mind and uploading it into an artificial carrier (such as a quantum computer) has been a recurring theme in science fiction since the mid 1950’s. However, while it is not yet science fact, breakthrough discoveries such as new tools for mapping neuronal connections, high resolution imaging and growth in nanoscience and computing, means that many scientists believe that it is theoretically possible - albeit decades away.

While this has sparked philosophical debates about the difference between the brain, mind and consciousness, such discussions have not prevented the global scientific community actively researching mind uploading. The Human Brain Project, The Mind Uploading Research Group, BRAIN Initiative and the 2045 Strategic Social Initiative are just a few such organisations. Disciplines engaging with the research include neuroscience, neuroengineering, robotics, physics and computing. Interested individuals include Ray Kurzweil (Google) and Elon Musk (Tesla) and projects are attracting funding streams of millions even billions from national and international organisations (as well as individuals like the Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov).

As with the mapping and modelling of the brain this PhD project will build from the ground up taking as a starting point the theoretical assumptions of brain structure. For example, is the brain an Information Processor or a Dynamic Processor and what implications do these models have on mind uploading?

Further to this the different mechanisms of mind uploading will be investigated. These will include whole brain emulation (WBE) vs. whole-brain nanoscale preservation and imaging such as that being trialled by Nectome. The next level of research will evaluate possible upload repositories, for example quantum computers and potential realisations of digital information such as avatars.

Reflecting the multi-disciplinary nature of the scientific experts, the views and experience of neuroengineers, physicists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists and those working in robotics and HCI will be captured by both qualitative interviews and quantitative surveys.

The final stage of the project will be to open the concept out to the general population with the aim of evaluating how different demographics and psychometrics (such as morality, spirituality/religion), together with familiarity with and favourability to, technological advances may influence views on mind uploading.

The project will contribute to academic knowledge by providing a multi-disciplinary treatise of the concept of ‘mind uploading’. Potential themes include the philosophical, spiritual, psychological, sociological, moral, ethical, legal and medical/scientific perspectives together with implications for data protection and privacy. 

The outcomes will consider the impact of mind uploading on the development of humanity both at an individual level and as a species. What is the impact if a person’s consciousness can stay alive after their physical body deteriorates? As a species can we use uploads to protect humanity against a catastrophic event or global disaster? What does it mean if, as the transhumanists predict, we achieve ‘technological singularity’; a world where humans and machines merge by uploading the contents of one’s brain onto a hard drive.


This author is supported by the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Nottingham (UKRI Grant No. EP/S023305/1).