Horizon CDT Research Highlights

Research Highlights

Mind Uploading - Whole Brain Emulation and the Creation of a Substrate Independent Mind: A Road Map for the Individual and Society

  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 digital computer) has been a recurring theme in science fiction since the mid 1950’s. The concept of mind uploading has featured in popular TV programmes like Black Mirror (Brooker, Jones & Reisz, 2011-) and Years and Years (Cellan Jones & Shindler, 2019) as well as Netflix's Altered Carbon (Lenic, 2018 -) and Amazon's Upload (Daniels & Klein, 2020-). 

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.

Hence the global community is actively researching mind uploading, or more scientifically, the creation of a Substrate Independent Mind (SIM) via Whole Brain Emulation (WBE). Some scientists believe there are two conceptual routes to WBE: either via neural prothesis or from a preserved brain. The first approach would involve gradually replacing each piece of brain with a prothesis tailored to that individual until the whole brain has been replaced. The other involves preserving an individual brain then via 'scan and copy' obtaining the information necessary to emulate or replicate it. (Sanberg & Bostrom, 2008; The Carboncopies Foundation, 2020. https://carboncopies.org/). 

Many disciplines are engaging with the research including neuroscience, neuroengineering, robotics, physics, computing, psychologists and sociologists and projects are attracting funding of millions even billions from national and international organisations.

However, with mind uploading, there is a paucity of research among the public, possibly because the concept is still very much in the research phase and likely decades from realisation. At the heart of my PhD is the reaction of the public and I am looking to explore their potential journey to mind uploading (or not). The topics are conceptual and futuristic (and hence challenging to research) so I am drawing on two approaches to ensure discussions are relevant, resonant and meaningful.

The first is the creation of a Longitudinal Qualitative Panel where I will work with the same individuals over a one or two year timeframe thus enabling complex concepts and changes in beliefs or attitudes to be fully explored. We will co-create individual journeys using a range of qualitative research methods.

The second is to use memory to enable exploration of a hypothetical journey from current memories to predicted future memories to a world where we can upload or download memories direct via BCI/BMI and ultimately even upload individual minds.

This public research will be related to key developments in neurotechnology and digital technology which will be identified via desk research and multi-disiplinary expert interviews. 

My research will inform and complement existing scientific research on the Road Map to WBE (Sandberg & Bostrum, 2008) and will dovetail with The Carboncopies Foundation's mission to "identify, facilitate and conduct the research which will deliver whole brain emulation".


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