Horizon CDT Research Highlights

Research Highlights

Mind uploading: Neuroscience to Narrative - 'the journey of a lifetime'

  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. 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 has been 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; Carbon Copies, 2020. https://carboncopies.org/). 

Many disciplines are engaging with the research including neuroscience, neuroengineering, robotics, physics, computing, psychologists and sociologists 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 you might imagine this research is contentious and has sparked many philosophical debates around such topics as the mind-body problem, whether the mind is an emergent function of the brain as well as personal identity and consciousness. These issues continue to be debated and will inform my own research.  

Over the last few decades rapid developments in robotics, AI, nanotechnology and quantum computing have contributed to a society where smart, connected technology such as wearables and biometrics are not just adopted but embedded in our lives.

However, that is not to say that all new technological advances are welcomed. A nationally representative sample of the UK conducted earlier this year looked at public attitudes to digital technology, including facial recognition and AI decision making. This study revealed noticeable concerns around ‘technology driven harms’ and found only half felt optimistic about future technology’s impact on individuals and society (doteveryone, 2020. https://www.doteveryone.org.uk/).

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 to the hypothetical concept and I am looking to explore their potential journey or narrative to mind uploading (or not) and maybe a digital life in virtual worlds. 

Since this work is conceptual and futuristic, I am exploring innovative tools techniques such as VR collaborative hubs, narrative, ContraVision (Mancini et al, 2010), music and theatre (Nisker, 2010). Much of my research is likely to be qualitative although quantitative research could analyse how factors such as demographics and psychometrics (e.g. age, education, morality, spirituality/religion), together with familiarity with and favourability to, technological advances may influence views on mind uploading.

My research will provide unique insight into the public’s perception of and reaction to mind uploading and highlight the use of innovative methods to present and evaluate novel, technological concepts. It will inform scientific discussion by identifying people's hopes, such as immortality or leaving a legacy for loved ones to interact with, as well as fears around mind uploading and 'neuro rights' such as the potential for 'mind slavery' and 'mind privacy'. 

Imagine a future world where multiple minds exist in a virtual world and are interconnected in the same way we currently share data. Ask yourself - would you want to live there?


References & Further Reading:

Brooker, C., Jones, A., Reisz, B. (Executive Producers). (2011-). Black Mirror [Television series]. Zeppotron for Endemol. https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/70264888

Carbon Copies, 2020. https://carboncopies.org/

Cellan Jones, S., & Shindler, N. (Executive Producers), (2019-). Years and Years [Television series]. RED Production Company (a STUDIOCANAL company). https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000539g 

Daniels, G., & Klein, H. (2020-). Upload [Television series]. Amazon Prime. https://www.amazon.com/Upload/dp/B0858YGKZ4

Ings S., (May 2018). “Evading death and mind uploading: The ambition of transhumanism”, New Scientist https://institutions-newscientist-com.ezproxy.nottingham.ac.uk/article/2168294-evading-death-and-mind-uploading-the-ambition-of-transhumanism/

Laakasuo, M., Drosinou, M., Koverola, M., Kunnari, A., Halonen, J., Lehtonen, N., & Palomäki, J. (2018). What makes people approve or condemn mind upload technology? Untangling the effects of sexual disgust, purity and science fiction familiarity. Palgrave Communications, 4(1), 1-14.

Lenic, J.G. (Executive Producer). (2018-). Altered Carbon [Television series]. Netflix. https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80097140

Mancini, C., Rogers, Y., Bandara, A. K., Coe, T., Jedrzejczyk, L., Joinson, A. N., ... & Nuseibeh, B. (2010, April). ContraVision: exploring users' reactions to futuristic technology. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 153-162).

Nisker, J. (2010). Theatre and Research in the Reproductive Sciences. Journal of Medical Humanities, 31(1), 81-90. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10912-009-9101-9

Sandberg, A., & Bostrom, N. (2008). Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap Technical Report. Future of Humanity Institute.

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