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Can Consciousness Be Uploaded?

Mind-UploadingIn Arthur C. Clarke’s 1956 novel, The City and the Stars, the residents of Diaspar have their minds stored as information patterns in the city’s Central Computer as they go between lives in cloned bodies. While Clarke’s concept of mind uploading was set a billion years in the future, in a recent interview, author, computer scientist and Artificial Intelligence Scholar Dr. Keith Wiley says actual mind uploading could become a reality much sooner.

Despite his definite belief that that we will one day be able to upload consciousness, Wiley qualifies his optimism by admitting that, in spite of a great deal of research, this potential reality is still a ways off. More progress has been made over the last decade, however, in the philosophical outlook.

“People have been trying to figure this out for awhile. From a research point of view, we haven’t figured it solidly yet, but we’re still figuring out how the brain works,” Wiley said. “From a philosophical view, the main lines of arguments have been advanced to some extent.”

Wiley cited John Searle’s biological theory of consciousness, where consciousness is a type of biological process that we can’t meaningfully conceive outside the biological system. He also noted that the work of Penrose and Hameroff, who (with no allusion to being for or against artificial consciousness) believe it requires a quantum phenomenon in order to produce consciousness. The larger discussion, he adds, usually centers around two questions, the first one being: Can consciousness occur or arise from non-biological systems like computers?

On a different train of thought, the second question is, can an individual person’s identity be re-associated with some other system such as a computer? “Those are separate questions,” Wiley said. “Maybe we can conceive that consciousness really can occur in computers. We can make artificial intelligence that is genuinely conscious and yet we still don’t take the position that any one person’s personality could ever move into a computer system. There are definitely professional, well respected scientists who don’t have the stance that either one of those systems (can occur).”

Wiley argues that one must assume we can replicate consciousness in a computer to make the leap to the idea that a person’s identity can be transferred. It follows then, that consciousness must be unstanchable to a computer in the first place, he said.

In defense of his position that consciousness can work in systems that are not like brains, Wiley notes that we don’t really know what consciousness is, and therefore can’t make the counter argument that uploading a consciousness is not possible. “Because we don’t currently understand how that process works, people often say that to even suggest it is relying on magic and superstition,” he says.

One of the prevailing theories is that consciousness, for reasons we don’t yet understand, emerges out of very complex information passing through networks, but that’s where the tangible concept ends. Even if we don’t know how consciousness works, there is a prevailing philosophical stance that it emanates from this chaotic exchange. Our lack of understanding, however, still creates some doubters.

One philosophical stance that Wiley is quick to rebut is the theory of substance dualism, which states that the brain also needs the soul for the mind to work and that, if you only have one part, you don’t have all the pieces. Given the degradations in neurological and psychological performance associated with brain injuries that we can now observe, and our ability to see how physiological behavior in MRI scans correlate with psychological or behavioral aspects of a subject, he said it’s perfectly clear that the brain is very closely associated with what we call the “mind” or “consciousness”.

Looking forward, Wiley said that, since we’re only at the beginning stages of mapping the brain, significant breakthroughs in mind uploading research are still in the distant future.

The bigger leaps will come from artificial intelligence, and that progress will benefit the larger brain research projects such as the Blue Brain Project, the White House BRAIN Initiative, and others.

“To make computers intelligent, you kinda’ gotta’ do it the way brains do it. The more capable artificial intelligence becomes, the larger role it’s going to play in our brain mapping projects,” Wiley said. “I think we’re just going to be throwing hordes of data at things like Watson to find the statistical interpretations (that will) tell us what is actually going on in the brain. I think AI is going to advance brain research and, in its own way, help bring about mind uploading somewhere down the road.”


About the Author:

Daniel-Faggella-150x150Dan Faggella is a graduate of UPENN’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology program, as well as a national martial arts champion. His work focuses heavily on emerging technology and startup businesses (TechEmergence.com), and the pressing issues and opportunities with augmenting consciousness. His articles and interviews with philosophers / experts can be found at SentientPotential.com


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  • CM Stewart

    Unsettling questions for those who may one day wish to make the leap to a non-brain substrate, or even a non-substrate paradigm. Would you trust that all who made the leap were still “themselves,” or simply duplicates? Would that make a difference to you, and if so why? Here we pick apart the meaning and implications of the word “duplicate.” Is someone identical to you in every way down to the quantum level another “you”? What if the only consideration was an identical consciousness / personality / mind? And if you made the leap to another substrate or paradigm, how would you know you weren’t simply a duplicate? Would the question be meaningless, or would the question nag at you? And of course, there’s always the question of multiple copies of “one” consciousness / personality / mind…

  • Code Wraith

    Seems to me that consciousness is what the brain does. It’s a process.

  • Those pretty much the worst, most basic and most embarrassing mistakes I have ever had on my blog Keith – please accept my sincere apologies! This guest blog post was written by Dan Faggella, and given everything else that’s going on right now – see this https://www.singularityweblog.com/socrates-deconstructs-singularity-university/, I didn’t have the time to read it. We should be able to do a better job than that in the future. Again, please accept my apologies and see if all has been fixed now.

  • It is pretty much the first guest blog article I didn’t track the links from and such total embarrassment. Goes to show me I cannot ever let my guard down on proper editorial review. Apologies again and thanks for catching the mistakes!

  • Keith Wiley

    No worries. Thanks. I’m just glad for the exposure of course.

  • Keith Wiley

    No worries. Thanks again.

  • Keith Wiley

    Much of my writing picks apart this “it’s-just-a-copy” claim that persistently comes up. I don’t put much stock in such claims, and haven’t come across a detailed description of what being “just a copy” actually means in a quantifiable sense. Nevertheless, since such a claim is so prevalent, I have found myself dedicating quite a bit of my writing to arguing against it.

  • CM Stewart

    Yes, the “just a copy” question would be irksome to the “copies” (or duplicates) in a multiple mind scenario. Who would have legal rights, etc…

  • Keith Wiley

    Not just legalities. I don’t agree that there is a metaphysical difference between the two. I don’t think the biological person is *more* the person who entered the procedure than the upload who was produced. I consider them to both be equal descendants of a common ancestral mind. As I put it in my book, they both have “equal primacy in their claim to the original identity”. That’s the philosophical stance I argue for at any rate.

  • CM Stewart

    Imagine one billion original identities created in an “original identity” making machine mishap. Who knows, it may be possible one day.

  • Logan Linthicum

    An oft overlooked facet of mind uploading is the no-cloning theorem. If the mind is a quantum phenomena(an outsider opinion that is gaining ground, my hunch lies with it.) it fundamentally cannot be copied. This does not necessarily rule out mind uploading, though it would likely make it more difficult. It does solve all the worrisome philosophical/legal issues of copies though.

  • Keith Wiley

    My general reply to no-cloning, quantum mechanical challenges to mind uploading (predicated on the assumption that some quantum trait of brains is crucial to the *identity* of a mind and person) is the irrefutable fact that our brains can be quantumly “jumbled” without anyone judging the result as a form of “identity death”. How can I make such a claim? Because that’s precisely what functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) does to the brain. If preserving quantum consistency were a requirement of personal identity, then everyone every time someone got an fMRI, they would conceptually die and be replaced by a doppleganger. But no one regards fMRI as a “death” machine. It is considered a standard medical procedure assumed to impart no neurological (much less metaphysical) damage whatsoever.

  • Logan Linthicum

    That is a far from irrefutable position, I believe. fMRIs and the whole world is a quantum “jumbling” machine. If quantum interactions do underpin consciousness, they must be well-shielded, as the ea wet nature of our skulls would collapse superposition far before it could become biologically relevant. Hameroff suspects topological q-bit error correction, as well as other shielding effects created by the protected interior of the microtubule.

    Bottom line: if cognition makes use of superposition, the interaction must already be well shielded. There is absolutely no way of knowing in advance that an fMRI would defeat this shielding.

  • Keith Wiley

    Well, in all fairness, one could still argue that only *some subset* of the quantum states of the brain are critical to personal identity. Admittedly, that is closer to how Hameroff phrases it. However, a lot of people go whole hog on the quantum identity business, requiring a perfect quantum replica of the entire brain before they will “deem” a mind upload to be a preserved identity. That possibility is utterly refuted by the fMRI example.

    But you’re right, one can still insist on quantum identity (if one prefers, which I see little need for), if one confines such musing to quantum states that are not affected by fMRI since fMRI doesn’t alter *every* quantum state in the brain, only certain ones.

    Alternatively, we can tease apart the issues of consciousness and identity. We could allow consciousness to be quantumly “caused” in some respect (as Hameroff argues for) without necessarily claiming that an upload which differs at the quantum level must necessarily be a different identity. The production of the phenomenon of consciousness is not necessarily tied one-to-one with the concept of personal identity.

  • Logan Linthicum

    Agreed, it could be that quantum states are a sort of generating method for consciousness, but that all the actual structuring of identity is stored classically in the neurel network. In which case, no-cloning does not meaningfully apply to mind uploading.

    I don’t need for identity to be quantum, I just see it as a possibility that is dismissed too readily.

  • Guest

    i am sorry, but for me the copy argument holds. It is not “me”. I still exist. I am still in my body. I will still die with my body. Thus mind uploading is not immortality. Whether a copy of me survives is irrelevant. I must still face the ultimate question is there an existence after death or will I simply cease to exist ? Therefore I see no point. Secondly there is no way of even proving a copy is conscious. It could be a brilliant not conscious copy of me. I have yet to see a viable test of consciousness. I cannot even prove another human being is conscious. I only know that I am conscious. I BELIEVE other humans are conscious because I am. I do not know that this is true. It is conceivable that I am in an virtual reality simulation and the rest of you do not exist and I am the only conscious entity in this world ( I don’t actually believe this is true, but it is entirely possible).

  • Keith Wiley

    Well, that’s why I write about it so much. The thorough arguments exceed any brief presentation or subsequent counterargument. 🙂 I recommend my upcoming paper to be published in JoCS this summer. A nonfinal draft can be found on arxiv (final draft is copyrighted by the journal of course): http://arxiv.org/abs/1504.06320


  • Guest

    I read your article. I don’t think you understand what I am arguing. For the purposes of argument I will assume that we have a way of knowing that the upload is conscious (this is a huge assumption). You make an interesting argument for granting the upload legal status as me once “I” am dead, but completely fail to address the duplicate problem. “I” still exist then I am still conscious and alive in my body. Therefore where there was once one consciousness there are two. Thus my consciousness has not been transferred it has been copied unless you want to argue substance dualism in which case there is one consciousness that controls both the upload and my body i.e. consciousness is a non-local phenomenon. Therefore the original me will still die with my body aka my consciousness will die. Having a consciousness that is a copy of mine in a real sense is not comforting at all. I still face possible non-existence.
    As for the case of the transplanting an individuals left and right hemisphere’s into two different machine bodies then I can only think of two possible options that make sense to me. If consciousness is not a non-local phenomenon then the original consciousness is gone aka dead. If consciousness is a non-local phenomenon then in a real sense that consciousness controls both of the new bodies so in essence they are both the original. Hmm, if consciousness is a non-local phenomenon then in essence I have no problem with uploading ofc again this implies substance dualism so you might have a problem with this reasoning.
    In reality I do not favor uploading in any form including the “ship of thesis” method . I like having a biological body. I don’t want to give it up ever. Anti aging research and nano-technology promise to make this possible for some people maybe even me. I have serious doubts about the ordinary person being offered any of these options even if they are available. In a way this is likely a philosophical question for me. I am unlikely to ever be asked whether I want to be uploaded. Even if uploading becomes possible in my lifetime it won’t be available to me. Most likely only the ultra rich will have this option. I actually think given the nature of technological advances and human nature that I will be lucky to survive the next 20 years despite the fact that I am more intelligent at least by IQ score then 98% of the population even though my natural lifespan should be at least another 60 years especially since even the men in my family can live into their 90’s and the women in my family all live into their 90’s.
    See the problem is that as AI not so gradually destroys most of the jobs available for humans I will be competing with a large number of smarter or as smart people for a smaller set of jobs most of whom will have better connections then I will. While I do believe in my own abilities the odds will be against me. I do not think that the super rich those that will own the robots will share the wealth that’s created with the rest of us. I actually think that Manna by marshall brain , the hunger games by suzanne collins, and a tale of two futures by fedrico pistono, and the movie elysium are all wildly optimistic. I think that the elite are currently in the process of choosing option number one that Ted Kaczinsky gives in his manifesto “If the elite is ruthless they may simply decide to exterminate the mass of humanity. ” . I don’t agree with everything in his manifesto, but he makes some very good points.

  • Keith Wiley

    Simply dismissing preservation of personal identity in the hemispherectomy thought experiment is an insufficient reply. If you would deny preservation in the case that 50% of the brain survives in two separate individuals (with the missing half uploaded for each resulting brain), then you must continue to evaluate the thought experiment. If you allow preservation of identity in a full replacement scenario (as you point out, this is commonly associated with the Ship of Theseus story), but you deny preservation in the 50% case, then you must explain how the apparent transition occurs. Do you allow or deny preservation of identity if 51% of the brain is preserved? 99%? You must explain whether this is a hard cutoff (e.g. you believe that 78% preservation of brain preserves all of identity but 77% preserves none of it) or whether it is a smooth fade out with identity preservation slowly shifting from full preservation through partial preservation to no preservation. You must also explain what it even means to postulate that only a partial brand new identity is created to blend with the missing portion of the original identity.

    You said you read the article I referred you to. But these questions were posed in that article and your reply didn’t address them. It’s fourteen pages of detailed analysis of the metaphysical aspects of personal identity and how it may or may not transform under various scenarios. Only an equally detailed reply can hope to address all the points it raises.

    The paper also presents a completely different approach to the discussion. Rather than considering hemispherectomies of varying proportions, it shows how gradual in-place replacement equates with instantaneous replacement and how instantaneous replacement equates with scan-and-copy scenarios. Consequently, if you believe piecemeal replacement of the brain preserves identity, you should (logically at least) believe scan-and-copy does too. The paper also explains that you can’t hold it against scan-and-copy that it more easily raises the “reduplication” issue, which people often use as the primary argument against it (which is the argument you are posing in fact). It explains that this can’t be the primary reason to reject scan-and-copy because in-place replacmenet can be altered to operate in a nondestructive fashion too.

    This was explained in the paper. It covers a lot of material and would need a pretty thorough reply to address all the arguments it poses.


  • Guest

    I think we have a fundamental disagreement about what preservation of identity includes as far as I can tell your arguing that if my memories and personality are completely preserved then my identity has been preserved. As I said this is a completely philosophical question for me, but I will try again to explain why preservation of my memories and personality are not sufficient for me. I am not my memories. I am not even my personality. Even if for example, I lost all of my memories and my personality changed dramatically I would still be the same entity subjectively experiencing being conscious. If there are suddenly two conscious beings with the same memories and personality that means there are now TWO entities subjectively experiencing consciousness. That means if one of those entities is tied to a physical body when that body dies then that consciousness is faced with either it exists after death separately from the body or it ceases to exist. I allow preservation only if there is only one conscious entity subjectively experiencing reality aka the orginal following the completion of the process. What this essentially means is that even a 100% copy of my brain would not be enough for me to consider myself preserved.
    Thus for me scan and copy will not work and as I have said before I am not really interested in the slow method either. This is a personal position for me even a conscious copy of myself is not comforting when confronting death. Other people may feel that it is enough if their brain is 100% copied so that their memories and personality live on in a separate entity experiencing consciousness. For me, I have come to the not so comforting realization that even with all the technologies possible from transhumanism we will all die eventually. Even uploaded minds if they are conscious will one day cease to exist when the universe ends. Technology can only delay death not defeat it. That doesn’t mean I am in a hurry to die , but it does certaintly give a different perspective on life.

  • NSW FriendFinder

    @Keith Wiley
    Take a look at John Weldon’s “To Be” on YouTube. It explains the philosophical problems behind the “it’s just a copy” argument quite well I think. It is also a very entertaining clip. You can view the clip at http://youtu.be/pdxucpPq6Lc

  • NSW FriendFinder

    If the idea of a constant unchanging identity itself is flawed then the problems of ‘identity’ and ‘copies versus originals’ become moot. It seems that there is no unchanging “me” to upload. Instead there is a constantly changing stream of mental states with my mental state at any particular moment giving birth to the next mental state in the progression. There is no permanent, unchanging mind but simply a chain of cause and effect. In a sense the “me” that existed as a fleeting mental state a few moments ago has already gone forever and a new “me” has come into existence. The “me” of a few moments ago was a cause of the birth of the continuing progression of the “me” which exists as a continuous flow of mental cause and effect. If this ‘flow’ were to be redirected into an artificial substrate rather than a biological one then this would be no less “me.” If the “flow” branched into two different directions, one in a biological substrate and the other in an artificial one, then both could equally claim to be “me.” It seems to me (as a constantly changing stream, not as a permanent unchanging entity!) that the whole concept of an unchanging identifiable “me” is flawed from the outset and therefore is something of a red herring. That is not to say that “I” do not exist at all but merely to state that the sense of a permanent “I” is an illusion. Illusions exist. They are just not what they appear to be.

  • NSW FriendFinder

    If there is no permanent unchanging “self” other than the illusion of self (perhaps an illusion evolved as a survival mechanism, a very compelling and persistent illusion) then many of the philosophical difficulties being discussed here evaporate. Most commentators have been discussing this issue as if the “self” is a real phenomena rather than a compelling mental illusion. If there is no permanent unchanging “self” or “ghost in the machine” then there is by definition no “self” to “upload.” Perhaps it will be possible to recreate the illusion of a “self” in a non biological substrate at some point in the future, but it is necessary to come to grips with the more fundamental possibility that our notions of identity are based upon the illusion of self. Instead of asking whether the original or the copy are both “real” we should be asking the more fundamental question of whether any kind of permanent “self” really exists except as an illusion. If the self is an illusion then does it really matter whether there are two illusions running simultaneously that at one point appeared to be more or less identical, for example? Neither is the “original” and neither is a “copy” because there never was an “original” except as a sophisticated illusion. How can it be possible to ‘upload’ a constantly changing illusion in principle let alone in practice? Perhaps it would be like trying to upload a rainbow.

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