Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis

Fine print: They might have to kill you first

Randal Koene

In a recent piece, we looked at cognitive scientist Susan Schneider’s explanation as to why we couldn’t cheat death by uploading our minds to the internet. But some have made a career of marketing the idea: Neuroscientist Randal Koene, founder and chairman of Carboncopies Foundation, argues,

For most scientists the default hypothesis is that everything about our mind and conscious awareness is an emergent consequence of the operations carried out by the biological machinery of the brain. That hypothesis has withstood every test so far. In principle, if we can understand those operations and implement them, then that new implementation will again produce the mind and conscious awareness.” Beth Elderkin, “Will We Ever Be Able to Upload a Mind to a New Body?” at Gizmodo

So, in his view, we are merely transferring data from the old computer to the new one. To create such “substrate-independent minds,” he hopes to begin by building replacement parts for smaller portions of the brain (neural prostheses), for example, the hippocampus, which plays a role in human learning and memory.

Koene thinks that neural prostheses would be an important advance. “Imagine, for example, that you can explicitly choose which things to remember and which ones to forget when you have a hippocampal neural prosthesis.” He doubts that the biological brain will be able to keep up with the engineered brain: “For example, biological neurons will never be able to react fast enough to be aware of or to respond to events that happen at the microsecond scale, a dynamic part of our universe that only our machines can presently experience.” Lastly, he argues that, from an evolutionary perspective, we must evolve in this direction because the future belongs to artificial intelligence anyway.

Whether Koene’s aims will ever be achieved is not, perhaps, so significant as the fact that many people may come to seriously entertain them:

For a mere $10,000 price tag — completely refundable if you change your mind while it still belongs to you — a company will digitize your brain. Nectome, co-founded by MIT graduate Robert McIntyre, plans to work with terminally ill patients who want to have their brains embalmed and, as is pitched on the company’s site, “back up your mind” to a digital platform. The patients, understanding that they are entering into a situation that will end their lives, are connected to a heart-lung machine that pumps embalming chemicals into the arteries of the neck while they’re still alive but under general anesthesia. The process can keep the body intact for hundreds of years, Nectome claims, with the hope that one day the brain will be turned into a computer simulation of someone a lot like the deceased and, in a way, achieving immortality. Ariel Scotti, “Silicon Valley startup wants to digitize brains in ‘100% fatal’ process” at NY Daily News The idea that memories still reside in the preserved brains has attracted strong criticism: But what is this replica? Is it subjectively “you” or is it a new, separate being? The idea that you can be conscious in two places at the same time defies our intuition. Parsimony suggests that replication will result in two different conscious entities. Simulation, if it were to occur, would result in a new person who is like you but whose conscious experience you don’t have access to… No one who has experienced the disbelief of losing a loved one can help but sympathize with someone who pays$80,000 to freeze their brain. But reanimation or simulation is an abjectly false hope that is beyond the promise of technology and is certainly impossible with the frozen, dead tissue offered by the “cryonics” industry. Those who profit from this hope deserve our anger and contempt. McGill University neuroscientist Michael Hendricks, “The False Science of Cryonics” at Technology Review (2015)

Doubtless. But one gets the sense that when philosophy and religion fall silent in a person’s life, reasonable considerations will not come to the fore in their place. It’s unsettling to hear that Gen Z, born between 1999 and 2015 and thoroughly accustomed to a digitized life are 13% atheists, “double that of the U.S. adult population” at 6% (Barna Group), because the form of atheism they are most likely to be influenced by is not the traditional “we are alone in the cosmos” variety but the newer “we are just animals” variety. That’s going to make a lot of difference in how AI is understood in relation to humanity.

Note: MIT cut its ties to Nectome this year.