Jun 19, 2014

Mind uploading won’t lead to immortality

Posted by in categories: aging, bionic, biotech/medical, evolution, futurism, human trajectories, life extension, neuroscience, philosophy, posthumanism, robotics/AI, singularity, transhumanism

Uploading the content of one’s mind, including one’s personality, memories and emotions, into a computer may one day be possible, but it won’t transfer our biological consciousness and won’t make us immortal.

Uploading one’s mind into a computer, a concept popularized by the 2014 movie Transcendence starring Johnny Depp, is likely to become at least partially possible, but won’t lead to immortality. Major objections have been raised regarding the feasibility of mind uploading. Even if we could surpass every technical obstacle and successfully copy the totality of one’s mind, emotions, memories, personality and intellect into a machine, that would be just that: a copy, which itself can be copied again and again on various computers.


Neuroscientists have not yet been able to explain what consciousness is, or how it works at a neurological level. Once they do, it is might be possible to reproduce consciousness in artificial intelligence. If that proves feasible, then it should in theory be possible to replicate our consciousness on computers too. Or is that jumpig to conclusions ?

Once all the connections in the brain are mapped and we are able to reproduce all neural connections electronically, we will also be able run a faithful simulation of our brain on a computer. However, even if that simulation happens to have a consciousness of its own, it will never be quite like our own biological consciousness. For example, without hormones we couldn’t feel emotions like love, jealously or attachment. (see Could a machine or an AI ever feel human-like emotions ?)

Some people think that mind uploading necessarily requires to leave one’s biological body. But there is no conscensus about that. Uploading means copying. When a file is uploaded on the Internet, it doesn’t get deleted at the source. It’s just a copy.

The best analogy to understand that is cloning. Identical twins are an example of human clones that already live among us. Identical twins share the same DNA, yet nobody would argue that they also share a single consciousness.

It will be easy to prove that hypothesis once the technology becomes available. Unlike Johnny Depp in Transcend, we don’t have to die to upload our mind to one or several computers. Doing so won’t deprive us of our biological consciousness. It will just be like having a mental clone of ourself, but we will never feel like we are inside the computer, without affecting who we are.

If the conscious self doesn’t leave the biologically body (i.e. “die”) when transferring mind and consciousness, it would basically mean that that individual would feel in two places at the same time: in the biological body and in the computer. That is problematic. It’s hard to conceive how that could be possible since the very essence of consciousness is a feeling of indivisible unity.

If we want to avoid this problem of dividing the sense of self, we must indeed find a way to transfer the consciousness from the body to the computer. But this would assume that consciousness is merely some data that can be transferred. We don’t know that yet. It could be tied to our neurons or to very specific atoms in some neurons. If that was the case, destroying the neurons would destroy the consciousness.

Even assuming that we found a way to transfer the consciousness from the brain to a computer, how could we avoid consciousness being copied to other computers, recreating the philosophical problem of splitting the self. That would actually be much worse since a computerized consciousness could be copied endless times. How would you then feel a sense of unified consciousness ?

Since mind uploading won’t preserve our self-awareness, the feeling that we are ourself and not someone else, it won’t lead to immortality. We’ll still be bound to our bodies, but life expectancy for transhumanists and cybernetic humans will be considerably extended.


Immortality is a confusing term since it implies living forever, which is impossible since nothing is eternal in our universe, not even atoms or quarks. Living for billions of years, while highly improbable in itself, wouldn’t even be close to immortality. It may seem like a very large number compared to our short existence, but compared to eternity (infinite time), it isn’t much longer than 100 years.

Even machines aren’t much longer lived than we are. Actually modern computers tend to have much shorter life spans than humans. A 10-year old computer is very old indeed, as well as slower and more prone to technical problems than a new computer. So why would we think that transferring our mind to a computer would grant us greatly extended longevity ?

Even if we could transfer all our mind’s data and consciousness an unlimited number of times onto new machines, that won’t prevent the machine currently hosting us from being destroyed by viruses, bugs, mechanical failures or outright physical destruction of the whole hardware, intentionally, accidentally or due to natural catastrophes.

In the meantime, science will slow down, stop and even reverse the aging process, enabling us to live healthily for a very long time by today’s standards. This is known as negligible senescence. Nevertheless, cybernetic humans with robotic limbs and respirocytes will still die in accidents or wars. At best we could hope to living for several hundreds or thousands years, assuming that nothing kills us before.

As a result, there won’t be that much differences between living inside a biological body and a machine. The risks will be comparable. Human longevity will in all likelihood increase dramatically, but there simply is no such thing as immortality.


Artificial Intelligence could easily replicate most of processes, thoughts, emotions, sensations and memories of the human brain — with some reservations on some feelings and emotions residing outside the brain, in the biological body. An AI might also have a consciousness of its own. Backing up the content of one’s mind will most probably be possible one day. However there is no evidence that consciousness or self-awareness are merely information that can be transferred since consciousness cannot be divided in two or many parts.

Consciousness is most likely tied to neurons in a certain part of the brain (which may well include the thalamus). These neurons are maintained throughout life, from birth to death, without being regenerated like other cells in the body, which explains the experienced feeling of continuity.

There is not the slightest scientific evidence of a duality between body and consciousness, or in other words that consciousness could be equated with an immaterial soul. In the absence of such duality, a person’s original consciousness would cease to exist with the destruction of the neurons in his/her brain responsible for consciousness. Unless one believes in an immaterial, immortal soul, the death of one’s brain automatically results in the extinction of consciousness. While a new consciousness could be imitated to perfection inside a machine, it would merely be a clone of the person’s consciousness, not an actual transfer, meaning that that feeling of self would not be preserved.


This article was originally published on Life 2.0.


Comments so far

  • Ellis Reppo on June 19, 2014 1:23 am

    No. A copy is as good as the original. Read Kurzweils essays in his first three books. They can also be found on his website. “The feeling of self” is a collection of processes. “I” am a collection of processes. “You” are too. If these processes can be transferred into another substrate then I will survive. Assuming you understand this to be truth, so will “you” if you choose to do this when the time comes.

  • William Bliss on June 19, 2014 7:45 am

    No one is suggesting the original person will survive serial sectioning.
    The relative immortality belongs to the new copy.

    The author overlooked a very, very distant option.
    If nanobots could surround each neuron, study their exact function, and continuously upload this data, then when each neuron dies the local nanobots could take over the physical functioning of that dead neuron. The simulation of the original neuron’s synaptic “decisions” would be performed in the “mainframe”. In this fashion, every day more and more of the person’s consciousness would be moved into the “mainframe”, and the body would become a telepresence device.

    The person would not be able to determine how much of her brain function was local or in the mainframe, unless the mainframe was queried.

    Today’s research in insect simulation is important because such whole body simulation gives us a laboratory for testing neural models, with feedback coming from watching how the insect behaves.

  • Edwin on July 2, 2014 3:42 am

    Our brain is already entirely different from the one we had when we were children.

    All the neurons and chemicals have already been replaced by our growth and aging.

    Yet we retain our old sense of self. We still believe we are the same being as we were when we were children.

    Add to that the idea that our mind exists directly independent of our body is directly contradicted by everyday observations. Like the fact that alcohol and other physical substances can change our conscious states and that degenerative brain diseases Alzheimer’s and brain damages can seriously impair or even destroy conscious states and the fact we don’t expect young children to be capable of advanced forms of abstract thinking, they require more fully developed brains. Certain controlled substances can also generate out of the body experiences, similar to the ones experienced during near death experiences.

    So the only option left is that we can retain our sense of self, even if every neuron replaced by a similar neuron with the same function.

    What then is to stop us from replacing every neuron with a synthetic/software neuron which can do the same things?

    That is why I am sure we can download ourselves into a machine. It would feel like sleeping and awakening. In fact people who die and come back alive say that dying feels like sleeping, which supports the above facts.

  • Maciamo Hay on July 2, 2014 11:49 am

    Edwin, neurons do not regenerate themselves like other body cells. We have the same neurons as when we were born, except that their number declines over time. A very small number of neurons has been known to be regenerated in some brain regions (e.g. cerebellum), especially after a trauma, but that would have little incidence on our consciousness.

  • Carson on July 2, 2014 2:03 pm

    I could not have said it better. This is the most accurate description of consciousness pertaining to uploading I have seen. It’s not movable or transferable. We are tied to our organic brain. Would be interesting to know if the self is tied at atomic level, quantum, or higher level like neuronal connections and what not. I’m thinking consciousness is just created from several organic interactions going on in our brain. All the small parts working together creates this self. Strange that so many in the transhumanist community think consciousness is just data or a pattern. We are our brain. I wish it was not true. Another interesting thing to think about and where research should be happening is animal consciousness/self. Starting with mice to higher levels social animals like dogs. Their memories defy logic at times. Whatever consciousness is it’s fundamentally the same in all species. It’s just an arrangement of matter in a certain way.

  • Robert Newport on July 2, 2014 3:10 pm

    First, I totally agree with the author that the word and concept of immortality is ineptly applied to our quest for achieving greatly extended lifespans and I have on numerous occasions petitioned the cryonics community of which I am a member to drop the term altogether. Secondly, I wish I did know from where and how, consciousness arose. I do not and I am not convinced that anyone else does either. While it is true that with disturbed brain function consciousness can be disturbed, it is not always true, and we have many anecdotal reports of patients conscious of various elements of their surroundings while in coma and even while brain ‘dead’. As for identical twins, clearly the author has not thought this out, nor researched it fully, as their are many studies that indicate that twins pairs do share consciousness, at least at times of crises.
    I am afraid that we simply do not know enough about the very nature of consciousness to conclude that an exact copy of a human brain would or would not confer consciousness on the resulting being. I, for one, would not refuse an upload, if it became possible. I am not however ready to give up my cryonics arrangements on the hope that the upload would work, nor would I volunteer to allow my brain to be destroyed if that is what it took to upload it.
    Thank you for this interesting discussion. Robert R Newport M.D.

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