Big Barnes Theory: Mind Over Matter


As the world is increasingly digitised, Ethan Troy Barnes explores the possibility of uploading the human brainThe annals of medicine and fiction are littered with tales of out-of-body experiences, where the individual’s consciousness is said to have temporarily departed its corporeal vessel and gazed down from some ethereal plane at the soulless corpse from which it came.

Real as they may seem to some people, such experiences are likely related to something called a hypnagogic hallucination, where the individual straddles the gap between sleep and wakefulness and experiences very vivid dreamlike experiences projected onto their surroundings.

However, with the science of ‘mind uploading’, the transfer of human consciousness to a computer system, hard at work trying to free the psyche of its mortal shackles, the mind leaving the body may become a reality sooner than we think.

The idea is simple enough in theory: scan a person’s entire nervous system, head to toe, to a very high level of accuracy, i.e. right down to the neurotransmitter receptor level. Then build an electrical circuit from the resulting brain map, analogous to the kind you used to make in Junior Cert science with wires, resistors and light bulbs, except infinitely more complex. Provide the resulting brain-computer with sensory inputs (e.g. video cameras and microphones) and a means of communicating back (e.g. speakers, monitors) et voila: your very own human brain in digital form.

Initially, the artificial mind would take up a lot of space, be very expensive to build, and likely be limited to a virtual environment such as that of a video game. Eventually, however, if Moore’s Law keeps to its word for the next few centuries, computer technology may be powerful enough that we can cram an entire human consciousness onto something the size of a microchip. By that stage we may even be able to fashion surrogate bodies for our digital minds, allowing the individual to interact with the real world like any living human.

All this may seem a bit extreme, and even a little scary. However, the benefits of such technology are impressive. The first, and most obvious, application for a brain that’s no longer restricted to a human body is immortality. When a terminally ill patient or elderly individual is at the end of their life, their consciousness could simply be transferred at the moment of death to the digital plane. This has obvious ethical implications regarding the sanctity of human life, not to mention the added strain on resources that would result from a person never dying, although it could be argued that a digital existence would be far more efficient than an organic one.

More compelling than that, however, are the improvements that may be made when converting to a digital consciousness. Chief among these is the fact that electrical signals travel at 300 million metres per second, this being extremely fast compared to the paltry 150 metres per second that the fastest nerve impulses are capable of travelling at. This would produce an impressive speed up in thought processing power, but without any increase in intelligence. Put simply, digital minds would think at a faster rate than biological ones.

For a digital mind functioning at this accelerated rate, about two million times faster than usual, time in the world around them would appear to flow slower than normal and a year of subjective time might be experienced in about half a minute of real time.

Exploiting the technology for commercial gain, a digital consciousness could also conceivably be copied a number of times, so that a single individual’s knowledge and expertise could be made available to more clients simultaneously and be used to earn more money. With mind uploading technology likely to be very expensive initially, this could have profound social effects, with only those rich enough being able to obtain the technology and becoming richer still as a result, widening any existing class divides.

Converting your consciousness to a digital format also makes it much easier to get around. A digital signal can be sent at the speed of light, across great distances, particularly interstellar distances, travel times across which would normally outlast a human lifespan.

On a more philosophical level, the transfer or copying of consciousness does raise manifold existential questions. If your consciousness is copied, which one is the original? Which one owns your house or your car? Which one is going out with your boyfriend?

There’s also the danger that, by transferring to a digital format, you are opening your mind up to being manipulated in any number of ways. What if a hacker compels your digital consciousness to transfer all your funds into their account? What if someone wipes the hard drive you’re stored in? What if your consciousness simply gets lost in the digital ether? Of course, all of these can happen in real life too, there are real life thieves and murderers, however there is a sense giving up control that comes with uploading your mind to a computer.

So, when can we expect to be swapping our flesh and blood brains for a steel cerebrum? Well, the Blue Brain project has already constructed a virtual model of a portion of rat neocortex back in 2006, and the current aim is to reverse engineer a working digital model of human consciousness using a Blue Gene Supercomputer.

While there’s a serious amount of legwork involved in perfectly scanning and recreating a human brain, the project’s director Henry Markham remarked recently “it is not impossible to build a human brain and we can do it in 10 years.”

Promises of immortality via mind uploading must inevitably be met with scepticism, however, who wants to live forever if it means losing their humanity? At the very least, though, research in this area will vastly improve our understanding of neuroscience and should shed invaluable light on the nature of human consciousness.