The Perils and the Promises of Mind Uploading

Science fiction authors Richard Morgan and Greg Egan have described mind uploading  and “backup copies” as a practical technology for immortality. Of course, “carbon chauvinists” often speak against mind uploading, and some have interesting things to say.

The perils of mind uploading

In The Perils of Mind Uploading, science fiction writer Nigel Seel anticipates mind uploading, which he describes as “in a few decades time, it will be possible to scan a living brain at the resolution of individual neurons — cell bodies, dendrites and axons — and “parse” such a “bitmap” into a computerized brain model.”

He also warns that “every technological advance has its dark side,” and imagines three case studies from the criminal files of a fictional future with widespread mind uploading technology:

  • Case 1: The Self-Erasing Murderer
  • Case 2: The Bed-Sit Torturer
  • Case 3: The Memory Blackmailers

The three examples are horrible and scary, and seem taken from Morgan novels.

Altered carbon and digitally-stored personalities

Science fiction author Richard K. Morgan, quoted by Seel, has developed a very complete and elaborate future universe with “noir” stories built around mind uploading and digitally-stored personalities.

In Morgan’s stories everyone has a brain implant, called “stack,” which stores the user’s memories in realtime. The content of the stack can be retrieved after physical death (which happens frequently and often violently in Morgan’s stories) and downloaded to a new body, or “sleeve.” People are effectively immortal, of course provided they are able to pay.

The main character Takeshi Kovacs, a hyper-trained killer who is basically a nice person inside, travels from star to star, as a data file beamed to destination, and from sleeve to sleeve. In the three novels published so far, Kovacs:

  • Visits the decadent Earth and defeats a psychopath billionaire. He needs some help, so he splits in two and spawns an expendable copy to do the dirtiest part of the work Altered Carbon.
  • Participates in a planetary war and recovers a super spaceship left in a parking orbit by an ancient civilization, with a team of mercenaries restored from their stacks purchased wholesale at a Voodoo market (Broken Angels).
  • Back in his home world, rescues a long-dead revolutionary leader, imprinted by an alien database in the brain of a mercenary girl and emerged after some steamy sex with our Takeshi. Who, in the meantime, is stalked by a murderous paid killer, a certain… Takeshi Kovacs, recovered from an old bootleg softcopy of his stack (Woken Furies).

Virtual hells

The worse thing that can happen to you in Morgan’s universe is being copied from a bootleg softcopy of your stack by a sadist who wants to torture a copy of you (or thousands of copies of you) forever.

If you accept the possibility of continued existence after biological death as a upload (sorry Randal Koenesubstrate-independent mind, then you must also accept the possibility of such a virtual hell. In The Perils of Mind Uploading, Seel says: ” The moment you permit your brain to be scanned you’ve lost control. Your computer-virtual is exactly identical to corporeal-you, except that it can be copied without limit and can be hacked by anyone who can get access. The nearest analogue to this situation today is your money. It’s also stored electronically and can be moved around the network. We trust institutions, banks and credit card companies, to keep our digital cash safe, but we know that it doesn’t always happen.”

Yes, once mind uploading technology is developed, people will use it for good as well as bad ends, and substrate-independent minds will be at constant risk of being hacked and abused. Like Seels, I would like my upload copy to have “high-grade data-encryption, a remote location-finder, and a self-erase function in case it gets stolen.”

The perils of the Internet


But any technology can be abused for bad ends. A few decades ago, today’s interconnected world with billions of personal mobile devices connected to the planet-wide Internet would have been seen as a beautiful science fiction utopia. But somebody might have written an article on The Perils of the Internet, with stories like:

  • Case 1: Pedophile stalks children on the Internet, bodies found
  • Case 2: Terrorists remotely detonate bombs with mobile phones, kill hundreds
  • Case 3: Addict gamer shoots in shopping center, thought it was a video-game

I don’t have to make up the content, because such things have, unfortunately, happened. A quick Google search will sadly reveal real examples.

Most people are good, but some people are bad. Some bad people commit atrocities and use any technical means to abuse and kill others. This does not mean that we must relinquish or slow down the development of advanced technologies. On the contrary, advanced technologies may someday offer the means to cure severely disturbed psychopaths.

While recognizing the perils of advanced technologies available to insane people, I think we can agree that the effects of the Internet have been (much) more good than bad.

The promises of mind uploading

Similarly, while recognizing the perils of mind uploading, I prefer to think of the promises of mind uploading, and imagine examples like:

  • Case 1: 21st century cancer victim recovered from chemically preserved brain, beamed to the Tau Ceti colony to meet grandchildren
  • Case 2: Couple revived from mind scans and softcopy mindfiles celebrate second wedding with a global mindcast, plan to recover their children
  • Case 3: Artist merges with quantum AI, produces sublime works

The very advanced mind uploading technology described by Morgan will not be developed for quite some time, so perhaps we should not worry too much just yet. But the first baby steps toward mind uploading technology may be taken much sooner.

Back to the present then, or to the near-term future. Seel links to his review of Greg Egan’s Zendegi, a well-researched and believable fictional account of the very early development stages of mind uploading technology.

I have also written a review of Zendegi. If you have read the book or if you don’t mind spoilers, read Seel’s review or mine. My conclusions:

The tragic end is already expected by the reader and does not come as a surprise. Egan knows that the development of disruptive technologies is never easy, never linear, and always troubled. I think uploading technology will be developed eventually, perhaps in the second half of this century, but I am afraid Greg is right, and in the early development stages there will be unexpected problems and major setbacks, there will be unhappiness, and there will be tragedies. But, fast forward a few centuries to the upload society in Diaspora, this is how the “Introdus” to a next phase of our evolution might begin.

And, in fact, the novel ends with a positive thought: “Maybe in Javeed’s lifetime a door could be opened up into Zendegi-ye-Bethar; maybe his generation would be the first to live without the old kind of death. Whether or not that proved to be possible, it was a noble aspiration.”

There will be risks, and then there will be even more risks. There will be suffering and death, as it has always been the case. But there will be much more happiness, and wonderful adventures. The only way to avoid risk is staying all day in bed and never going out… but even so, an earthquake can kill you in bed.

No, risk is part of being alive. The only way to avoid all risks, is not being alive.

I prefer risk.

Source: IEET

  • Andreas

    Some good points. Although I fail to see as clearly as you do the categories “insane people” and “bad people”. I know these exists, but I try to understand how they come to exists in the first place, as I don’t think they form ex nihilo. They’re born into and shaped by a complex system, a society. I’m all for technological solutions, but sometimes they’re just a band aid that only covers the problem without actually addressing it.

    The technology described in Zendegi, for instance, might well pose a threat to the idea of capitalism as we understand it today in relation to human labor. It will basically remove that part of the equation. Are we ready to reshape thousands of years of human history in (probably) less than a century? I don’t think we’re ready for that kind of radical change, and sadly the transition to that world will be one full of upheavals. Again, the gap between what technology pulls out of its hat and the magician’s moral footing is stunningly wide.

    Risks are okay, as is not being alive.

  • Giulio Prisco

    Hi Andreas, I am afraid “the idea of capitalism as we understand it today in relation to human labor” is already dead.

    Structural unemployment is here to stay. Manual workers are displaced by robots, and knowledge workers are displaced by cheaper workers today and eventually AI tomorrow. In all cases, technology continues to make displacement more and more cost-effective.

    We need to realize, soon, that future economy will need only a shrinking minority of persons, and find an alternative way to organize society. I think BIG (Basic Income Guarantee), no question asked, has to be part of any viable solution.