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Don’t see your question about whole brain emulation, mind uploading, neural prosthesis, neural interfaces, etc, answered in the FAQ below? Please send us your question at email@example.com.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR A MIND TO BE SUBSTRATE-INDEPENDENT (a SIM)?
Empirical evidence in neuroscience supports the scientific theory that all of the functions of the mind are accomplished through neurobiological mechanisms of the nervous system. Our mental experiences are a consequence of those functions of mind.
If the same functions can be recreated in a different operating substrate and there, together, they still produce the same meaningful results as in the original implementation, then to accomplish the functions of mind no longer depends on a single (biological) substrate. In that sense, the functions of mind are then substrate-independent. Where the terms substrate-independent are insufficiently precise, we might instead say that the functions are ‘portable onto multiple implementation platforms’ or ‘implementable in multiple operating substrates’.
Possible examples of other operating substrates for the functions of mind are: a software implementation running on a digital computer, a hardware implementation in application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) – possibly resulting in an architecture that resembles neuromorphic chips. There are probably effective implementations that have not yet been conceived of.
That functions of mind may be recreated in such ways is supported by empirical evidence that: a) mental functions operate on signal patterns that are generated in all modes of cognitive activity, e.g. by our senses, during memory retrieval, during goal-oriented or conscious behavior; and b) targeted manipulations of the biophysical processes in neural tissue produce specific changes in these signal patterns, which in turn lead to specific changes in behavior or experience. The biophysical processes and signal operations can be described in terms of classical physics and expressed as information processing equations. The resulting set of equations can be carried out in a computational model, which can be implemented in a multitude of ways.
We propose that there is a separation of scales for each function of mind below which replacing the implementation substrate is subjectively undetectable and acceptable. The nuanced arguments in this matter involve considerations such as predicting a plausible range of responses for a complex system and allowing for variability below the detection threshold or a chosen threshold (which can allow a multi-scale problem to reduce to a separation of scales problem).
Alternative operating substrates can have advantageous characteristics. For example: for new capabilities, they can greatly simplify direct monitoring of, interaction with, and modification of any aspect of any function of the mind; for reliability and safety, they can facilitate making backup copies of mental state; for improved performance, they can enable increased processing speeds.
HOW IS SIM RELATED TO IDEAS ABOUT MIND UPLOADING?
The popular term “mind uploading” (sometimes called “mind copying” or “mind transfer”) is the hypothetical process of copying mental characteristics (functions of mind, including long-term memory and the experience of “self”) from a particular brain to some other device where the mind can continue to function. This implies the creation of substrate-independent functions of the mind, a substrate-independent mind (SIM).
In science fiction, the term “mind uploading” is sometimes used in a slightly different context, when it is only meant to imply that the necessary data for a SIM is obtained from a brain to be stored as a backup, but without the implementation of an artificial brain for the SIM to function.
The detailed process that is involved, from data collection, through its interpretation as a functional model for the SIM that can be implemented as an artificial brain is called whole brain emulation (WBE).
WHAT IS WHOLE BRAIN EMULATION? (WBE)
Whole brain emulation (WBE) is the technical process by which a substrate-independent mind (SIM) is derived from the neurobiology of a brain and expressed as a working model for an artificial brain. It is a reverse-engineering of the brain.
To emulate a whole brain it is necessary to know at least the neural circuit map (also known as the connectome), local dynamic response functions (typically observed through electrophysiology), and local functions governing changes in circuit structure or response functions (“memory”).
The same knowledge (and the associated data acquisition and interpretation) is essential to efforts in fundamental brain research, research and development for clinical neurotechnology, new directions in artificial intelligence, and much more. A number of prominent academic projects are dedicated to whole brain circuit mapping (e.g. the Human Brain Project) and whole brain activity mapping (e.g. the Brain Initiative). In academic parlance, the shorter term “brain emulation” is sometimes used.
HOW IS NEURAL PROSTHESIS RELATED TO WHOLE BRAIN EMULATION?
The requirements for whole brain emulation are almost identical to the requirements for the creation of accurate and medically useful cognitive neural prosthetic devices, such as the hippocampal neural prosthesis being developed at the University of Southern California.
A highly accurate and patient-specific neural prosthesis could be called a partial brain emulation, and a whole brain emulation could be called a full-brain neural prosthesis or a complete collection of patient-specific neural prostheses.
When a neural prosthesis is not patient-specific to a significant degree (e.g. a retinal prosthesis that the visual system learns to use) then there are still many domains of research and development that overlap with those for whole brain emulation, although the relationship is less direct.
HOW CAN MIND UPLOADING VIA WHOLE BRAIN EMULATION BE ACCOMPLISHED?
At present, two primary conceptual approaches have been proposed:
- WBE from neural prosthesis: Gradually replace each small piece of a brain with a highly accurate patient-specific neuroprosthetic device until every part of that brain has been replaced, at which point the entire brain (possibly still residing within the skull) is artificial.
- WBE from preserved brain: Carefully preserve a biological brain, cut it into many extremely small sections, analyze each section and use the information obtained to reconstruct a working artificial brain.
The same two approaches are presented as a series of successive steps in the following diagram panels:
IN A FUTURE WITH MIND UPLOADING, COULD I HAVE A BODY THAT IS OTHER THAN HUMAN?
Mind uploading to a different type of body would be possible in principle. A change of embodiment should not be imagined as a simple matter, but as a process requiring adjustment and learning.
Imagine if your brain with all of its present experience were transferred into a robot body that is not morphologically identical to your present body, or to something as different as a feline body. Your brain would not be accustomed to that embodiment. A range of automatic translations might be implemented so that your normal leg sensations and motor control for walking and running are translated from and into something that makes sense with the new body. Still, it is likely that a new embodiment would require a period of adjustment and learning, much as someone who receives a new prosthetic leg today needs to grow accustomed to the new artificial limb.
A typical embodiment that is frequently considered for mind uploading includes, but is certainly not limited to:
- A human body cloned from your original DNA.
- A robotic body of a humanoid form.
- A robotic body of a distinctly non-humanoid form, e.g. ‘being’ a spaceship or a robot ‘swarm’.
- A virtual body in a virtual reality.
Many others embodiments are theoretically possible. Human beings already have the ability to learn and to adjust to feeling comfortable in a wide range of body extensions. Consider how natural it comes to feel to drive a car, to virtually ‘sense’ the extents of the vehicle and to perceive precisely which narrow passage or parking spot will fit. Or, consider how an experienced kayaker perceives their kayak as a body of sorts, or a skier feels natural on their skis.
IS THERE A WAY I CAN VOLUNTEER FOR EXPERIMENTAL STUDIES OR CLINICAL TRIALS THAT HELP BRING ABOUT WHOLE BRAIN EMULATION AND MIND UPLOADING?
By law, the process of soliciting volunteer patients and engaging those patients in medical experimental studies or clinical research trials is very tightly controlled by government regulations and ethics boards. Researchers and medical professionals can conduct those experiments only within the clearly described protocols of an approved clinical study or trial and will publish a call for volunteers or directly reach out to patients when such a study is underway.
If you are interested in such studies and trials you can find published advertisements on university websites and in medical journals. You can also find clinical trials at: https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/search/index
When there are studies or clinical trials that relate closely to the goals of the Carboncopies Foundation, or when there are studies or trials that the Carboncopies Foundation is directly involved in, we will publish all the details on our website at carboncopies.org.
HOW MUCH WILL IT COST TO ACHIEVE WHOLE BRAIN EMULATION AND TO MAKE MIND UPLOADING AN OPTION FOR ALL?
The total cost is very hard to estimate. To know how much something costs you need to know exactly what needs to be done in terms of resources and labor.
Much of the work on whole brain emulation for mind uploading is scientific research. It involves experiments and evaluating experimental results. Those outcomes are by definition unknown in advance, otherwise, you wouldn’t need to do the experiments.
Instead of looking at it as an engineering project (like building a bridge), look at it as a medical science program (for example, compared with programs that aim to understand and cure various forms of cancer). The first mind uploads will be of small animals. At some later point, human volunteers will have their minds uploaded in a controlled medical research trial. Ultimately, there will be a mature medical process for mind uploading. That process and its outcomes will get better over time. When fully developed, the procedure will also become cheaper.
If you consider the effort needed to be of an order of magnitude that resembles other medical science programs then it is apparent that the total costs involved will almost certainly be in the range of multiple billions of dollars.
That would be the cost to take our medical capabilities and our society to the point where anyone could mind upload as a routine option of our medical care. The expenses of the Carboncopies Foundation are much more modest, with its mission to educate, to connect researchers in new projects, and to curate the roadmap. We are run as a volunteer supported non-profit.