The year is 2045, and you just watched a marathon of Black Mirror. Feeling that the end is near but that you still have much to accomplish, you decide to upload your consciousness to the cloud, so that a virtual you can finish what you couldn’t. Or would it be actually you living on the cloud after all if your whole consciousness is transferred? That Star-Trek homage episode, USS Callister, left you full of philosophical questions!
“All it takes is a DNA sample,” the receptionist says, handing you a small plastic tube, then taking a short sip of her pumpkin spice latte. “There’s an initial fee of $29.95 plus a monthly fee of $5 for maintenance. If you pay $2 more, I can add a doctoral degree in astrophysics.”
“Make that two doctoral degrees! The second one in Medieval Studies, please” you say. You spit, you pay, with an iris-scan of course, (it’s 2045), and that same afternoon you’re playing Fortnite with your virtual ego…
Wouldn’t it be cool to live forever if only online? Live in a virtual world, climb the highest mountains, swim the deepest oceans, and do all the things our mortal bodies cannot. The question would be now what to do with the obsolete you, the one in that primitive carbon-based body…
The task of transferring “consciousness” to the cloud is currently just a dream, of course. Could it be a reality one day? Science has achieved what once was thought as utterly and entirely not possible so rather than discard the idea as nonsense, let’s review what makes it difficult.
To begin with, the USS Callister episode was wrong—but you knew that, didn’t you? DNA contains only your genetic information. Your consciousness resides in the brain. A clone of you would be genetically identical to you but inherently different due to epigenetic causes, the effect of experience and the environment on genetic expression, for instance, darker or lighter skin if your clon moves to a different latitude, and would lack all your memories. Then, transferring just your consciousness would be useless. You must be thinking of the entire contents of your brain. While there is no scientific consensus of what consciousness is, most psychologists agree that consciousness is only that portion of the mind that is aware and awake. Consciousness is quite limited in size. Its storage capacity is that of working memory, about 7 plus or minus two items. Imagine consciousness as the current contents of your web browser. You have access to the whole Internet, and thus your web browser can potentially display the contents of the whole Internet, but at any given moment, it can only display as much information as it fits on the application window. Consciousness capacity is limited because its function is to integrate multiple sources of information coming from the unconscious to make sensible predictions of the future, make sense of what’s going on around and inside you so that you can make the right decision, the one that will maximize rewards and minimize risks. Because taking too much time making those decisions can be a matter of life and death, nature made sure that only the most relevant information enters consciousness. If all our memories could fit within consciousness, choosing what socks to wear every morning would take years.
Anyway, potayto, potatto, let’s not argue about semantics. What you want is to transfer the entire contents of your brain online and recreate a virtual consciousness, right? The problem to solve now is how to copy the information contained within hundreds of billions of neuron cells to a machine. It will take more than inserting a plug inside the brain. Unlike computers that were designed to connect with peripherals, the brain uses the body to express the self. The brain’s primary function is actually not to think or to communicate with others, but to allow for fast movement because fast movement maximizes the chances of survival. Plants don’t need brains because fast movement is not part of their strategy survival. Plants just grow. When you are a plant, and a cow comes and eats you, well—at least you tried!
To copy the contents of the brain, one must either rely on its natural peripherals, that is, physical movement, including movement which produces voice, or has to figure out a way to translate the self-organized activity of the hundred billion neurons that create the mind into computer language.
For that, you would need first to understand how the brain stores information. Nobody knows for sure how information is stored inside the brain. It could be encoded in the form of proteins residing within the neuron cells, which would require dissecting each one, maybe by injecting an army of nanobots inside your brain, which won’t hurt too much because the brain feels no pain, but it may kill you on the process. Another proposed hypothesis is that memories result from how patterns of interconnected neurons “fire” together. Neurons are like trees, with branches, called dendrites, a central body containing the nucleus, called the soma, a very long trunk, called the axon, and roots coming off the axon, forming synaptic terminals. The dendrites get the information in, the information reaches the soma, runs along the axon, and then the synaptic terminals which connect with other neurons’ dendrites. It’s a little like an electronic circuit, with axons being the wiring between cells, but a zillion times more complicated. One neuron can connect with up to ten thousand other neurons, and the process is electrochemical rather than just electrical. What does electrochemical mean? The synaptic terminals of one neuron almost but don’t really touch the dendrites of other neurons, so communication is not direct. Neurons release neurotransmitters into the synaptic cleft, the space in between a terminal “button,” the way out, and a dendritic “spine,” the way in. Neurotransmitters are small chemical compounds that act like keys which, by attaching to binding sites, open ionic channels in the dendritic spines, so that sodium, potassium, chloride, and calcium ions (depending on the channel) can get inside a neuron’s membrane and change its voltage. Then, the firing of one neuron alone cannot change the activity of an adjacent neuron. Many adjacent neurons have to fire at once so that many ion channels open and the multiplying effect of all those ions getting inside a neuron is sufficient to provoke an “action potential” a continuous change in voltage that translates into an electrical current running along the neuron’s axon. The point is, if the memories are stored as patterns of neuronal activity, say the interconnectedness of a few thousand neurons for the letter “A,” (I’m making up the number) a non-invasive device that could “photograph” these patterns could also reproduce them, right? Functional magnetic resonance, fMRI, can produce 3D images of active areas of the brain based on their consumption of oxygenated blood (neurons need to breathe too), and Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) can map nerve fibers by detecting the directional movement of water molecules. Both methods are non-invasive, but neither has the sufficient temporal or spatial resolution to detect activity at the cellular level as it occurs. However, technology progresses, resolution may increase to the point that you could actually “photograph” neurons communicating with each other without having to open anyone’s skull.
Say that that could happen. The challenge now is that to photograph every possible pattern of neuronal activity, every possible pattern of neuronal activity must become active first, that is, you would have to think of your every possible thought for the ultra-high-definition fMRI and DTI to do their magic trick. It would be like asking your ideas to pose. How long would that take? Additionally, memories are not stable. As you rehearse a concept, your memory of that concept changes because neuronal connections change constantly, they weaken or strengthen following not the laws of reason but of physics. Learning occurs by association. Intelligence is a product of integrated neuronal activity not a characteristic of every neuron. Neurons create new connections with adjacent neurons pretty much at random, but only those connections that are strong enough, with multiple ion channels to maximize the likelihood of an action potential, survive. What this means is that the process of rehearsing every memory so that every memory could be photographed will not only take forever, maybe just as much as dictating your memories to a scribe, but may change those memories as the brain creates new associations in the rehearsing process.
Furthermore, because the function of memory is not to allow you to reminisce but to provide relevant information to plan for the future, your memories are actually quite incomplete. Only the most pertinent information gets stored. Every time you bring a memory into consciousness, you recreate that memory from bits and pieces stored in different places of your brain. For instance, you may not remember your first year’s birthday party, but you know you had one because your mother showed you once a photograph of you blowing the candles of the cake. From the memory of that photograph you create a false memory of your first birthday and somehow you “know” that you had a chocolate cake, probably because you like chocolate now not because you have an accurate recollection that there was one. The next time your mother shows you the picture, you realize you had no real cake and no real party! The day of your first-birthday your family was on a beach vacation, and they made you a sand-cake. What this means is that if you photograph each memory as you rehearse it, you may end up with a virtual brain full of contradictory information.
But let’s say that you can take a large 3D photograph of the brain at once, one that uses a super-sophisticated method that combines all existing brain imaging technologies and does not require neuronal patterns to be active to recognize their connections, and thus, you manage to get a structural copy of your brain. That copy must be translated into information a computer can understand so that your brain can live on the cloud; otherwise it would be like taking a photocopy of a Chinese book: useless unless you know how to read Chinese. How do you recognize what each pattern means? Although humans brains share a similar structure and area functionality, brains are not identical. For most people, the left hemisphere is the language-dominant area, especially if they are right-handed, but for many left-handed people the language-dominant hemisphere is the right one, or language functionality may be spread through both hemispheres. And then memories rely on actual physical structure. My concept of Marilyn Monroe may be similar to your concept of Marilyn Monroe, but the neuronal patterns that represent the concept of Marilyn Monroe in my brain are probably very different from those in yours because, by the time our respective brains learned about Marilyn Monroe, their structure had already been modified by experience. Add to that that our knowledge of Marilyn Monroe may be different, you may have read a biography that I did not, or I may have watched a movie that you didn’t. How to identify where exactly Marilyn lives within your brain? The super sophisticated imaging method would necessarily need an active neuronal pattern baseline to provide at least a few letters of the mysterious alphabet within your brain, something like a Rosetta Stone which by presenting the same text in three different languages Egyptian hieroglyphics, Demotic script, and Greek, gave archeologists a key to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics. Because each brain is different, each brain would require its own Rosetta Stone… Oy, oy, uploading that brain of yours may cost a little more than $29.95!
But say that you take that massive 3D photograph your whole brain, then wear this portable helmet for about a week which learns the basics of your neuronal patterns as you move around the world and that information can be deciphered by an algorithm created by a 14-year-old dropout genius and this is enough to translate the rest of your brain. Would that be enough to create a virtual copy of you? I am afraid not. That virtual copy of you will need to mimic not only how neurons connect but how chemical substances affect the brain.
Neurotransmitters don’t swim straight to the binding sites on postsynaptic receptors to open the ion channels. They diffuse through the extracellular fluid in the synaptic cleft, and it’s only by chance, because of their quantity and the quantity and quality of the receptors that they manage to open ion channels. Anxiety, for instance, can be reduced with drugs that mimic the work of neurotransmitters and either prevent the work of excitatory cells or promote the work of inhibitory cells on the amygdala, which, in short, is the part of your brain responsible for freaking out. Depending on a person’s genetics and experience, the number of neurotransmitters will vary and so the functioning of your brain and behavior. Add to that that some neurotransmitters may escape the synaptic cleft and linger in the cerebrospinal fluid, and some may be hormones released by glands outside your brain, like cortisol, or oxytocin, and reach the brain through the vagus nerve, provoking random and delayed effects. Moreover, many hormones and neurotransmitters are released in response to an emotional episode or trying to bring homeostasis—equilibrium to your body. That adds complexity to the virtual-you model because being eternal, emotions become useless.
Emotions are the mechanisms through which our genes make sure we survive and reproduce. After appraising a stimulus (an object or situation) as good or bad, and relevant or not toward your goals, they provoke somatic responses that translate into behavioral responses. In simple words, emotions make your unconscious react and push thoughts into your consciousness so that you both think and move, not necessarily in that order. Your boss says there will be no Christmas bonus, so you get a pang of wrath, that’s an emotion telling you that the news you received is bad, but before you punch that tyrant, another emotion, fear of losing your job, makes you control yourself, and the wrath gets replaced by sadness. Because the role of emotions is ultimately to direct your behavior toward those things that will maximize your chances of survival and away of those that represent a risk, when you have nothing to lose or to win because you live online, emotions lose purpose. A huge spider or a million dollars become equally irrelevant because neither can hurt you nor help you. Think of a fake plastic spider or a fake one hundred dollar bill. The first time you see them you may get scared or excited. Once you learn they’re both false, they stop provoking any reaction, and you just ignore them. Transferring the contents of your brain online becomes then the equivalent of reaching Nirvana: all external stimuli become equally irrelevant, you stop having desires, and when you stop having desires, you lose all motivation. You become immobile. What for would you move if you have everything you need? You’re in the cloud. Disconnecting one server causes nothing, there are many copies of your brain scattered throughout multiple servers, so you don’t even fear a blackout.
If you are old enough to remember the movie Awakenings, you may recall that the patients couldn’t move. They suffered from encephalitis lethargica, a disease that leaves them in a permanent catatonic state because they are unable to produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with motivation. When they get L-Dopa, a precursor of dopamine, they start moving again. It was as if what was wrong with their brains was that they lacked the “motivation” to move that dopamine brought to the cortex. A virtual brain model would have to come for a replacement for emotions.
Furthermore, you would need a virtual body too, because emotions have a weird way of communicating with your brain. They provoke arousal (no I didn’t say penis, arousal is the technical word) which translates into movement and new thoughts entering consciousness, but the apparent goodness of those thoughts seems determined by what your gut, not your brain, has to say. When you are sad, scared or angry, your brain does not get a memo “that which just happened was sick, bro,” you feel the repercussions of an emotional episode in your body, and so you make sense of those feelings to understand your emotions. Studies with paraplegics and people that have used facial botox show that these people report less intense feelings because bodily responses are numbed.
In summary, if technology figures out a way to photograph the three-dimensional structure of the brain at the cellular level, interpret the workings of billions of billions of potential connections at the individual level, mimic the work of hormones and neurotransmitters, and the role of emotions in regulating behavior, maybe your brain could live on the cloud. Still, it wouldn’t be you, but a copy of you, a clon that may inherit all your traits and memories but could not transfer any feelings back to you. Genes gave us emotions to trick us into doing what they wanted us to do: survive and reproduce, because only through reproduction could genetic variability occur. Now we artificially provoke those emotions by socializing, exploring, playing, tasting food, and consuming media with no intention of reproducing, but to feel the feelings emotions stir. Why would you want a mind that cannot feel?