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Mind transfer

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In Transhumanism and science fiction, mind transfer (also referred to as mind uploading or mind downloading, depending on one's perspective) refers to the hypothetical transfer of a human mind either into a computer or other non-human receptacle, or from one human body to another.

In the case where it is transferred into a computer, it would become a form of artificial intelligence. In the case where it is transferred into an artificial body to which its consciousness is confined, it would become a robot, albeit one which might claim ordinary human rights, certainly if the consciousness within were feeling (or were doing a good job of simulating) as if it 'were' the donor.

However, even if uploading is theoretically possible, there is currently no technology capable of recording or describing mind states in the way imagined, and no-one knows how much computer power or storage would be needed to simulate the activity of the mind inside a computer.

Uploading, in this sense, is a common theme in science fiction. One of the earlier instances of this theme was in the Roger Zelazny movie Lord of Light. Those with a strongly mechanistic view of human intelligence, e.g. Marvin Minsky, or a strongly positive view of robot-human social integration, e.g. Hans Moravec[?], Ray Kurzweil, have openly speculated about the possibilities and their desirability.

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How might mind transfer be performed?

An extremely crude means of moving (if not exactly 'uploading') consciousness using current technology is the head transplant which has been done on primates. Another such crude means which some researchers think is feasible in the near term is the whole-body transplant which moves only the brain. Since it is not easy to tell whether a body contains its original brain, nor necessarily easy to tell whether a body has the head it was born with, some of the identity questions are identical for these methods and those based on robotics. However, these methods do not involve copying the mind nor moving it into a non-organic medium, such as an electronic computer. Accordingly, they are technically quite different, and subject to normal limits of organic bodies and brains.

True mind uploading remains speculation; the technology to perform such a feat is not currently available, nor is it expected to be for a long time to come. Additionally, the idea of uploading human consciousness in this manner raises many philosophical questions which people may find interesting and disturbing, such as matters of individuality and the soul. Vitalists would say that uploading was a priori impossible.

Uploading consciousness into bodies created by robotic means is a goal of some in the artificial intelligence community. In the uploading scenario, the physical human brain[?] does not move from its original body into a new robotic shell; rather, the consciousness is assumed to be recorded and/or transferred to a new robotic brain, which generates responses indistinguishable from the original organic brain.

Copying vs. moving

By some definitions, the copied consciousness would 'be the same person' as the donor of the consciousness. In some philosophies, this new being would be then assigned the rights of the consciousness donor, including the disposal of the old body, perhaps over the objections mouthed by the physical brain still inside it!

This problem is similar to that found when considering the possibility of teleportation.

Ethical issues of mind uploading

The ethical issues of uploading consciousness are difficult even to list. They would involve challenges to the ideas of body identity[?], human immortality, property rights, capitalism, human intelligence, an afterlife, and man as created in God's image[?]. Often, these challenges cannot be distinguished from those raised by all technologies that extend human technological control over human bodies, e.g. organ transplant. Perhaps the best way to explore such issues is to discover principles applicable to current bioethics problems, and ask what would be permissible if they were applied consistently to a future technology. This points back to the role of science fiction in exploring such problems, as powerfully demonstrated in the 20th century by such works as Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Dune and Star Trek, each of which frame current ethical problems in a future environment where those have come to dominate the society.

Mind transfer in science fiction

Mind transfer is a theme in many works of science fiction, including:

  • Permutation City[?] and Diaspora[?] by Greg Egan, where "Copies" are made by computer simulation of scanned brain physiology
  • also Egan's "jewelhead" stories, where the mind is transferred from the organic brain to a small, immortal backup computer at the base of the skull, the organic brain then being surgically removed
  • The Simultaneous Man[?] by Ralph Blum[?], where brainwashing techniques are used to create a copy of the experiences and memories of one person in the body of another

Mind transfer advocates

These speculations might not be noteworthy except for the substantial research funding directed by these people, and the ability they have demonstrated to spread their ideas to students and others. The relationship between these advocates and corporations or research institutions pursuing these goals may ultimately be similar as that between Raelism and Clonaid, who advocate whole-body transplant and human cloning for reproductive purposes, respectively. Research is necessarily driven by such speculations. The Raelian cult believes that mind uploading is practiced by extra-terrestrial beings who will teach these skills to mankind.

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