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Downloading Consciousness

Jordan Inafuku, Katie Lampert, Brad Lawson, Shaun Stehly, Alex Vaccaro

Related Fiction

"Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world, and in here is the dream."
 — Jake Sulley

From cell phones, satellites, and atomic bombs, to home theaters, DVDs and electronic book readers, science fiction has been the inspiration to many of today’s technologies. Human capabilities rapidly catch up to the human imagination, as products and processes that we thought were in a distant fantasy future are now available for us today. The idea of uploading one’s mind into a machine or supercomputer is one of these fantastic science fiction ideas. Frederik Pohl’s The Tunnel Under the World first introduced it and it has since been the subject of hundreds of novels, television shows, and movies. Through the medium of science fiction, we are able to expand our ideas on mind uploading, imagine the many uses for such a process, and ponder over its possible physical, economical, political, and ethical dilemmas. The following are a few examples of mind uploading in fiction. Many of these have formed the base for the technological evolution of brain imaging, mind mapping, and neural networks.

Frederik Pohl – The Tunnel Under the World (1955)

Contro Chemicals is a factory that has developed the Dorchin process, a process whereby a human brain pattern can be mechanically reproduced and put into machines so that machines may think for themselves. The factory suffers a major explosion that kills the inhabitants of the town. Dorchin, inventor of the Dorchin process, converts the dead townspeople into robots and uploads their brain patterns allowing them to continue “living”. At the same time, he uses them to test the efficacy of his advertising processes. Instead of using life-size robots on a real-scale town, Dorchin instead uploads their brains to scaled-down models in a model town. The main character, Guy Birkett, and his coworker, Swanson, discover the truth of their existence.

Arther C. Clarke – The City and the Stars (1956)

Considered by many to be the first to deal with mind uploading, this novel is set in the city of Diaspar, the only city left on planet Earth after a race of ruthless invaders pushed humanity back to Earth from space and made a deal that humanity could live if they never left the planet. The dead Earth now only has one city, Diaspar, which is domed and insulated. The entire city is run by the Central Computer, which creates people’s lives as well. It stores their minds in its memory and creates bodies for these minds to inhabit after their previous body dies. The Central Computer controls how many of these people are actually living at a given time; the rest remain sleeping in the memory of the Central Computer. Given these facts, the people of Diaspar have all had past “lives” and continue living through different bodies.

Michael Berlyn - The Integrated Man (1980)

A corporation finds a huge competitive advantage by developing a system through which they don't need to pay the expensive costs of employee training. Instead, they require their employees to undergo a surgical procedure that implants a neural interface socket at the base of their neck. The socket receives sophisticated microprocessors and memory circuit modules via insertable chips. The company can load expertise in any job required of the employee onto this chip and insert it into the socket, giving the employee instant knowledge. However, continuous use of this system degrades the nervous system of the user, leading to eventual death. The high death rates of employees are covered up by the corporation by paying off government officials.

Rudy Rucker - Software (1982)

Cobb Anderson is a retired computer scientists, infamous for discovering how to give robots artificial intelligence and free will, thus creating the race of boppers. The robots have since moved to the moon in order to take advantage of the freezing temperatures for the super-cooled superconducting circuits on which they rely. Anderson is living in poverty in Florida, desperately trying to put some money together to buy an artificial heart to replace his failing, secondhand one. Aware of his predicament, a robot comes to invite him to the moon where he will be given immortality. The "immortality" offered is a type of mind transfer, where Anderson's brain would be uploaded into the massive processors on the moon. His actual brain would then be destroyed and replaced with the automated brain. The plot then intensifies as this process occurs in the middle of a lunar civil war.

Greg Egan – Permutation City (1994)

This novel won the John W. Campbell Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year in 1995. It was also nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award. The novel centers on a model of consciousness called Dust Theory, which basically says that anything that can be expressed mathematically is possible to construct and does exist. Based on the Dust Theory, the novel also is built off the additional assumption that human consciousness is computable and can be produced by a computer program. In the world of the novel, Egan manages many questions that will need to be answered if consciousness can be produced by computer. He imagines a world economy and culture, an accumulation of vast amounts of cloud computing power and memory, and a publicly traded market for this memory called the QIPS Exchange. The huge amount of cloud computing power is used to make physiological models of medical patients so that medical experimentation can be done and more personalized medical treatments can be accomplished. However, it has also enabled the creation of "Copies", or whole brain emulations of real humans which are detailed enough to enable subjective conscious experiences. The rich have started buying these copies as a way to continue living after the passing of their physical bodies. Because of this new possibility, they also begin a push to garner full human rights for these Copies. This social movement is met with resistance by another movement to use the computing power to help combat huge climate change.

Avatar (movie, 2009)

In this film, human consciousness can be used to control genetically grown bodies called avatars, which are based on the native inhabitants of an alien world, so that humans may integrate into their society in order to further diplomatic negotiations regarding the planet’s natural resources. This is not true mind uploading because the human consciousness is controlling the avatar remotely from their ships in orbit. However, later in the film, when a scientist named Grace is injured, true mind uploading is attempted. They attempt to connect her with Eywa, the collective consciousness of the planet, so that her mind may reside there for a short time before being downloaded into her avatar body permanently. The transfer is unsuccessful and Grace’s mind stays in Eywa, but at the end of the movie Jake Sully tries a similar thing. His mind is uploaded into Eywa and transferred to his avatar body permanently, leaving his human body lifeless. This is true mind uploading.