Thoughts on Moving Human Consciousness into Cyber Space

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright June 2013


One of the powerful dreams that fires progress in the artificial intelligence realms is of transferring human minds into cyber space and then back again into the same or a different human body. This dream has imagination firing power fully equal to that of people wanting to fly like birds -- a dream that powered the development of aircraft of all kinds.

Like the flying dream, the mind transferring dream is going to be subject to what I call the Birds and Boeings Effect: The reality that comes out of the dream's inspiration will be very different from the dream itself. Airplanes and birds fly, but that is about all they have in common.

One of the reasons this mind transferring will be tough is that the "thinking stack" in cyber (in its many forms) is going to be completely different from the thinking stack in the human body. (I cover the Thinking Stack concept here.)

What follows will be speculation on how cyber thinking stacks (and closely related instinctive thinking) will be different from the human equivalents.

The Roots of Human Thinking

Human thinking is a hugely complex and high performance process. If you define thinking as an organism responding to its changing environment, then human thinking includes things such as digestion and hormonal changes as well as what nerves engage in. And even the nervous part is hugely complex and high performance. Think of what the nerves of the vision system accomplish.

Human consciousness and memories are deeply meshed into this system. They are so intricately meshed that scientists have yet to pry out what the consciousness processes are and where they are occurring. (Memories are better defined and located.) Consciousness is an emergent property of the brain's thinking, not a goal of it.

This means that locating and transferring memories and consciousness, and isolating them so that they can be transferred, is still a daunting task. There's still a whole lot to be learned... and this is only half the task!

The other half is finding a computing system in the cyber environment that can host these computational processes. This is where cyber instinctive thinking becomes an issue. The cyber emergent properties are going to be completely different! Human and cyber consciousness are going to be apples and oranges.

The Roots of Cyber Thinking

Cyber thinking is starting from entirely different roots than human thinking. Cyber thinking never had to eat or fend off predators. Cybers' evolutionary roots are processes of the sort that run robot car painters in factories and Windows on personal computers. Because of this difference "instinctive thinking" in the cyber world will be totally different from instinctive thinking in the human organism world. This is apples-and-oranges on steroids.

This means that a simple "mapping" of human memories and consciousness into some kind of cyber memory bank is going to produce nonsense in that cyber environment. It won't be able to function in any living fashion.

To have human thinking function in the cyber environment, a huge effort will have to be made to build an "alien platform" (from cyber perspective) that the human memories and consciousness can be planted in. And I guarantee the result will be spectacularly clunky.

Getting back again

Moving a human consciousness back into a human body isn't going to be much easier. A basic tenet of evolution on earth is that there's lots of variation from one body to the next. This means that the fitting back is more like hand-reproducing a painting than swapping an engine between two cars of the same make and model. Adding to the complexity, the body that is being targeted has to grow up. Its numerous thinking processes have to learn the skills of day-to-day living, so it's far from a "tabla rasa" (blank slate) when the cyber memories are transferred into it. This is as much a custom process as getting the package into cyber in the first place. And those transferred memories and consciousness are going to have to do a lot of learning to control this new body. This is going to be a rigorous process in both directions.


The process of trying to make this dream of moving consciousness and memories between cyberspace and human existence is going to power a lot of interesting research. And a lot of valuable surprise uses will come from this effort. These surprises will rock our world just as robots and airplanes have.

But the dream that powers these surprises, actually getting consciousness moved, is not likely to happen in the way we envision it. Just as we don't have robot personal assistants of the Robby the Robot sort, or devices which let humans actually fly like birds, moving of consciousness will not happen as we dream of it happening.

Update: This 3 Aug 13 Economist article, Neuromorphic computing: The machine of a new soul, is about building organic brains from scratch. It's a related issue and explores how different organic brains are from silicon ones.

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