Due to the ever-increasing reliance on technology in our daily lives, the ‘digital’ and ‘real’ worlds are almost impossible to separate in many parts of the world. This means that any successful upload of a consciousness would, in theory, grant a person unlimited access to our digital world.
This trend, along with rapid improvements in virtual reality software has led some futurists, such as Ray Kurzweil to believe that humans will merge consciousness with computers, aided by improvements in brain scanning techniques. This could take many forms; this discussion will focus on the upload of a consciousness in its entirety to a cloud database.
Mind Upload – The Benefits of Digital Freedom
One ethical principle in favour of mind uploads is that of personal freedom. Kant’s theory states that actions should be judged by how they can be applied to everyone. Therefore, if someone wishes for their mind to be uploaded, they should be free to do so, as they will presumably have no opposition to others doing the same.
Secondly, if people’s consciousness can be uploaded to a digital database, this will see the stresses currently placed on finite resources such as fossil fuels and urban space greatly reduced. This is the case as many people can be supported using electricity alone (to keep the databases running). This is a complex ethical argument, as it assumes people’s willingness for their conscious to be uploaded. On the other hand, it is in the interest of everyone to preserve these endangered resources, and so it can be argued that the ethical theory of utilitarianism supports this technique.
Mind uploading is often described as an ‘afterlife’, granting people indefinite existence in digital form. This could allow elderly people to meet grandchildren they may have never met, and experience events hundreds of years in the future. By Kantian theory it can be suggested that this process is ethical due to the desirable nature of these benefits. However, it is difficult to argue the support of utilitarianism, or virtue ethics, as the ‘abilities’ the decision to upload your mind grants clashes directly with the beliefs of many religious groups, who represent a large proportion of the population.
Furthermore, if consciousness can be uploaded, it can therefore be stored and transferred. This could see a consciousness uploaded to a robot for use in dangerous situations such as defusing a bomb, or deep space exploration. This would eliminate the need for humans to undertake these tasks, therefore eliminating any risk (other than financial). For deep space exploration there are additional benefits such as increased travel distances and smaller spacecraft requirements. NASA already have plans to use ‘e-crews’ as this gives the potential for much more economically efficient space travel. A craft containing an e-crew will not require air, food, medical care or radiation shielding. NASA plan to implement this in the next 100 years.
The Dangers of a Digital Afterlife
One prominent ethical argument against mind uploads is that it would lead to greater time spent interacting online. As seen at present, more time online, particularly on social media can lead to increased depression and other mental health problems. Becoming addicted to social media is another very negative problem that could be exacerbated by having one’s consciousness plugged into that world for prolonged lengths of time, or indefinitely. From a care ethics perspective, this would be an important consideration, as companies offering a mind upload have a duty of care to consider how the person’s mental health may be affected by the process.
One of the largest ethical issue associated with mind uploading is its exclusivity. Uploading a consciousness is being investigated right now, and any possible solution will require a large amount of investment. This in turn means that this process will only be available to the rich, and so the majority of the population would have no access to the benefits the process provides. By Utilitarianism this makes the process unethical, and virtue ethics bring into question whether a virtuous person would accept these benefits when not everyone can access them. On the other hand, it should be noted that this thinking supports the process by Kant’s theory as it suggests that the process is desirable.
Additionally, the unknown nature of a mind upload makes it a questionable decision from a utilitarian perspective. Investments will be made, even though we don’t know if the desired outcome is even possible. Dr Anil Seth, a professor in neuroscience stated during a Ted Talk “what it means to be me cannot be reduced to – or uploaded to – a software program”. He clearly has doubts as to whether a mind upload is possible.
Therefore, it can be argued that the money spent to develop mind uploading technology would be better invested on something that will definitively have a positive impact on the greatest number of people, i.e. Utilitarianism. However, it is important to note that often useful technology arises indirectly when something else was being developed, for example; Velcro from space missions and improved materials from wars.
A further important issue to note is the security risk associated with putting a consciousness online. This can be seen as a care ethics issue, as the customer is trusting the ‘uploader’ with something far more important than any material possession. Any successful hacking attempt would grant full access to an identity, putting those in both the digital and real worlds at risk.
We conclude that the decision to upload a consciousness is an unethical one.