Uploading Consciousness – To Be or Not to Be (Uploaded)?

Group 13

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.

Initial Decision

We conclude that the decision to upload a consciousness is an unethical one.

39 thoughts on “Uploading Consciousness – To Be or Not to Be (Uploaded)?

  1. An excellent article as there is a high level of ethical support for both sides of the argument.
    I wonder what happens to your body if you upload your consciousness. Is it still yours? When you die, your body ceases to be yours, so if your consciousness is now actively in a machine will your body be kept or disposed of?

  2. Interesting read! Could you see this being used as a way to reduce travel for work- both manual work as well as work in offices and meetings, even if not for other parts of our lives? In which case how do you see it affecting physical health as well as mental health, and do you think that productivity would increase? It is interesting seeing new social norms emerging now during the pandemic with online work and meetings and I wonder if there are new behaviours and social effects this would have on people’s health and productivity and how this could be looked at from an ethics perspective.

    1. I think the travel suggestion is interesting, as you could have a meeting in a virtual world, each person remaining physically at home, while maintaining social distancing.
      I see the mental health aspect of the uploading concept as critical. I think my exposure to social media during this lockdown, and inability to see friends in person, has led me to feel that there would be a major issue of having your brain plugging into twitter permanently. However, one could argue that the person could have control of what realm they reside in within the simulated world of the computer. I see how arguments on social media can degenerate into an ugly slagging match, where the people engaging in it feel compelled to keep responding, in a way that people wouldn’t in normal life. This makes me feel like your just going to get a load of headless chickens squarking at each other indefinitely.

  3. I enjoyed this article, it’s really thought-provoking. I agree with the conclusion and like the way that you came to that decision, it’s very logical and makes sense. However earlier on, you mention that utilitarianism might support mind-uploading for conserving global resources. What about the resources needed to set it up and ensure the machines would run properly? And what about when the machines eventually break, or run into problems?
    Also, you made the point that many arguments are assuming this is a ‘desirable’ concept. I don’t believe it is personally, so I am being biased here, but say it was undesirable and dangerous, as you say, then utilitarianism is technically not supporting it.

    1. Thank you for the feedback, I am glad you enjoyed our article.
      I agree that it is important to consider the resources needed to sustain those who have had their mind uploaded. As a group we had the view that the resource-saving factors (reduced housing demand for example) outweighed those required to run the machines. In reflection that is perhaps too large of an assumption to make.
      I am glad you included your thoughts on how desirable the process is, I agree that this view will vary from person to person. Perhaps this flaw is what pushes the balance of the argument towards it being unethical.

  4. I thought this was really well argued on both sides – I was glad to see that the lack of accessibility had been included as a point. A point to consider could be the manipulation of the ‘mind’ after uploading – perhaps mental health problems would become a thing of the past if the root cause of these illnesses could be located and edited? If this were the case, poor health could be eliminated entirely if the min-upload was a permanent transition away from the body. This has the flip-side that hacking, as you mentioned, could be a risk, and the data composing of someone’s ‘mind’ could be corrupted. Something to consider should be how long a mind may be uploaded for – would it be ethical to have a set time period, after which the mind ‘dies’?

    1. Thanks for your comment,
      Mental health is certainly a key factor, I agree that the benefits could be massive if the risks of hacking and over-exposure can be negated.
      Putting an expiration date on the process is another really interesting layer to add to the topic, and not one we considered while writing the article. I feel that it would be difficult to convince anyone uploading their mind to put those restrictions in place, given what they are already sacrificing.

  5. Hi. Thank you for the comment Patrick.
    It is an interesting point, which I’d not considered. I would tend to say that the uploaded consciousness should have the rights to say whether they wanted their old body preserved or disposed of (and how). This would have to be discussed prior to uploading.

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