2012-08-22

Mind uploading: the write answer

English: A 1st generation Apple iPad showing i...
A 1st generation Apple iPad showing iBooks, with the book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A book, one might say, is a document consisting of text, printed in ink on sheets of paper. A human mind, one might likewise say, is an entity consisting of ideas, thought processes and emotions, configured into neurons, synapses and glial cells in a brain.

But if I ask whether or not the book you're reading is Alice in Wonderland, I don't care what kind of ink or paper it's printed on, or whether or not it's printed at all. As far as the reader is concerned, a book is text, not the configuration of matter used to store that text. Nobody questions whether or not an e-book can be Alice, just because Alice was originally a printed book.


Why, then, can't the same be said of a human mind? Why is it still controversial whether mind uploading is logically possible, ignoring the more important question of its technological feasibility? Like books, human minds have a particular medium in which they tend to be stored. But like books, they're the information, not the storage medium.

The human mind has a lot in common with the written word. Both make humanity far more powerful than we ever were without them. Both are more useful when they can be edited, revised, updated, and supplemented. Both have historically been expensive to preserve, but are considered well worth the cost. A quick history of the decline of print might be worthwhile.

In 1938, Chester Carlson discovered that a material called a photoconductor could capture the light reflected off a page, storing the image briefly in electronic form. This process wouldn't preserve color or texture, but for text, that didn't matter. The electronic image wasn't compact or durable enough to be practical for storage, but it lasted long enough to copy to another sheet of paper. Carlson's photocopier probably increased paper consumption for a long time. But it demonstrated that text could exist in an electronic form with diagrams and typesetting preserved, and that this fact had practical applications. It was the beginning of the end for paper.

In 1964, the first fax machine was built that used phone lines, making it affordable to small businesses (previous fax machines had depended on satellite links or short-wave radio). Electronic documents were no longer confined to copier rollers, but could travel around the world, faster and (eventually) cheaper than printed copies.

Over the 70s and 80s, electronic typewriters, fax modems and computer printers became popular. They allowed documents to start life in digital form, and be printed only as the last step in delivering them to the reader.

When the World Wide Web took off in the 1990s and brought the HTML and PDF formats with it, it became as practical to read shorter documents on the screen as to print them. This meant that for the first time, documents could go from the author's fingers to the reader's eyes without ever touching a sheet of paper.

Today, broadband connections, search engines and feed readers make it much more convenient to access news, magazine articles and academic research online than in print form, so print periodicals are in fast decline. Books remain an exception, since most people can read paper faster than an iPad or Kindle screen. But display technology continues to improve, so that could easily change by 2015.

The transition of the written word from analog to digital form started gradually, and accelerated until people took it for granted. By the time Luddites noticed the change and started complaining, it was too late to stop. But their complaints were proven wrong. Initially, there were losses in conversion, but they've been eliminated. Now, text is cheaper, faster and easier to edit, typeset, store, distribute, search, and data-mine. And forests are being saved.

I expect the human mind to undergo similar stages in its transition from analog to digital. It'll be a much faster process, of course, but will probably still span at least a few years. At first, uploads will be partial and imperfect, and used only for copying (possibly back into in-vitro wetware). Then, the digital format will gradually start to serve for more and more of the life cycle, until wetware becomes the exception rather than the rule. And like e-books, the mind will become faster and more convenient to use and share, and the transition will do just as much to help save the environment.
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