Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” –  is a contributor to WRAL TechWire.  He’s also author of “The Doomsday Book: The Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Threats.” His exclusive columns written for TechWire are published on Fridays. 

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RALEIGH – A few weeks ago, I visited with an old friend. The keyword here is “old”. He is about 90 years old and has led a long and fruitful life. The problem is that he now has dementia. A couple years ago, this was not the case. There was the occasional hiccup, but overall his mind was sound. He was lucid and fun and full of vigor. At this last visit, however, things had taken a notable turn for the worst.

The biggest problem in this case is the loss of short-term memory. It expresses itself as repetition. He will ask a question and receive an answer. Then he asks the same question, receives an answer again. This might be repeated ten times before that cycle stops and a new question arises, subject to the identical cycle. The same thing can happen with tasks, where hands get washed 10 times, 20 times. Within a few seconds of washing them, he forgets that he washed them. Due to this lack of memory, tasks can get repeated over and over again. It won’t be long before he doesn’t even know who I am.

As you may recall, my sister died last year. My mother died this past summer. And with my old friend, this is another death. In my friend’s case, the mind of a friend has died while the body is living on.

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It brings up a good question: what is the state of mind uploading technology? Could it help? Is this idea anywhere near fruition?

The idea of mind uploading is born in science fiction. The concept is that someone’s mind or consciousness will be extracted or copied from their brain and uploaded so that it can run on a computer. Thus, if my consciousness has been uploaded, a perfect copy of my consciousness can live forever. It will have all my memories from the past along with the ability to have new experiences and memories going forward. And it will not degrade like human brains do. There will be no dementia nor death with the uploaded consciousness.

It turns out that humanity is still a long way from accomplishing real mind uploading, but let’s look at what is possible today.

Taking a video or creating a book

The most obvious technology for preserving any slice of a person’s consciousness today is to either take a video or write down the stories of a friend or loved one. When anyone authors an autobiography or memoir, this is a tiny piece of their consciousness captured in static form. For example, I have scrapbooks and some video of my mother telling stories of her childhood and upbringing. If you are a fan of the “Frasier” television program, here is an example of Niles trying to take a video of Martin for the sake of posterity: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_p7ij5sRl1U

Your mileage may vary.

There are even activities that have sprung up around this kind of stuff. For example, you could create a “heritage scrapbook.”

Or professionally record your stories.

The blurb says: “SoundStory was conceived under the premise that every person has a unique story to be told. Be it a story of great success, overcoming challenges or just one of simple pleasures – what better gift can you give than forever documenting the story of the lives of loved ones? This is a gift for the interviewee, but also for all of the family members who get to hear this professional interview crafted to tell the story from the only relevant viewpoint: theirs.”

A little Googling can help you find a hundred other options.

The problem with a book or video like this is that there is no interaction. Sure, it is nice to have the stories preserved, and it is OK to watch a video of my dead mother telling a story, but this is nowhere near preserving her consciousness.

Creating a chatbot to preserve a dead person

About five years ago, a new technology arose for preserving some aspect of a person’s consciousness: the personal chatbot. It’s a pretty simple idea. You ask a person a bunch of questions, write down their answers, and then plug it all into a chatbot. Or you might take old emails and texts from a dead person as a source of data and plug those into a chatbot. Then people can “talk to” the chatbot replica of the dead person. Articles like these discuss the trend:

Again, if you go to Google and YouTube, you can find a hundred variations on this theme.

This is significantly better than a static video or scrapbook of a dead person. You can really interact with the chatbot replica at some level. But there are two significant problems:

  1. The chatbot only knows what it knows. If my mother were alive and I asked her, “where did you and dad go on your second date?”, she would be able to answer the question. But if no one ever asked her this question while she was alive, this bit of information is lost forever. Multiply this little problem by a million and you can see that a chatbot replica of someone can have significant limitations due to lack of data.
  2. The chatbot is not conscious. It cannot have new experiences. It cannot take action.

If a dead person’s mind and consciousness were truly uploaded, it would be the complete consciousness come to life. The whole person would be there, and the whole person would be able to act as an immortal.

What would real mind uploading look like?

What would it look like if we could really upload a person’s mind or consciousness? What this would mean is:

  1. We take a person’s brain…
  2. We map the whole thing out…
  3. We create a high-fidelity copy of it in digital form…
  4. And then we run that digital copy of it with a computer.

Now we would have a real copy of the person’s complete consciousness: All the memories, all the emotions, all the stories, everything. And this consciousness could keep acting like the real person from whom the copy was made.

Just to take a slight tangent here, let’s imagine that we really had this capability today. It would create some weird situations and paradoxes for sure. One example: I would be able to talk to myself. Another example: what if I created a copy of my consciousness and told it to go deal with all the email I receive. Wouldn’t the copy of me rebel against email as much as the real me does? Which one of us would have to deal with email? For that matter, who is the “real” me?

Another example: What if I create 10 copies of my consciousness and they all go off and live independent lives for a year. Now all 11 of us get together a year later. We have all met different people, had different experiences, learned different life lessons. Is one of the 11 of us “better” than the others? Is one now smarter? It really is interesting to think about these questions and ponder what would happen. Wouldn’t there soon be 8 trillion consciousnesses compared to the 8 billion that exist today as people create many copies of themselves?

But let’s get back on track: how would we do it? Human beings do not yet know everything about the human brain. But four important aspects of it that we believe we understand are:

  • The concept of a neuron cell. There are about 100 billion neuron cells in a brain.
  • The concept of a synapse. One neuron cell connects to another neuron cell with a synapse, and one neuron cell can support perhaps 1,000 synapses? So there are approximately 100 trillion synapses in a brain.
  • The concept of synaptic weight. A synapse can have a weak or strong influence on the neuron it connects to. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synaptic_weight )
  • See also this video about the different areas of the brain and how they work together: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRFXSjkpKWA

If we wanted to create a complete digital copy of someone’s brain, and therefore their consciousness, we would need to map out all 100 billion neurons and how they connect to each other, and then discover all the 100 trillion synaptic weights. With this information, we would have a high-fidelity copy of their brain. We could theoretically reconstruct someone’s brain and therefore consciousness in digital form using all of this data. By running the digital copy, the person’s complete consciousness theoretically comes to life.

How might we discover the mapping of 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synaptic weights? Science fiction proposes that we might use nanobots to do it. A nanobot would map out the structure of one neuron and its synapses, and then replace the neuron. Doing this 100 billion times, and then reading out the structure of the 100 billion nanobots, would theoretically allow replication of the brain. Also, the original brain would be replaced with nanobots and would be much improved in terms of longevity.

The only problem is that these nanobots do not exist, in the same way that antigravity beams and lightsabers do not exist. Which is to say: These hypothetical nanobots are completely imaginary right now.


So, what might you do if you want to preserve a friend or relative who is nearing death? You can definitely make video recordings. You can definitely ask them lots of questions and plug the answers into a chatbot (along with past emails and texts). But it will probably be a long while before anyone is replicating a person’s complete consciousness. The technology for doing it is likely decades away.