Why Uploading a Loved One's Consciousness to Gadgets Isn't a Good Idea

There's too much nuance in humanity

  • A tweet about whether it would be possible to upload human consciousness is getting a lot of attention.
  • Experts say that it’s impossible to replicate human thoughts with computers.
  • It might eventually be possible to make realistic digital avatars of people. 
A silhouette of a virtual human on an abstract background of computer code and pathways.

monsitj / Getty Images

Uploading your mind into a gadget is a science fiction staple, but some observers claim the idea is getting close to reality. 

Pratik Desai, an AI developer, recently set Twitter on fire when he predicted that a human being's consciousness could be uploaded onto digital devices by the end of the year. Not so fast, experts say. 

"As a scientist who has been extensively researching consciousness and AI, I can confirm that we are still very early on in our understanding of consciousness," Nima Schei, the CEO of Hummingbirds AI, told Lifewire in an email interview. "While we may be able to create very realistic-looking deep fakes and voice clones, this does not equate to creating conscious entities. Consciousness is an extremely complex, multi-dimensional phenomenon that arises from the interactions of various brain structures and processes, and we are still far from replicating this in artificial systems for at least a couple of decades."

Humanity Can't Be Uploaded

Desai recently said on Twitter that you should start recording your loved ones. His comments received over 11 million views. 

"With enough transcript data, new voice synthesis, and video models, there is a 100% chance that they will live with you forever after leaving physical body," he tweeted. "This should be even possible by end of the year."

Consciousness is an extremely complex, multi-dimensional phenomenon that arises from the interactions of various brain structures and processes...

But Bob Rogers, the CEO of Oii.ai, a data science company, said Desai's claims are not credible. Instead, he suggested it might be possible to create a digital avatar of a person who looks and sounds like someone who is dead. 

"After all, even though a photograph is not a person, we are still reminded of, and comforted by, photographs and videos of our loved ones," he added. "Such a service would be akin to a wax museum on steroids: We know that the wax museum replicas are not real people, but we still get a certain thrill seeing such realistic replicas of famous people up close. If an avatar can imitate the voice and mannerisms of an individual and be knowledgeable about their life, interacting with that avatar could be a very intense experience."

To move beyond the idea of a live, interactive digital 'video,' the nuance of real personality and a sense of self would need to be captured, Rogers said. The biggest technical obstacle to this is that we don't really know what these are, so we don't currently know what AI algorithmic structures are needed to replicate them. 

"Experimentation could lead to breakthroughs that lead to AI that can incorporate personality and sense of self, but there would still be another crucial obstacle: There is no bio-to-digital interface in existence to transfer this information to an AI system," Rogers added. "Think of how different two identical twins can be. Telling one twin about the other does not turn that twin into the other, and to be fair, in the foreseeable future, the avatar would be far more different from a human than a twin would be."

An incomplete image of a person's head and shoulders, lacking much of the detail that makes the person look real.
StudioM1 / Getty Images.

Avatars May Be the Future

Creating an avatar would only mirror the individual's external actions and fail to capture the thoughts and emotions that drive those actions, AI consultant Richard Batt said in an email.

"Worse still, promoting this as a genuine form of consciousness could exploit the vulnerable emotions of those grieving the potential loss of loved ones," Batt said. "The allure of keeping our friends and family around forever might seem irresistible, but it's crucial to recognize the manipulative and deceptive nature of such offerings, as they would only replicate a shallow facsimile of a person's life."

Even though most scientists are skeptical that we'll be downloading human consciousness anytime soon, some leave a little wiggle room for the future. Rogers gave the idea a solid 'maybe.' 

"It would take a combination of training with information (photos, facts, video, et cetera) and also detailed probing of the brain itself (via function MRI, for example) to tune the components of the AI to respond to stimulus the way the actual human brain would," Rogers added. "Remember also that people change over time, and what we are talking about here is replicating a person at a specific point in time. True uploaded consciousness is likely to be a long way off."

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