The best sci-fi show on Amazon Prime reveals a disturbing scientific debate
Could we really use science to upload our minds?
What if you could live forever? It’s an idea scientists have tossed around for ages as our understanding of the human body continues to grow. But one science fiction series sidesteps the idea of endless life through miracle pills or diets to depict something different: virtual reality.
Amazon Prime’s sci-fi sitcom Upload imagines a world where humans can live forever as digital avatars in luxurious metaverse-like virtual worlds by uploading our consciousness to a kind of computer simulation — assuming you have enough money.
Upload Season 1 introduced this far-out concept back in 2020. Two years later as Season 2 debuts, we’re all a lot more familiar with the concept of the metaverse, but is there any science to back up the concept of uploading your brain to the cloud?
Season 2 of Upload is debuting this week on March 11. In honor of the new season, Inverse interviews experts in the fields of neuroscience and philosophy to unpack a few questions raised by the show’s fundamental premise, specifically: Could we really use science to upload our minds?
It might not be a near-term possibility, but the theoretical implications of consciousness uploading are still fascinating to probe nonetheless.
“We’re uploading more of the content inside the consciousness bucket. But nobody has uploaded consciousness itself,” Michael Graziano, a professor of psychology and neuroscience and head of the Graziano Lab at Princeton University, tells Inverse.
With the help of a few more scientific experts and philosophers, let’s take a closer look at the real science behind Upload.
Reel Science is an Inverse series that reveals the real (and fake) science behind your favorite movies and TV.
What is “mind uploading?”
Before we can answer this question, we have to understand what “consciousness” really means.
“Many people think of consciousness as the feeling of what it is like to experience something,” Alan Jasanoff, professor of biological engineering at MIT, tells Inverse.
Graziano likens consciousness to a bucket that reflects our ability to have subjective experiences. Our memories, perceptions, and experiences are the content that fills the bucket.
Jasanoff adds, “what makes the consciousness uniquely yours or mine certainly does depend on the memories and biases we bring with us.”
Consciousness or mind uploading is merely a theoretical exercise — for now — but theorists propose scanning a brain in great enough detail and uploading the scan to a computer simulation, which would reconstruct their personality and simulate their consciousness in a digital space. A more technical term for the process is “whole brain emulation,” and it’s basically the premise of Upload.
As Graziano explains, “if you could scan a brain in sufficient detail, you could upload that person’s entire mind, consciousness and all.”
But experts are skeptical we could ever make mind uploading happen.
“The brain is way too complex for us to simulate it to the degree of detail that would reproduce things like our individual personality,” says Gualtiero Piccinini, Associate Director, Center for Neurodynamics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Marya Schechtman, a philosophy professor and a member of the Laboratory of Integrative Neuroscience at the University of Illinois-Chicago, agrees.
“We are nowhere near understanding how we could ‘scan a brain’ and replicate anything like its function in a computer simulation,” she says.
Jasanoff says that the connections between the brain and environment are critical for generating our experiences, so one would get an “extremely incomplete view” of our from the brain alone.
“No scanning technology may ever be good enough to yield predictions of brain function,” he adds.
Could you “upload” your mind and survive?
For his part, Graziano finds the depiction of a luxurious digital afterlife in Upload entertaining, if currently implausible:
“Since uploading doesn’t exist yet, it’s all fiction, and nobody knows what it will look like. But if it is possible someday, then there is no limit to the digital, video-game world that could be created for uploaded people to live in. Why not make it lavish?”
But let’s assume, for a moment, that consciousness uploading is possible in a futuristic world like Upload where rich people pay to live their best lives in a virtual reality space for the living dead.
Even if you could simulate the human mind with a computer program, it’s debatable whether “you” would really survive in a philosophical sense — or whether that’s just a hollow digital clone of your complex being.
“Behind all this talk of uploading is an assumption about the nature of the self or person — that your consciousness and personality can be 'copied' and uploaded to a computer and that the upload would still, somehow really be you,” says Susan Schneider, Director of the Center for the Future Mind at Florida Atlantic University.
“That’s a big assumption,” she adds. The idea of an upload also blurs the line between humans and artificial intelligence (AI).
“We currently do not know whether an AI can be conscious, and an upload would be a form of AI, as it would be part of a program that is running on some sort of supercomputer,” Schneider says.
The premise of Upload raises complex questions about personal identity and consciousness that we can’t fully answer just yet, according to both Schneider and Schectman.
In addition to asking whether we can really reproduce consciousness in a digital simulation, Schectman says we must also ask if the upload would “continue the original consciousness it was modeling or just replicate it in a separate subject of experience.”
Further, the prospect of uploading raises serious ethical questions, like the rights of these uploaded beings, forming relationships with digital “people” who lack physical bodies, and social inequalities in a computer afterlife.
‘I actually think the first season of Upload did a pretty good job of exploring both the attractions and the dangers of such technologies, as well as some of its complexities,” Schechtman says.
Will the Metaverse make mind uploading easier?
Mark Zuckerberg’s dreams of helping live their lives online through virtual worlds — the Metaverse — could be seen as an interesting real-life precursor to the digital afterlife imagined in Upload. We’re arguably well on our way to virtual worlds — we spent much of our lives on social media already.
So, are we already starting the process of unloading our consciousness to virtual social worlds through our incessant tweets and TikTok posts? Not quite, experts say.
“Digital media provide a means for people to leave ‘footprints of consciousness,’ but they do not in any way constitute consciousness itself, and they could never be enough to recreate the conscious experience of an individual,” Jasanoff says.
“Technology never develops in quite the way it is imagined.”
Graziano agrees. “What we’re doing is not all that different from past authors who ‘uploaded’ their thoughts and observations into books. It’s far from preserving an actual conscious mind,” he says.
But our increasingly online lives or “digital footprints” could help “simulate other consciousnesses” similar to the way automating answering services simulate conversations with real people, according to Jasanoff.
So Upload’s future is pretty far off, but maybe we can get a hint into what consciousness might look like in a digital realm through the show’s over-the-top scheme.
“What we have tended to find, however, is that the technology never (or almost never) develops in quite the way it is imagined in science fiction,” Schechtman says.
Season 2 of Upload is streaming now on Amazon Prime.