You may have heard of the so-called Singularity — the idea that, thanks to technology, we'll soon be able to upload our minds into computers and become, for all intents and purposes, immortal. It's an exciting notion. Even The New York Times likes the idea. There's just one problem: It's a load of bull.
To be fair, the S-word has come to mean a lot of different things to different people in the 25-plus years since the concept was invented, but one of the most popular interpretations — espoused most prominently by inventor/futurist Ray Kurzweil — is that at some point in the next few decades, computers will outpace the capabilities of the human brain, and silicon chips will become the hardware of choice for hosting our minds. Instead of being trapped in biological bodies that crap out after 80 years, we'll upload ourselves into computers and live forever.
It sounds amazing, but there are plenty of issues that will stand in the way of this theory ever becoming reality. Here are the top six:
1. Two Words: Fail Whale
This may seem like a cheap shot, but "uptime" is something our most advanced computer scientists still struggle with. Hell, our super-sophisticated algorithms can't even keep a text-based microblogging service from crashing during the World Cup — what happens when there's a Fail Whale for your mind? Will it be like getting a hangover, having a stroke, or dying? You'd have to assume we'll all be "backed up," but that raises troubling questions too: when the server running You goes kaplooie, is your "backup" really you, or just a clone of you that takes your place now that the "real" you is lost? The Singularitarians don't have reassuring answers, and I don't want to find out the hard way.
2. The Storage Media Won't Last Five Years, Much Less Forever
Stone tablets written in Sanskrit may last millennia, but digital storage media go to shit alarmingly fast when used continuously (and you'd have to assume there'd be constant disk activity if millions of people were "living" on them!). Without frequent physical backups, refreshes, and format updates, precious data will quickly be rendered unreadable or inaccessible. So when we're all "in the cloud," who's gonna be down on the ground doing all that real-world maintenance — robots? Morlocks? Even if that works, it just seems evolutionarily unwise to swap one faulty physical substrate (albeit one that has been honed for millions of years, runs on sugar and water, and lasts nearly a century) for another one that can barely make it from one Olympic season to the next, even with permanent air-conditioning.
3. Insane Energy Demand
The human brain only needs 20 watts to run the app called You, but with almost 7 billion of us and counting, we're already straining the earth's ability to host us all. Meanwhile, you know how much juice one Google data center consumes just to index the latest LOLcats (a task much, much simpler than hosting your digital consciousness)? 100 million watts. Do the math: We'd have to invent fusion reactors or build a Dyson sphere just to keep the lights on. Neither of those technologies are theoretically impossible — in fact, they fit right into the Singularitarians' techno-magical worldview. But they're definitely not gonna happen within the next few decades, and probably not even within the next century or two.
4. Lack of Processing Power
Singularitarians love to trot out simple arithmetic: add up all the brain's billions of neurons and trillions of synapses, and you get a "total processing power" of about 10 quadrillion calculations per second, or 10 petaflops. Meanwhile, IBM's Blue Gene/P supercomputer has a maximum theoretical limit of around 3 petaflops. So just give it a decade or two, and it'll lap us easy, right? It's Moore's Law, bitchez!
That might be true if neurons only acted like digital transistors. But they don't. Neuroscientists are still uncovering all the ways that the little wires in our heads encode information besides flipping bits: chemically (via hormones and neurotransmitters), temporally (by changing the rate at which they fire, alone or in coordinated waves), even structurally (literally rewiring, strengthening, or pruning connections in response to new input). Adding up all that extra computational oomph is something scientists are still struggling to do, but even a conservative estimate would bump up that 10-quadrillion figure by several orders of magnitude. A million Blue Genes wouldn't be enough to match it.
5. Minds Don't Work Without Bodies
OK, fine, so we'd need 4.7 squillion digital transistors to match the brain — but even that vast figure is still finite. Maybe it'll take us 100 or 500 years to get there instead of 20, but won't it happen eventually?
Probably, but it still won't do the trick. In the same way that a city is not equivalent to its map, what makes you You isn't just the information content of your memories and conscious mind — it's the whole dynamic physical pattern and history of your body, down to the level of squirting chemicals and ion channels. You aren't "in" your body, like a little homunculus looking out; but nor are you "on" your body, like an OS running on interchangeable server hardware. Quite simply, you are your body.
Even your brain is just another organ doing its evolved-for job as a part of the integrated whole, like your heart or spleen. And that job, according to an ever-increasing heap of scientific evidence, is not to generate deep thoughts about how iPhone is better than Android.
In fact, we barely know anything about what specific jobs all of the brain's structures actually evolved for, but an emerging consensus is that the brain's main job is simply to keep track of what various parts of your body are doing (or should be doing). Meanwhile, your oh-so-special conscious self is an evolutionary Johnny-come-lately, a bug that became a feature, always under the delusion that it's in charge but really just along for the ride.
So isn't that all the more reason to upload it outta there ASAP? Unfortunately it doesn't work like that. Because your mind is a side effect of the particular body you happen to have, you can't fully separate the two — at least, not without losing everything you know and experience as "yourself". Experiments have shown that people's personalities can change if they are "embodied" just slightly differently via virtual reality; studies on amputees have shown that removing body parts affects visual perception; and even simple abstract notions we take for granted (like "past" and "future," "like" and "dislike," even "you" and "I") boil down to physical sensations of the body in space. Prominent neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has even said that if your mind were to be somehow extracted from the body you grew up with, you'd go insane. Kinda puts that word "post-human" in a whole different light, doesn't it?
6. Who Gets Uploaded?
And you thought the lines for iPhone 4 were bad… even if all the above problems were magically solved, there's still human nature to contend with. War and conflict may not technically be hardwired into our species, but the past 10,000 years of human history are hard to argue with. Unless there's a way to instantly "teleport" the entirety of humanity into the cloud simultaneously, you can bet your digitized ass that there'll be fighting over who goes first (or doesn't, or shouldn't), how long it takes, what it costs, who pays, how long they get to stay there… you know, all the standard crap that humans have been busting each other's chops about ever since we could stand upright. I'll opt out, thanks.
What About the Far Future?
Now you may be thinking, "Listen, jerk, you're just talking in terms of today's technology — not the untold wonders that will be invented before any of this stuff happens." And you'd be right. But that's what's so ridiculous about the Singularity: its partisans often claim that these things are going to happen within our lifetimes, not in some distant future whose technology is indistinguishable from magic. Even if Moore's Law continues to hold, and even if you factor in the growth of infant technologies like quantum computers, the basic way that practical digital computing gets done is not going to change much in the next few decades. Which means that no one is going to upload his mind anytime soon.
Of course, mind uploading is only one aspect of The Singularity. If you'd like to read thorough scientific debunkings of the other cockamamie ideas associated with it, IEEE Spectrum devoted a whole special issue to just that. It's a hoot.