The prospect of uploading your brain into a supercomputer is an exciting one — your mind can live on forever, and expand its capacity in ways that are hard to imagine. But it leaves out one crucial detail: Your mind still needs a body to function properly, even in a virtual world. Here’s what we’ll have to do to emulate a body in cyberspace. We are not just our brains. Conscious awareness arises from more than just raw calculations. As physical creatures who emerged from a material world, it’s our brains that allow us to survey and navigate through it; bodies are the fundamental medium for perception and action. Without an environment — along with the ability to perceive and work within it — there can be no subjective awareness. Brains need bodies, whether that brain resides in a vertebrate, a robot, or in future, an uploaded mind.
In the case of an uploaded mind, however, the body doesn’t have to be real. It just needs to be an emulation of one. Or more specifically, it needs to be a virtual body that confers all the critical functions of a corporeal body such that an uploaded or emulated mind can function optimally within its given virtual environment. It’s an open question as to whether or not uploading is possible, but if it is, the potential benefits are many, but knowing which particular features of the body need to reconstructed in digital form is not a simple task. So, to help me work through this futuristic thought experiment, I recruited the help of neuroscientist Anders Sandberg, a researcher at the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and the co-author of Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap. Sandberg has spent a lot of time thinking about how to build an emulated brain, but for the purposes of this article, we exclusively looked at those features outside the brain that need to be digitally re-engineered.
Emulated Embodied Cognition
Traditionally, this area of research is called embodied cognition. But given that we’re speculating about the realm of 1’s and 0’s, it would be more accurate to call it virtual or emulated embodied cognition. Thankfully, many of the concepts that apply to embodied cognition apply to this discussion as well. Philosophers and scientists have known for some time that the brain needs a body. In his 1950 article, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” AI pioneer Alan Turing wrote:
It can also be maintained that it is best to provide the machine with the best sense organs that money can buy, and then teach it to understand and speak English. That process could follow the normal teaching of a child. Things would be pointed out and named, etc.
Indeed, though cognition happens primarily (if not exclusively) in the brain, the body transmits critical information to it, in order to fuel subjective awareness. A fundamental premise of embodied cognition is the idea that the motor system influences cognition, along with sensory perception, and chemical and microbial factors. We’ll take a look at each of these in turn as we build our virtual body. More recently, AI theorist Ben Goertzel has tried to create a cognitive architecture for robot and virtual embodied cognition, which he calls OpenCog. His open source intelligence framework seeks to define the variables that will give rise to human-equivalent artificial general intelligence. Though Goertzel’s primary concern is in giving an AI a sense of embodiment and environment, his ideas fit in nicely with whole brain emulation as well.
The Means of Perception
A key aspect of the study of embodied cognition is the notion that physicality is a precondition to our intelligence. To a non-trivial extent, our subjective awareness is influenced by motor and sensory feedback fed by our physical bodies. Consequently, our virtual bodies will need to account for motor control in a virtual environment, while also providing for all the senses, namely sight, smell, sound, touch, taste. Obviously, the digital environment will have to produce these stimuli if they’re to be perceived by a virtual agent.
For example, we use our tactile senses a fair bit to interact with the world. “If objects do not vibrate as a response to our actions, we lose much of our sense of what they are,” says Sandberg. “Similarly, we use the difference in sound due to the shape of our ears to tell what directions they come from.” So, in a virtual reality environment, this could be handled using clever sound processing, rather than simulating the mechanics of the outer ear. Sandberg says we’ll likely need some exceptionally high-resolution simulations of the parts of the world we interact with. As an aside, he says this is also a concern when thinking about the treatment of virtual lab animals. Not giving virtual mice or dogs a good sense of smell would impair their virtual lives, since rodents are very smell-oriented creatures. While we know a bit about how to simulate them, we don’t know much about how things smell to rodents — and the rodent sense of smell can be tricky to measure.