Ghosts, computers, and Chinese Whispers

Toby Howard

This article first appeared in Personal Computer World magazine, November 1996.

"CLICK HERE to upload your soul" was one of the tamer headlines seen recently in reports describing the "new research direction" of British Telecom's research labs at Martlesham Heath. BT, it was reported by such authorities as The Guardian, Reuters, Time, and the Electronic Telegraph, is embarking on a huge new research project. Funded to the tune of 25 million pounds, an eight-man team is developing a "Soul Catcher" memory chip. The chip will be implanted behind a person's eye, and will record all the thoughts and experiences of their lifetime.

The idea that we might migrate minds from brains into silicon has been around for a while, and is usually referred to as "uploading". This might be achieved destructively, by visiting each neuron in turn, determining its particular characteristics and interconnections, and then replacing it with an equivalent microscopic computer based on nanotechnology; or, perhaps preferable from the patient's point of view, by non-destructively scanning the structure of the living brain and reproducing it elsewhere in silicon, like copying a complex drawing using a pantograph.

The amount of data involved would be immense, since the hardware of our nervous system is believed to comprise around 1012 neurons with 1015 synaptic interconnections. But the capacity of silicon for storing information is increasing at an almost unbelievable rate. "Moore's Law", first expressed by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1964, stated that the density of chips roughly doubles every year. Although the doubling period since the early 1970s is now more like 18 months, we are still seeing an explosive growth of chip-power. If the trend continues into the next century we might expect by 2025 to store ten million megabytes (ten terabytes, or 1013 bytes) on a single chip. If so, we might hope to record information about a brain's physical structure in a few of these chips.

But to talk about uploading thoughts and memories is quite another matter. When we talk about brains and minds, we must confront the classical "mind-body problem". We know that our brain is a collection of biological structures of (so far, at least) unimaginable complexity. Outwardly this "brain-stuff", once described by computing pioneer Alan Turing as like a bowl of cold porridge, is unmistakably physical. Deeper, a stained microscopic section of brain matter reveals a riot of interconnected neurons that looks like squashed rhubarb. How can this biology conjure or host the mystery of human consciousness? How can our minds influence the matter in the universe? Imagine: you're in the pub, and you fancy a bottle of beer. Within moments the bartender obliges. Your mind has somehow caused uncountable billions of atoms in the universe -- atoms in your muscles, your throat, the air, the barman's ears, his brain, his muscles, the fridge, the bottle, the opener, the glass -- to directly respond to your will. Quite a trick for porridge and rhubarb.

What is this "you" that has such power to disrupt the universe? Are "you" some ethereal entity -- a ghost, a soul -- operating the controls of the brain machine? Or is the machine itself just so complex that in our inability to understand its activity we seek refuge in the idea of a separate "soul"? For proponents of "Strong Artifical Intelligence", the answer is clear: human consciousness really is nothing more than the algorithmic bubbling of cold porridge, and in fact any sufficiently complex algorithm, running on any kind of machine, will lead inexorably to thinking and consciousness. Or so they say. A fierce debate rages over this claim.

If the "Strong AI" researchers are right, then we should one day expect to see computers which behave as if they are conscious. (It's the "as if" here which so antagonises the philosophers). But the possibility of creating conscious machines raises serious ethical questions. What rights would a conscious machine possess? Would concerned individuals form a Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Machines? Would those of a religious bent demand that a conscious machine be taught how to worship God? What if conscious machines did not like us, and turned nasty?

But we must, I regret, be sceptical futurists, and return to earth. Is BT really trying to cache our consciousnesses onto chips stuffed in our heads? "No!", says Chris Winter, the BT researcher quoted in the press as heading the "team of eight Soul Catcher scientists". "We are not building anything!", he told me. The whole story is a media invention, developed like a game of Chinese Whispers from its origins in an after-dinner press briefing Winter gave to local journalists, intending to enthuse them about the future-looking work at BT Labs. Winter's research group had simply undertaken a "technology trend analysis" to speculate on the future capacity of silicon, and using Moore's Law had estimated the 10 terabyte chip by 2025. To illustrate the immensity of such storage, Winter compared it with a back-of-an-envelope guestimate of the volume of data input through a person's sensory organs in an average 70-year lifespan -- 10 terabytes. The press took it from there.

Since current research into neuro-computational cochlear implants for the deaf, and retinal implants for the blind is proving successful, perhaps in the distant future something like the Soul Catcher will become a reality. However, the vision of Bob Hoskins saying "It's good to upload" makes me reach for another universe-changing beer. For more on uploading, visit

Toby Howard teaches at the University of Manchester.