If anyone is going to persuade us to abandon the flesh, be downloaded, and live forever as information, it is Martine Rothblatt. A satellite scientist of distinction (she started GeoStar and Sirius Satellite Radio), who succeeded in saving the life of the child of her and her partner by throwing money at research, and saved scores of other children by doing so, she decided a few years ago that the next thing to conquer was death itself.
We talked on the phone, eventually, after a problem with timezones, and I remarked to her that one of the problems with living forever, considering the delicate transfer of selfhood into electronic media, was the sheer problem of human error and computer glitches. Martine responded: “There will always be error – it’s part of the human condition. In the flesh, people have odd experiences with their own biochemistry that make them who they are: somatically induced or inherited. Yet those errors don’t prevent people forming relationships. Uploading will have its errors — manageable errors — and that is part of one of the things that will keep the uploaded human.”
Won’t the difference between sensations experienced in the flesh and sensations experienced or remembered when you are uploaded be like the difference between analog and digital recording? “It will be different, and some people will notice the difference — just as some people prefer the mellow sound of analog and some people actually prefer the crisp artificial sound of digital. But here’s the thing. Both are better than being dead and never hearing anything again, ever.”
I wondered: Would it be a nuisance never being able to forget anything, not being able to be disconcerted again by twists in the plots of books you re-read, not being able to get the surprise in Haydn’s Surprise symphony?
“That’s an assumption,” Martine said, “but actually the mindware that will be approved for use will have as one of its features a graduation of memory strength. Things can be artificially forgotten. Some things — like your name and where you are at the moment will always be front and center. Other things will not always be recalled and some things will be completely forgotten. Mindware will allow you to adjust the accessibility of what you need to know, when you need to know it. Not forgetting wouldn’t be a user option that we would choose, even with bad experiences. You need the bad things as a spur, but they need to fade to grey. And you can arrange your mindware to do that for you.”
I asked Rothblatt at what point in their lives people would choose to upload. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. Some people would use uploading just for storage. Other people would want to stay digital. Some people would want to move back and forth. The first person to visit Mercury will do so uploaded into hardware that can survive that environment. Some people would use it to do certain things and then return to the flesh, It isn’t necessarily an all or nothing thing. And that’s one of the things that demonstrates the humanity of the whole project.”
Martine believes that the philosophical opponents of uploading are mostly biological essentialists, people who believe that there is an absolute value in remaining true to an original biological form. The underlying logic of this position is that we are not clever enough to realize all the bad consequences of changing the naturally-evolved order in any way. They think — and they have always thought — that we will come to regret any change to this.
This argument is absurd, because it is contradicted by fact. Similar people argued in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries that vaccination would make people more like cows. They were against transplants. Similar arguments were used against gender reassignment/confirmation surgery — both Martine and I have an interest to declare here, since we are both trans. Everything that humans have done since we first evolved intelligence, from growing crops and domesticating dogs onwards, has involved humans tinkering with the natural order.
“People don’t need to be in one place, or one machine,” she explained. “People can exist in many places and float.
What about the argument that uploading will always be an elite thing, a way for the rich to live forever? “That’s demonstrably false: the track record of technology is one of relentless democratization. When I graduated from college there were no cell phones, and then there were a few in the hands of rich businessmen, and now half the world’s population has them, each one with a computer capacity greater than that used in the Apollo program. And some aspects of phone technology provide us already with the underlying framework, the intellectual property, for mindware.…”
Some of the first advocates of uploading thought in terms of replacing one’s flesh body with a machine. Rothblatt sees a more fluid relationship — evolving a visionary idea she calls “transbemanism.” She describes it as “a philosophy that supports transitioning to a view of ourselves as unique patterns of thoughts (bemes), rather than as bodies per se, and consequently accepting of a ‘one mind, many instantiations’ society.”
“People don’t need to be in one place, or one machine,” she explained. “People can exist in many places and float. People were originally disturbed by telephones, because an individual’s voice could be where they are speaking and where they were heard — and now we take that for granted. A singularity of embodiment would be an obsolete concept. Just because our whole cultural matrix has been one body/one mind does not mean that this has to be where we are going. And, of course, sooner or later, different versions of the uploaded personality will have experiences different enough to make them different, though closely related, persons.”
Martine developed an interest in transhumanism in 2002 when she read Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines. “I had never really thought about the numbers or the practicality, and he took me through the numbers. I felt like I wanted to be a transhumanist — it all spoke to me as a transgendered person.” A little later, she discovered the website of the World Transhumanist Association. At first she felt unwelcome, but maintains that trans people are a core part of that community, because we embrace growth and change as part of our spirituality.
There is another thing that trans people bring to transhumanism, which is an acute awareness of the importance of rights. Rothblatt sees a direct historical line between the acceptance of a person’s right to alter their gender and the freedom to be transhuman and transbeman. “Gender reassignment in the 1950s and 1960s was based on the notion that changing a body to fit a mindset was ethical and therapeutic. Transhumanism builds on transgenderism, broadening the driving mindset from a gender ideal to a human development ideal. Transbemanism builds on transhumanism by saying it is all about the mindset, and hence bodies are tools of which we may ethically have as many (real or virtual) as we want.”
Some in transhumanist circles have suggested that the future is postgender. Should the future be discussed in terms of transgender or postgender or both? Rothblatt responds: “I think the future should be discussed in terms of transgender, not post gender, because we are not abandoning gender. Indeed, gender is one of the coolest avenues for human expression. Transgendered people have too much gender for the sexual dimorphic paradigm of male or female. In the future, everyone will explore the countless gender possibilities along the male-female continuum.”
Before we start uploading ourselves, people need to possess intellectual property in themselves. The uploaded need legal personhood. Martine has taken from English Bioethicist John Harris the idea that that which values itself should be so valued, whether it be an ape or an artificial intelligence. She thinks this is a more useful guide than Jeremy Bentham’s derivation of rights from the ability to suffer. Without rights, so many crimes against the uploaded would be possible. It is easy to brainwash the embodied, and the uploaded would likely be even more vulnerable. We have to establish an ethic of the absolute impermissibility of harming a persons’ autonomy by harming their own value to themselves. It is an assault. Rothblatt: “Minds are fragile — and to hit someone in the face is almost better than to put a fist through the fragile web of a personality.”
In a sense it is a choice of a spirituality that is entirely secular and material, so one can predict that establishing the right to upload as a life choice will provoke a big fight with religious authority. After all, you are offering a version of the beatific vision, of the communion of souls and that’s religion’s unique selling point. Martine comments that the churches have had to accept reality in the past — and they are not forever. Atheism has grown in the US because science and technology can address problems where religion fails. Technology, especially information technology, has continued to empower individuals, and ideologies that don’t meet our needs get junked.While transbemanism can satisfy our spiritual longings, what does it have to say about pleasure? “Pleasure is the bedrock of transbemanism. The purpose of exalting our minds above our bodies is to lengthen and multiply the magnitude of pleasure that each individual can enjoy.”
Finally, we talked about music and the way that, when we listen to music, we feel the presence of the long dead in our souls: Chopin, or Haydn, or Miles Davis. Music is one of the kinds of information which artists have encoded themselves into in the pursuit of lasting fame and communication with others. “My core belief,” Martine says, “is that information wants to be free. People are information. Technology is a way of communicating. Douglas Hofstadter talks of how humans, through music and science and art and mathematics, transcend space and time, how as individuals we are a concatenation of all the souls who have touched us. In the flesh or uploaded, we are a colony of souls.”
Books by Roz Kaveney include Reading The Vampire Slayer and From Alien to the Matrix. She is a regular contributor to The Times Literary Supplement.