When discussing the future, one has to be careful not to consider one change in isolation, as if this one aspect were to change while everything else remains the same. I think this is what happens when substrate-independent minds are discussed. People imagine mind uploading occurring today, with today’s beliefs about self and identity. But, if we consider a broader range of changes that the enabling technologies of uploading could bring about, it becomes reasonable to suppose that the classic upload dilemma (is a copy of my mind me? Or somebody else?) will be rendered obsolete.
1: BLUE BRAIN AND ALL THAT
Of course, if copying brains — mind, consciousness and all — is not possible, the whole argument is moot, anyway. In an interview with documentary filmmaker Noah Hutton, Henry Markram outlined the expected progress of the Blue Brain Project, which is to model increasingly complex mammalian brains, starting with mice and progressing towards the human brain. He also pointed out that you could one day model a specific brain:
“Eventually, you’ll be able to build, I think, very individual models. Your brain. You start with a template, take everything about you into account, and the template morphs into a personalized brain. It’s possible, in principle”.
Greg Egan fans will note that the author imagined just this kind of progress in Permutation City — beginning with isolated neural pathways such as portions of the visual cortex or sections of the limbic system and progressing toward ‘a functionally complete representation of the whole organ.” If Markram is wrong and personalized brain emulations are not possible, progress in this area should reach fundamental obstacles. So it is worth keeping tabs on Blue Brain and other related areas to see how things are progressing. As to whether running a whole brain emulation will be delayed because of “a scarcely articulated unease at the prospect of what it would mean” (again, quoting Egan’s Permutation City), well, again, we shall see.
Needless to say, a whole-brain emulation that can pass any psychological test for being ‘human’ would obsolete the question of impossibility (although I expect a few die-hards will construct complex philosophical arguments denying the human identity of such software). But what about the question of identity? Is a copy of your brain a continuation of yourself, or the creation of an identity distinct from you? What are the developments that will render this dilemma obsolete?
2: YOUR HEAD IN THE CLOUD
Ever since the invention of writing, humans have offloaded aspects of cognition. Nowadays, we are surrounded by a plethora of personal computing/communication devices. The philosopher, David Chalmers, contemplated the relationship between himself and his iPhone; how he relied on it to remember addresses; used its calendar to help organize his schedules; and consulted Google when trying to settle disputes. “Friends joke that I should get the iPhone implanted in my brain”, he said. “But…all this would do is speed up the processing and free my hands. The iPhone is part of my mind already.” If Ray Kurzweil’s charts of technological evolution are accurate, we should expect computational devices to reach levels of miniaturization and sophistication where billions of nanobots patrol the vascular system establishing wireless links between networks of themselves and the individual’s own organic brain cells. The intermediate stages between the nanobots and contemporary devices like the iPhone would be increasingly discrete computers and sensors, embedded in more and more places and networked so as to share data that would help to perform useful functions on behalf of people.
It will seem, in other words, like your mind is extending beyond the confines of your skull, thanks to what another philosopher (Andy Clarke) calls the “Parity Principle”: “If, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it to go on in the head, we would have no hesitation in accepting as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is… part of the cognitive progress.”
Those who have read Accelerando by Charles Stross will recall Manfred Macx’s glasses and waist pouch: “They’ve got…distributed search engines running a bazillion inscrutable search tasks, and a whole slew of high-level agents that collectively form a large chunk of the society of mind that is their owner’s personality.” Imagine that uploading becomes available and affordable in a world where this kind of technology is commonplace. With so much of the cognitive processes running in the Cloud, anyway, would the prospect of uploading those processes still dependent on wetware be at all bothersome?
3: THE BODY
It won’t just be our minds that extend out into the world around us. Researchers have already implanted microwires into the motor cortex of monkeys and developed algorithms that translate the electrical activity of neurons into commands that control devices. In one experiment, a monkey was able to thought-control two robots arms, one of which was in a room across the hall, and the other was hundreds of miles away. If such technology becomes widely available for human use, how would it affect perceptions of the body?
It has been shown, using various psychological and neuroscientific experiments, that the mind does not actually know where the body ends and the rest of the world begins. So long as the mind can correlate a cognitive process with a change in some object (such as an intention to grasp something resulting in a remote claw performing that very action) that object becomes incorporated into your body map and will come to feel as much a part of your body as your leg. As more objects respond in some physical way to mental commands, it would become second-nature to think of the body as highly decentred, able to “be’” wherever there is a closed-loop between intention and action. So, the individual would have a body extended out into the Cloud as well as (much of) the mind. Again, would the prospect of shedding off the organic body and relying completely on artificial or virtual bodies (assuming sensory input is on a par with the organic body) be bothersome?
4: THE NEW SELF
You have one body, one brain, and therefore one self, right? Well, no… not necessarily. The reason why not is because there are many kinds of brain processes and these are capable of generating different states of mind. Sometimes these mind states give rise to a sense of self that is very “singular”, but other states-of-mind exist that create a sense of multiplicity, and there is a whole spectrum of states between the two extremes of feeling very singular and disassociative identity disorders. According to Richard Davidson (a neuroscientist specializing in happiness research), “we are…discovering that our personality in all possible dimensions is far more malleable than we thought. And it’s going to give us a more fluid concept of the self”. Such thoughts are echoed by philosophers like Thomas Metzinger, who reject the very idea of a fixed essence of identity.
Ignoring the extreme conditions that are indeed debilitating, neither a ‘singular’ nor a ‘multiple’ self is intrinsically good or bad. Instead, they are adaptations that are useful in certain environments. When routine and stability are the norm, that favurs the singular self. For much of history, people rarely moved away from the place they were born and they could expect to occupy the same jobs or roles as their grandparents. Limited horizons constrained people’s lives, so it is little wonder that the mind created an illusion of a core self. It was a useful fiction.
Nowadays, no job is for life and we find ourselves in a world in which we need to be flexible and adaptable. The accelerating rate of change continues apace, and broadening access to communication technologies opens us up to a far wider range of voices and opinions. This favors an ability to shift viewpoints and behavior; to develop states-of-mind made up of a group of personalities held together by shared memories. According to Lone Frank, “a recognition of the fluid self sets the stage for a recognition that life is not so much about finding yourself but choosing yourself or molding yourself into the shape you want to be”.
If it becomes second-nature to think of the self as fluid and changeable — a multiplicity rather than a solid core that threatens the extinction of the self if it is lost — would the possibility of another self that is not “you” seem like an existential threat, or simply a recognition that there is no ‘you’ in that sense, because there is no fixed essence of identity?
5: DIGITAL PEOPLE
Digital people occupy a kind of intermediate state between ‘me’ and ‘other’. They are sort of yourself and sort of somebody else at the same time. Giulio Prisco considers current virtual realities to be too crude to seriously consider avatars as people in their own right. But I am sure he would acknowledge that online worlds could one day be as persuasive as real life (while not necessarily being ‘realistic’).
Also, computers do more than store information. They also process it. This, potentially, makes a crucial difference between fictional characters like Harry Potter (created in the medium of books) and characters like, well, me (created in online worlds). People like Ian Bell and Martine Rothblatt have raised the possibility of ubiquitous computing and a proliferation of sensors logging sufficient details of a person’s habits, knowledge, facts about their life, favorite quips and phrases and so on, to enable autonomous avatars that can interact with others and respond just like you would have.
I believe that, as technologies like MyCyberTwin become more sophisticated, people will appreciate having an avatar that is not just a tool for communication, but also a person in its own right that collaborates with the user in order to get things done and help organize increasingly complex augmented realities. Sometimes it will be convenient to have full tele-operation of one’s avatar, but other times it would be convenient to allow one’s avatar to operate independently, perhaps to deal with a problem while the primary concentrates on something else.
Over time, it would seem like more and more aspects of your personality were migrating into cyberspace, becoming embodied in virtual people who are sometimes extensions of your own mind and other times independent agents. Perhaps someone like Samantha Atkins could regard an upload of her mind as ‘Serendipity Seraph’, once at an intermediate stage between herself and ‘other’, and now a fully-fledged Mind Child, taking everything important to her identity into posthuman realms where the flesh cannot follow.
Extropia DaSilva is a digital person, currently residing in Second Life. Her purpose is to explore how NBIC technologies are redefining concepts of self. She chairs the Thinkers discussion group.