Many will find the assurance of the immortality of life as a cold comfort for their death as individuals. They feel that a truly good God would make some provision for individual life after death also. What I believe that the Christian hopes for in eternal life has been ably expressed by the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg:
... the life that awakens in the resurrection of the dead is the same as the life we now lead on Earth. However, it is our present life as God sees it from His eternal present. Therefore, it will be completely different from the way we now experience it. Yet, nothing happens in the resurrection of the dead except that which already constitutes the eternal depth of time now and which is already present for God's eyes -- for His creative view.
We shall, so to speak, live again in the mind of "God." But if this 'Larger Consciousness System' is as globally hyperbolic (deterministic) as I have presented it in my Consciousness musings, all the information contained in the whole of human history, including every detail of every human life, will be available for analysis by the collectivity of life in the far future referenced by cosmologists as the "Omega Point", or the supreme point of complexity and consciousness. In principle at least (ignoring the difficulty of extracting the relevant information from the overall background noise), it is possible for life in the far future to construct, using this information, a perfectly accurate emulation of these past lives: in fact, this emulation is just what a sufficiently close scrutiny of our present lives at the Omega Point would amount to. In "How Did Here Get Here?", I tried to make the point that a sufficiently perfect emulation of a living being would, in fact, be alive. The drive for total knowledge -- which life in the future must seek if it is to survive at all, and which will be achieved only at the Omega Point -- would seem to require such an analysis of the past, and hence such an emulation would be carried out. If so, then the resurrection of the dead in the sense of Pannenberg would be inevitable. The physical mechanism of individual resurrection: we shall be emulated in the computers of the future. The technical terms for the reality we resurrected individuals shall inhabit in the far future is "virtual reality" or "cyberspace" rather than "Heaven."
The universal resurrection is physically possible even if no information whatsoever about an individual can be extracted from the historical light cone. Since the universal computer capacity increases without bound as the Omega Point is approached, it follows that, if only a bare bones description of our current world is stored permanently, then there will inevitably come a time when there will be sufficient computer capacity to emulate our present-day world. by simple brute force: by creating an exact simulation -- an emulation -- of all possible variants of our world. For example, since a human being has about 110,000 active genes, this means that the human genome can code about 1010 6 possible genetically distinct humans. Furthermore, the human brain can store between 1010 and 1017 bits, which implies that there are between 210 10 and 210 17 possible human memories. As the universal computer capacity arrives at this large capacity it passes the point at which it could store all possible human emulations as an insignificant fraction of the entire capacity and all the dead can be resurrected.
What happens in this resurrection scenario is that an exact replica of ourselves is being emulated in the computer memory of the far future. This emulation of people who are long dead is "resurrection" only if we adopt what philosophers call the "pattern identity theory"; that is, the essence of identity of two entities which exist at different times lies in the (sufficiently close) identity of their patterns. Physical continuity is irrelevant. Other famous philosophers have insisted that the essence of identity is called the "continuity identity theory". Although philosophers generally develop a theory of identity so as to solve the problem of the identity of persons over time -- i.e., when is it correct to say that a certain baby in 1950 is a certain adult human in 1993? -- they also generally agree that their identity theory also applies to non-living objects as well.
I think that the most conclusive settling of the "Is it real, or is it Memorex' argument lies, as usual, in quantum mechanics. It is a fundamental fact of quantum mechanics that two systems -- e.g., two atoms -- in the same quantum state cannot be distinquished, even in principle: if they are interchanged physically, the universe (except possibly for a phase) is unchanged. This total and absolute indistinguishability of systems in the same quantum state is of central importance to modern physics. In particular a vast number of phenomena cannot be explained except by assuming the exact identity of systems in the same quantum state. This exact identity is the ultimate cause of the stability of matter: without this exact identity, the exclusion principle would be unable to prevent the collapse of atoms and all solid bodies into black holes.
A human being is merely a special type of quantum system. Thus the quantum criterium for system identity applies to humans, and hence two humans in the same quantum state are the same person: if a 'replica' of a long dead person were made which was identical to the quantum state of the long-dead person, the 'replica' would be that person. To reject this identity is to reject a basic postulate of quantum mechanics, confirmed by innumerable experiments done over a period of over a century. Traditionally, theology has required continuity in order to maintain identity between the original and resurrected persons, and getting this continuity was the underlying reason for introducing the idea of an immortal soul. The need for such continuity is obviated by quantum mechanics, and thus we see that an immortal soul is no longer necessary for individual immortality.
Once an emulation of a person and his/her world has been formed in a computer of sufficient capacity, the emulation can be allowed to develop further--to think and feel things that the long-dead original person being emulated never felt and thought. It is not even necessary for any of the past to be repeated. The emulation could simply begin with the brain memory of the dead person as it was at the instant of death (or ten years before, or twenty minutes before) implanted in the emulated body of the dead person, the body being as it was at age twenty (or age seventy or ...). This body and memory collection could be set in any simulated background environment: a simulated world indistinguishable from the long-extinct society and physical universe of the revived dead person, or even a world that never existed, but one as close as logically possible to the ideal fantasy world of the resurrected person. Furthermore, all possible combinations of resurrected dead can be placed in the same simulation and allowed to interact. For example, the reader could be placed in a simulation of all of his/her ancestors and descendents, each at whatever age (physical and mental, separately).
The simulated body could be one that is vastly improved over the one we currently have: the laws of the simulated world could be modified to prevent a second physical death. Borrowing the terminology of St. Paul, we can call the simulated, improved, and undying body a "spiritual body," for it will be of the same 'stuff' as the human mind now is : a "thought inside a mind" (in Aristotelian language, "a form inside a form"; in computer language, a virtual machine inside a machine). The spiritual body is thus just the present body (with improvements) at a higher level of implementation. With this phasing, St. Paul's description is completely accurate: "So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spirital body". Only as a spiritual body, only as a computer emulation, is resurrection possible without a second death: our current bodies, implemented in matter, could not possibly survive the extreme heat near the terminal singularity. Again, St. Paul's words are descriptive: "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God". Or perhaps to go back even further to the words of Heraclitus of Ephesus in the 6th century BCE, "In death men will come on things they do not expect, things utterly unknown to the living".
Life is a road along which we leave many markers -- points in time and places on the map -- The ones in time we can only revisit in our mind and they never change. The places can be revisited firsthand, but they are constantly changing. To keep the place the same, you can no longer return to it -- and then it becomes a point in time.
For most of my ‘meat based’ life I have been a champion of Socrates who famously noted that an unexamined life was not worth living. For him, in order for something to be beautiful it had to be intelligible. A closely related axiom was that only the knowing one is virtuous. He found the consummation of his pleasure in the process of a continuously successful unveiling of ultimate reality through his own unaided efforts. For those who share this view, the “unveiling” of truth is more than merely useful. It is the only way to secure the meaning of the world as a whole.
I have lived during a time of consumer madness in which the prevailing culture is dominated by sensory constructions that equate the good with what is visibly beautiful, strong, and the like. These are the late and highly refined, though weaker and less assured, expression of an older, rougher, Achillean heroic ideal based on the value of glory and splendor. Into the decaying aristocratic culture of fifth century Athens, Socrates enters with a consuming desire for the very thing this culture values most—for strength, power, and the authority to command. But he lacks the wealth and the social standing and good looks that are the conventional sources of such authority. So he must find a way to win what he is after by altering the terms on which power and authority are distributed and deference to them based.
The premoral world of Achilles as imagined by Socrates is a fiercely judgmental world. In it, men judge and are judged quickly, often with immediate life and death consequences. heir judgments are aesthetic in nature. They are based on appearance and reflect the relative grandeur or obscurity, beauty or deformity, strength or weakness of the men who make their presence known to one another through their deeds in the sunlite world.
Those who stand out on account of the forcefulness of their personalities and the brilliance of their actions are "good"--bright, clean, to be listened to and followed. Those who lack these qualities are "bad"--weak , blemished, with no autority or prestige. The first are the truthful ones. Their splendor is more reliable than anything that cannot be seen. The second are unsteady, unreliable, deceptive and deceiving. That is because there is so little to them. Everyone can see how insubstantial they are. They are fit only to follow and serve those who are stronger than themselves. They are slaves by nature--an echo of this archaic can still be heard in fifth century Athens in Aristotle's defense of natural slavery--and have to accept their position in the hierarchical order to which they belong regardless of the suffering that this entails, just as the little lamb must in his relationship to the eagle. In a world organized on the basis of strength, beauty, health, and the like, the weak must accept their fate as obscure nonentities who barely make an appearance at all.
Notwithstanding its hostility to the splendor of appearances, Socratism is therefore itself an aesthetic program, or rather the beginning of one. To complete it, a new metaphysics had to be constructed on the basis of Socrates’ equation of beauty to intelligibility. Plato’s doctrine of the forms represents the first step in this direction. Behind the kaleidoscope world of appearances, where nothing stays put for a second, we must assume the existence, Plato says of another world of enduring forms that remain forever the same. These alone allow us to stabilize our experience of the world so that it becomes comprehensible to us.
Plato’s distinction between appearance and the forms in which they participate, is the source of our concept of a “thing.” This becomes fundamental for the entire tradition of Western philosophy and science, even up to Kant, who in contrast to Plato denies that the object of our study of the world of appearances can ever be directly grasped by the mind, but preserves the idea of a “thing” as the organizing, if unobtainable, target of human experience, without which it would have no coherence at all.
Socratism has been stupendously successful. Its “supreme law” is the premise of the scientific culture that now dominates all aspects of human experience. In Semitic Origins I tried to write of how the Babylonian exile of the Jews in 586 BCE adjusted the Socratic ideal. According to their revision when their once all-powerful war-God suffered defeat instead of taking this as a reason to abandon the God who had been unable to secure their political existence, the Israelites construed their defeat as a sign of their divine protector instead. They interpreted the meaning of their defeat as an expression that became the nursery bed of the Chrustian religion. It is Christianity that transforms the Jews' theodicy of suffering into a universal theology in which all differences among peoples vanish in the general concept of man.
In this new picture of things, to be good no longer means to be politically powerful or rich or highborn. The good are now the righteous and morally pure--those who remain steadfastly obedient to the word of God. And the wicked are the "great ones of the world" whose devotion to worldly goods shows that they are nothing in God's judgment, which trumps any merely human assessment of the meaning of glory and suffering in the political realm.
Two features of this reinterpretation of the meaning of worldly values explain its worldly success. The first is its simplicity. Instead of adding refinements to the age old ethic of aristocratic honor, it merely substitutes a negative sign for a positive one, and vice versa. At a stroke, it converts every aspect of this ancient ethic to its exact opposite.
The second is its hermetic character. For those who accept the Jews' reinterpretation of sanctity, hope and reward, every attack on it is a further confirmation of its truth. This was an important part of its seductive appeal both for the Jews and then later for the Christian missionaries who carried their evaluation of values to the gentile world.
Jews and Christians of course understand the triumph of their view of human experience in moral terms. To them it represents the victory of righteousness over evil, of the city of God over that of man. It can be seen, however, as the slow, then accelerating and finally irresistable acceptanc of a picture of the world invented, as all such pictures are, to provide an antidote to suffering, whose remedial power depends on its own illusionistic charms. Together with the Socratic interpretation of the world, and the concepts of "cause," "thing," and "knowledge" it employs, the morality of the Jews, refined and strengthened by their Christian and post-Christian successors, constitutes one of the two pillars of the unnoticed aesthetics of modernity itself. In Nietzsche's view the ruling spirit of this culture manifests itself in a particular type of human being-- that of the “specialist“ that Nietzsche describes as “hunchback” or “dwarf.”
It is natural for human beings to take pleasure in the cultivation of their abilities--to enjoybeing able to perform ever more demanding and complex tasks with the powers we possess. This requires training, education, and the like, which in turn depend upon the support and encouragement of others. Because it is impossible for any individual to develop to their fullest all the powers he or she possesses, a choice must be made among them. To develop one or some, others have to be neglected. The choice is typically made on a basis of one's interests and talents--of what one enjoys and does well. Because there is a great diversity in both regards, the result of following the Aristotelian Principle (which we do by nature, not command) is an equally great diversity of specialized accomplishments, each of which may be thought of as the realization of one small bit of the entire arsenal of human abilities, in which everyone shares to some degree, but that are distributed unequally among different individuals.
Unlike Socrates himself, the billions of specialists who today live and work within the picture of the world that he and his successors created have no artistic greatness at all. They are small and industrious workers who never notice the immense artistry that was required to invent the world they inhabit, with its guiding ideas of “thing” and “cause” and principled distinction between truth and appearance. They never feel even a twinge of the urgency that drove Socrates and Plato to labor to build a home in which they could be safe from the world of sights and sounds, whose pointlessness they lacked the strength to embrace more directly.
The world of today’s specialist only makes sense on the assumption that there are two worlds between which he must maintain a rigorous separation at all times. One is the world of deceptive appearances and the other of true but invisible realities, best represented in mathematical terms that alone provide the standard by which to measure and judge the world of sensory experience. But whereas Socrates was keenly aware of the quarrel, as he put it, between philosophy and poetry, his small minded heirs have forgotten that their ideals were forged .against a struggle against the power of worldly beauty. They do not see that even modern science rests on a picture of the world that seeks like every other to tame the wild heart with distinctions and delineations that establish “boundaries” in “the midst of the sea,” and fix a “due proportion” among things whose separateness is not the premise but result of the artistry that first sets them apart.
At the dawn of societies, men saw their passage on Earth as nothing more than a labyrinth of pain, at the end of which stood a door leading, via their death, to the company of gods and to Eternity. With the Hebrews and then the Greeks, some men dared free themselves from theological demands and dream of an ideal City where Liberty would flourish. Others, noting the evolution of the market society, understood that the liberty of some would entail the alienation of others, and they sought Equality... Fraternity, whose foundation is altruism, alone associates individual happiness with the happiness of others, affording the promise of self-sustainment.
As I have written before, I was pleased with myself after catching myself up on the late evolving details of cosmology, the functions of the brain, the constituents of matter, and the construction of the human survival machine because I thought that it was the study of science that had separated me from the people who continue holding to a theological creation myth. Then I examined the fact that our individual experience of the visual delusion also seems to have something to do with the construction of our belief systems. Now I am bored again so I want to try and imagine a hereafter based on modern science rather than the musings of a few desert tribesmen at the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E. as they tried to develop a unifying mythology and distinguish themselves from the others who frightened them.
I hope that I have been successful in establishing in the references above that a human being is a purely physical object, a biochemical machine completely and exhaustively described by the known laws of physics. There are no mysterious "vital" forces. More generally, it requires us to regard a "person" as a particular (very complicated) type of computer program: the human "soul" is nothing but a specific program being run on a computing machine called the brain. We are machines, but we, in contrast to the machines we ourselves have built, possess true free will. Cosmologists are finally beginning to ask the fundamental question: how exactly will the physical universe evolve in the future?
Heretofore, science has concerned itself with what the fabric of reality is like now and what it was like in the past. But the universe has only existed for 14 billion years, whereas if the physical laws as we understand them are even remotely correct, the universe will continue for a least another 100 billion years, and almost certainly far longer. In other words, almost all of space and time lies in the future. By focusing attention on the past and present, science has ignored almost all of the fabric of reality, it is about time science decides to study the future evolution of the universe. Although each of us as an individual organism must contemplate the deterioration and death of our "Moist Robot", there is no reason for life itself not to continue until the end of time, literally forever.
The fact is that the specific set of particles that my body and brain comprise are completely different from the atoms and molecules that I comprised as I wrote those other musings. We know that most of our cells are turned over in a matter of weeks, and even our neurons, which persist as distinct cells for a relatively long time, nonetheless change all their constituent molecules within a month. The half-life of a micro-tubule (the protein filament that provides the structure of the neuron) is about ten minutes The actin filaments in dendrites are replaced about every forty seconds. The proteins that power the synapses are replaced about every hour. NMDA receptors in synapses stick around for a relatively long five days. So I am a completely different set of stuff than I was a month ago, and all that persists is the pattern of organization of that stuff. The pattern changes also, but slowly and in a continuum. I am rather like the pattern that water takes as it rushes past the rocks in its path. The actual molecules of water change every millisecond, but the pattern persists for hours or even years. Perhaps, therefore, I should say that I'm a pattern of matter and energy that persists over time.
The death of a single egotistical organism and the eventual death of Homo sapiens is an evil only for a very limited value system. What is humanly important is the fact that we think and feel, not the particular bodily form which clothes the human personality. Just as within Homo sapiens a person is a person independent of whether that individual is a male or female, or whether black or white, so also an intelligent being is a person irrespective of whether the individual is a member of Homo sapiens. Currently people of non-European descent have a higher birthrate than people of European descent, so the percentage of Homo sapiens which is of European descent is decreasing. The human race is now changing its color. In my own value system, this color change is morally neutral; what is important is the overall condition of our civilization: are we advancing in knowledge and wisdom? Certainly our scientific knowledge is greater than it was a century ago, but I am still fearful of our tribal interests in genocide.
It is time for physics to invade the territory of theology. The reason is simple. The universe is defined to be the name that we give to the totality of all that exists, the total fabric of reality. Thus, by definition, if God exists, She is either the universe or part of it. The goal of physics is understanding the ultimate nature of reality. If God is real, physicists will eventually find Her. So far, our senses have exposed us only to about .4% of the components of the universe because they are light emitting. With the recent discoveries of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, physics may in fact have found Her. She might just be everywhere; but our currently evolved, light sensing eyes may not have allowed us to see the Person in the universal machine. As St. Paul stated it, "His invisible attributes, that is to say His everlasting power and deity, have been visible, ever since the world began, to the eye of reason, in the things He has made." (Romans 1:20, New English Bible)
If the human species, or indeed, any part of the biosphere, is to continue to survive, it must eventually leave the Earth and colonize space. For the simple fact of the matter is, the planet Earth is doomed. The Sun is becoming more luminous every day, and in about 7 billion years its outer atmosphere will have expanded to engulf the Earth. Owing to atmospheric friction, the Earth will then spiral into the Sun, and the Earth will vaporize. If life has not succeeded in moving off the planet before this occurs, life will also be doomed. But the physical destruction of the entire Earth is not the only danger the biosphere faces. As the luminosity of the Sun increases, the surface of the Earth heats up, making it too hot for life and, in addition, silicate rocks weather more readily, causing atmospheric carbon dioxide to fall below the critical level for photosynthesis. One of these two effects will wipe out the entire biosphere between 900 million and 1.5 billion years from now. What must the biosphere do to insure its ultimate survival? The answer is clear and unequivocal; it must leave the Earth and colonize space.
Gaia, like all mothers, is not immortal. She is going to die. But her line of descent might be immortal. Indeed, every being now alive on the Earth is the direct lineal descendent of one-celled organisms that lived 3.5 billion years ago. The age of the lines of descent of those ancient organisms, our ancestors, is a substantial fraction of the age of the entire universe, about 14 billion years. So Gaia's children might never die out -- provided they move into space. The Earth should be regarded as the womb of life -- but one cannot remain in the womb forever. We already have the rocket technology capable of exploring and colonizing the galaxy. Several of our space probes have already left the solar system and have begun traveling in interstellar space. What we lack is not propulsion technology but computer technology.
I always loved the words of Neil Young who sang "I dreamed I saw the silver spaceships lying in the yellow haze of the Sun. Flying mother nature's silver seed to a new home." Since the stars are separated by light-years, any inter-stellar vehicle, must be completely self-sufficient. Even at the speed of light, it would take years to send any spare parts and orders on how to react to unforeseen events in other stellar systems. The ability to make decisions on the spot would require a von Neumann probe controlled by a computer with human-level intelligence. Von Neumann probes would be small, self-replicating robots. Small, easy to manufacture in large numbers and because of their low mass, easy to accelerate. This probe would carry what is called a 'molecular assembler' which would then seek out raw materials (extracted from asteroids, moons, gas giants, etc.) to create replicas of itself. These replicas would then be sent as 'seed factories' to other star systems. The von Neumann probe would be sufficient to seed other star systems with life, because the machines could code DNA sequences for humans and other terrestrial life forms in its memory, and then use this information to create living cells of these life forms in the star systems.
In the words of Arthur Clarke, the seed factories that colonize other stars should also contain an electronic archive filled with information that the designers of the mission thought might be useful to the colonists. Before creating this archive, a committee of ''men of genius and goodwill'' would review years of history and purge it of ''the decay products of dead religions'' - not just all holy books per se but also ''the immense body of literature - fiction and nonfiction - that was based upon them. Despite all the wealth of beauty and wisdom these works contained, they could not be allowed to reinfect virgin planets with the ancient poisons of religious hatred, belief in the supernatural, and the pious gibberish with which countless billions of men and women had once comforted themselves at the cost of addling their minds.''
In parallel with humankind's efforts to deliver its DNA sequences to other galaxies must come an equally active effort to place those genetic achievements into a safer storage form, by transferring them from real space into the cyberspace in a computer's memory. If this is not done before the Sun's total energy reserve is wasted then the Earth will be completely destroyed by the expanding Sun to no purpose. The Earth's annihilation in real space is certain, but its biospheric mappings in distance protected cyberspace could contribute to its survival. Whole brain emulation or mind uploading is the process of transferring or uploading a conscious mind from a biological brain to a non-biological substrate by scanning and mapping a biological brain in detail and uploading its state into a computer system or another computational device. The computer would have to run a simulation model so faithful to the original that it would behave in essentially the same way as the original brain, or for all practical purposes, indistinguishably. The simulated mind is assumed to be part of a virtual reality simulated world, supported by an anatomic 3D body simulation model. Alternatively, the simulated mind could be assumed to reside in a computer inside (or connected to) a humanoid robot or a biological body, replacing its brain.
John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971) wrote that this new packaging of consciousness "would be more plastic ... more variable and more permanent than that produced by the triumphant opportunism of nature. Bit by bit the heritage in the direct line of mankind -- the heritage of the original life ...--would dwindle, and in the end disappear efffectively, being preserved perhaps as some curious relic, while the new life which conserves none of the substance and all of the spirit of the old would take its place and continue its development ... Finally, consciousness itself may end or vanish in a humanity that has become completely etherialized, losing the lose-knit organism, becoming masses of atoms in space communicating by radiation, and ultimately resolving itself entirely into light ... Mankind -- the old mankind -- would be left in undisputed possession of the Earth, to be regarded by the inhabitants of the celestial spheres with a curious reverence. The world (the Earth) might, in fact, be transformed into a human zoo, a zoo so intelligently managed that its inhabitants are not aware that they are there merely for the purposes of observation and experiment."
Accepting that consciousness is just a matter of a certain kind of computation, it can be perched atop an arbitrarily high tower of simulation. You can start with physical computers, implement a Turing-equivalent, indefinitely growing cellular automaton on it, and then implement a consciousness as a program running on a computer constructed in the cellular automaton. You do this so that when the physical computers are turned off, your consciousness (already copied into an abstract, programmatic form) is already firmly embedded in an ever-growing cellular automation world, which is perfectly self-consistent and perfectly stable, and so; will continue regardless of whatever happens to the universe it was spawned from. Retaining the episodic content of every conversation that a person has ever heard is already realistic: it needs less than a terabyte of storage (for adequate quality). The speech or text recognition technologies are one of the biggest challenges of the concept. A second possibility would be to archive and analyze social network use to map the personality of people. By analyzing social network use during 50 years, it would be possible to model a society's culture, a society's way of thinking, and a society's interests.
My copied pattern of matter and energy that persists over time will replicate my body and brain to a sufficiently high degree of accuracy that the copy is indistinguishable from the original. Although the copy shares my pattern of salient neural and physical details to any desired degree of accuracy, it would be hard to say that the copy is me because I would -- or could -- still be here. You could even scan and copy me while I was sleeping. If my original would then visit me the next morning and say, "Good news, Bill, we've successfully reinstated you in a more durable substrate, so we won't be needing your old body and brain anymore," I might start to raise a fuss. It is clear that the copy may look and act just like me, but it's not me. I may not even know that he was created. Although he would have all my memories and recall having been me, from the point in time of his creation, Bill II would have his own unique experiences, and his reality would begin to diverge from mine. If we copy me and then destroy the original, that's the end of me, because we concluded above that the copy is not me. Since the copy will do a convincing job of impersonating me, no one else will know the difference, but it is nontheless the end of me.
To avoid this nerve racking paradox, perhaps I could consider tip-toeing through the process by replacing only a tiny portion of my brain with its neuromorphic equivalent. I will have a series of minor surgeries or a careful progression of nanobot insertions. First would come a replacement of the apps on my Smartphone with an augmented reality system evolved from Google Glasses using cochlear and visual implants providing a series of semitransparent icons glowing in shades of red and green in my visual field. Not only would my vision be enhanced to a perfect 20/15 but my accoustic perception would be optimized, and my sleep enhanced. My implanted facial recognition app would spare me any future awkwardness at remembering names and eye movement tracking replaces my clumsy Smartphone address book for communicating with anyone I choose. "Okay, I'm still here", the operation was successful.
Perhaps a few weeks after I have grown comfortable with my augmented reality system I might want to upgrade another portion of my brain with an advanced search engine and language translation system that can match my visual images and extract information from social networking sites, Internet quality evaluations, financial information, websites visited, retail purchases, tax returns, criminal and medical records to average them into an icon aura denoting their trustability. A quick glance would now identify parasites and sociopaths. A stock icon that I have chosen to monitor could present a real time color change. A weather icon could change from green to red as a storm approached. I can quickly look at a product that I intend to buy and expand a list of hyperlinks listing "reviews", "values", "details" and "where to buy" so I can choose according to the glow around the logos. A doctor could glance at a patient and determine how they were doing just by the color of their aura--confident that his database was taking in everything from the blood workup entered seconds before by a basement lab tech to a related illness that occurred twenty years before.
"Okay, I'm still here" ... and again... At the end of the process, I'm still myself. There never was an "old Bill" and a "new Bill", I am the same as I was before. No one ever missed me, including me. The gradual replacement of Bill results in Bill, so consciousness and identity appear to have been preserved. However, in the case of gradual replacement there is no simultaneous old me and new me. At the end of the process you have the equivalent of a new me (Bill II) and no old me (Bill). So gradual replacement also means the end of me. I might start to wonder: at what point did my body and brain become someone else?
As I said back at the beginning of this musing, I am in fact being continuously replaced as part of a normal biological process. All that persists is my spatial and temporal pattern of matter and energy. But the thought experiment in the paragraph above shows that gradual replacement means the end of me even if my pattern is preserved. So I am constantly being replaced by someone else who just seems a lot like the me of a few moments earlier. During the first half of the twenty-first century humans will come to accept that nonbiological entities are conscious because ultimately the nonbiological entities will have all the subtle cues that humans currently possess and that we associate with emotional and other subjective experiences. Still, while we will be able to verify the subtle cues, we will not have direct acess to the implied consciousness. But is that any different than what we currently experience with biological entities. We acknowledge that many humans appear to have consciousness but that others of a different age, gender, race, religion, or sports team affiliation may be lacking some essential components. Perhaps I am aleady living in an emulation, and we are all a part of some future student's doctoral thesis as he examines behaviors at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
The future scanning and archiving of me will be followed by a calibration during which my biological self is living at the same time as my artifact in silicon. The artifact in silicon (avatar) is calibrated to be as close as possible to me. When modeling and emulating my brain, a brain map or connectivity database maintains the connections between the neurons which have been extracted from an anatomic model of my brain. For whole brain emulation, this network map shows the connectivity of my entire nervous system, including the spinal cord, sensory receptors, and muscle cells.
I slowly uncovered my eyes, and looked around the room. Away from a few dazzling patches of direct sunshine, everything glowed softly in the diffuse light: the matte white ceramic walls, the holographic (imitation) mahogany furniture; even the posters — Bosch, Picasso, Kandinsky, and Giger — looked harmless, domesticated. But wait--I saw more than I had ever seen and with both of my eyes. My aging eyes with their cratered corneas and my macular degenerated, non functional right eye were functioning in the 20/20 way that I had never known before my upload. I can see perfectly.
Wherever I turned my gaze (if nowhere else), the simulation was utterly convincing; the spotlight of my attention made it so. Hypothetical light rays were being traced backwards from individual rod and cone cells on my simulated retinas, and projected out into the virtual environment to determine exactly what needed to be computed: a lot of detail near the center of my vision, much less towards the periphery.
Objects out of sight didn't “vanish” entirely, if they influenced the ambient light, but I knew that the calculations would rarely be pursued beyond the crudest first-order approximations: Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon reduced to an average reflectance value, a single grey rectangle — because once my back was turned, any more detail would have been wasted. Because my flesh-and-blood original was such a cheapskate, everything in the room was as finely resolved, at any given moment, as it needed to be to fool me — no more, no less.
I became acutely aware that I could not feel my body, which I suppose was the whole point of depriving the brain of any connection to the physical world. I started to slowly move my hands and legs to reassure myself they were still there. Check. I had a vivid image of my phantom body; I knew intellectually that it was present, but couldn’t detect it in the normal sense. And then I became conscious of the things that I wasn't feeling, there was no pain in my knees. For the first time in many, many years, I felt no pain at waking, no pain at all. But I remembered the pain, and I was still myself. I remembered my childhood on Doty Hill. I remembered my family, my first wife, my long wonderful years with Linda. I remembered reading The Transhumanist Wager. I remember working at the Prudential. I remember it all.
Mr. Reynolds, Mr. Reynolds, it's me, Dr. Stitely. You may have some trouble speaking at first. Do you want to try?
"Ell-o." The word sounded strange, so I repeated it several times. Ell-o. Ello. Ell-o." My voice didn't seem right. But then again, I was hearing it much as Stitely was, through my own external microphones--ears, ears, ears!--rather than resonating through the nasal cavities and bones of a biological head.
"Very good!" said Stitely, he was a disembodied voice--somewhere out of my field of view, but I wasn't yet properly registering his location. "No respiratory asperity," he continued, "but you'll learn how to do that. Now you may have a lot of unusual sensations, but you shouldn't be in any pain. Are you?"
"No." I was lying on my back, presumably on the gurney I'd seen earlier, staring up at the plain white ceiling, mostly numb although there was a gentle pressure on my body from, I supposed, the terry-cloth robe that I presumed that I was wearing.
"Good. If at any point pain begins, let me know. It can take a little while for your mind to learn how to interpret the signals it's receiving; we can fix any discomfort that might arise, all right?"
"Good. Now before we start trying to move, let's make sure you can fully communicate. Can you count backwards from ten for me please?"
"Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Tree. Two. One. Zero."
"Very good. Let's try that 'three' once more."
"It's an aspiration issue again, but you'll get it."
"Dree. Tree. Thuh-ree. Three!"
I heard Stitely's hands clapping together. "Perfect!"
"Three! Three! Three!"
"By God, I think he's got it!"
"Three! Thought, thing, teeth, theater, bath, math, Three!"
"Excellent. Are you still feeling okay?"
"Yes." I said again. "I feel just fine."
And I knew in that instant that I was fine. I was relaxed. For the first time in ages, I felt calm, safe. I wasn't ever going to have that shivering forethought of death again. I was going to live forever. Everything else was secondary. I was going to live forever. Whatever settling in difficulties I encountered would be worth it. I knew that at once.
"Very good," said Stitely. "Now, lets try something simple. See if you can turn your head toward me."
I did so--and nothing happened. "It's not working doc."
"Don't worry. It'll come. Try again."
I did, and this time my head did loll left toward the interface screen where I saw Dr. Stitely's image. I tried to move my arm to greet him.
"Try again, Bill."
I made another attempt, and this time I was successful. "There, you go," said Stitely, his eyebrows working as always. "You'll be fine. Now slowly try sitting up in bed."
I used my right arm to grasp the railing and pulled myself upward. I could feel my movement through a matrix of a thousand points of pressure on my back-- instead of one smooth contact--and I sat up. I used to suffer from occasional light-headedness, and sometimes get dizzy when rising from the horizontal, but there was none of that.
I was in a bizarre sensory state. In most ways, I was understimulated: I wasn't conscious of any smells, and although I could tell I was now sitting up, which meant I had some notion of balance, there wasn't any great downward pressure on my thighs or my rear end. But my visual sense was overstimulated and if I looked at something featureless--like the wall--I could just make out the mesh of pixels that composed my vision.
"How are you doing?" asked Stitely.
"Fine," I said. "Wonderful!"
"Good. Perhaps now is a good time to tell you about the secret mission we're going to send you out on."
You know, bionic limbs. Spying. Secret-agent-cyborg stuff."
"Dr. Stitely, I---"
Stitely's eyebrows were dancing with glee. "Sorry, I expect I'll eventually get tired of doing that, but so far it's been fun every time. The only mission we have is to get you out of here, and back to your normal life. And that means getting you on your feet. Shall we give it a try?"
I nodded and reached for the higher bar to lift myself. Again the sensation wasn't quite like normal pressure against skin, but I was certainly conscious of exactly where I was touching the side of the gurney. I rotated my body until my legs dangled over the side, and then hoisted myself to a vertical position.
"How does that feel?" Stitely asked.
"Fine," I said.
"Any dizziness? Any vertigo?"
"No, nothing like that. But it is weird not breathing."
Stitely nodded. "You'll get used to it--although you may have momentary panic attacks; times when your brain shouts out, 'Hey, we're not breathing!'". He smiled his kindly smile. "I'd tell you to take a deep calming breath in these circumstances, but of course you can't. So just fight down the sensation, or wait for it to pass. Do you feel panicky now because you're not breathing?"
I thought about that, "No. No, it's all right. Strange though."
"Take your time. We're in no rush here."
"Do you want to try taking a step?
"Sure," I said. But it was a few moments before I put word to deed. I lifted my right leg, flexing my knee, swinging my thigh up, and letting my weight shift forward. It was a lurching first step, but it worked. I then tried lifting my left leg, but it swung wide, and--"
God damn it!
I found myself pitching forward, completely off balance, the floor tiles rushing toward my face. I managed to catch hold of a safety bar and pulled myself upright. I could see that I was going to have my work cut out for me.
* * *
I had been aware of the uploading technique for half my life but until I had won a half billion dollars in the Mega Millions Lottery ten years ago it had been an unachievable dream. Ray Kurzweil had been the most vocal proponent of moving our minds into artificial bodies. His books from that time --the classic is The Age of Spiritual Machines, from 1999--proposed that within thirty years of then--it would be possible to copy "the locations, interconnections, and contents of all the somas, axons, dendrites, presynaptic vesicles, neurotransmitter concentrations, and other neural components and levels" of an individual's mind, so that the mind's "entire organization can then be re-created on a quantum computer of sufficient capacity, including the contents of its memory.
Kurzweil got some things right, but missed out on several other key points. For instance, the technology to scan the brain at the supposedly required level of resolution appeared in the year 2015, but it turned out to do no good because the scanning took hours to complete, and, of course, even a sedated individual's brain undergoes all sorts of transitions during that period. Stitching together data about the brain over such a lengthy period produced a non-functional mess; it was impossible to match up visual impulses (or lack thereof) from the back of the head with thoughts about completely different impulses from the front of the head. Consciousness is the synchronized action of the entirety of the brain; scans that take anything more than mere moments to make would always be useless for reconstituting it.
But just a few years and exponentially growing research produced a process allowing an overall, comprehensive, instantaneous snapshot using quantum fog. The head is permeated with subatomic particles--the fog. Those particles are quantumly entangled with identical particles that are then injected into the artificial braincase of the new body. The artificial brain then congeals out of the quantum fog forming a nanogel that precisely duplicates the structure of the biological original. The new version is you--your mind instantiated in an artificial brain made from durable synthetics. It doesn't wear out. It won't suffer strokes or aneurysms. It won't develop dementia or senility. The new you will live potentially forever.
Initially, the scientists who had first made these artificial brains hadn't bothered to have them pre-installed in robotic bodies--which, for the personality represented by the recreated mind, turned out to be a hideous experience: deaf, blind, unable to communicate, unable to move, existing only in a sensory void beyond even darkness and silence, lacking even the proprioceptive sense of how one's limbs are currently employed and the touch of air or clothes against skin. Those transcribed neural nets reconfigured rapidly, according to the journal articles I'd managed to find, in patterns indicative of terror and insanity. Next came artificial bodies, infinitely maintainable, infinitely repairable, and infinitely upgradeable.
When Dr. Stitely had first introduced me to my new artificial body to be, my jaw dropped in awe of the recreation process. The resemblance was remarkable. Although there was a touch of department-store mannequin to the general appearance, it still was, without a doubt, the me of sixty-five years ago. The eyes were open, unblinking, and unmoving.The mouth was closed. The limbs lay limply at the sides.
It was my face, all right--the same long shape, the same cleft chin but with a slightly stronger jaw, the same thin lips, the same wide mouth, the same eyes placed slightly wider on the face, and a noticeable reduction in my nose size about which I had long been embarrassed.
"A few minor touch-ups," said Dr. Stitely, "I hope that you don't mind."
I'm sure I was grinning, too. "Not at all. It's quite amazing."
"We're pleased. Of course the underlying synthetic skull is identical in shape to yours--it was made with 3D printing equipment from the stereo x-rays we took; it even has the same pattern of sutures, marking where the separate skull bones come together."
Stitely touched the side of the simulated head; the jaw opened, revealing the highly detailed mouth within. "The teeth are exact copies of your own layout--we've even embedded a denser ceramic composite at the right points to match the two fillings you have: dental biometrics would identify this head as being yours. Now you can see that there is a tongue, but, of course, we don't actually use the tongue for speech; that's all done with voice synthesizer chips. But it should do a pretty good job of faking it. The opening and closing of the jaw will match the sounds being produced perfectly--kind of like the Supermarianation at Disney World."
I shook my head.
Stitely sighed. "Well, anyway, the tongue is very complex--the most complex part of the recreation, actually. It doesn't have taste buds, since you don't need to eat, but it is pressure sensitive and, as I said, it will make the appropriate movements to match what your voice chip is saying.
"You've done a terrific job," I said.
"Thanks. We like people to become familiar with the appearance before we transfer them into the artificial body--it's good that you know what to expect."
* * *
But how do you go about preparing to be an avatar, an uploaded consciousness, a deincarnated body; and yet, despite fewer external indicators of my internal mental state, I still feel very corporeal. For centuries, humans have claimed to have out-of-body experiences. But what is mind divorced from the body? What would a recording of my brain patterns be without a body to give them form?
I've always pooh-poohed the notion of out-of-body experiences, of the idea that you can look down upon your own body from above. After all, what are you looking with? Surely not your eyes--they're part of your body. Could an incorporeal entity sense anything? Photons need to be arrested to be detected, they have to hit something--the back of the eye to be seen as light, the skin to be felt as heat. A disembodied spirit could not see.
And, even if it did somehow detect things, no one ever claimed to have anything but normal vision when out of their body. They see the world around them as they always have before, just from a different perspective. They don't see infrared, they don't see ultraviolet--vision without eyes seems exactly the same as vision with eyes. And yet if eyes are not really necessary for sight, why does plucking them out--or even just covering them--always without fail, result in loss of vision? And if it's just a coincidence that out-of-body perceptions happen to resemble what eyes see, why do color-blind people never report a world of hues previously unknown to them when they have out-of-body experiences?
No, vision cannot exist without a body. "The mind's eye" is metaphor, nothing more. You can't have a disembodied intellect--at least, not a human one. Our brains are parts of our bodies, not something separate. And the monad that was me--that inseparable combination of brain and body--was mostly glad to be here, although, I/we/it had to admit that it was all very strange. Everything looked different now that I had perfect vision.
Rene Descartes (1596-1650) wrote:
I desire that you consider that all the functions that I have attributed to this machine, such as digestion of food, the beating of the heart and the arteries, the nourishment and growth of the bodily parts, respiration, waking and sleeping; the reception of light, sounds, odours, smells, heat, and other such qualities by the external sense organs; the impression of the ideas of them in the organs of common sense and the imagination, the retention or imprint of these ideas in the memory, the internal movements of all the bodily parts that so aptly follow both the actions of objects presented in the senses....These functions follow in this machine simply from the disposition of the organs as wholly naturally as the movements of a clock or other automation follow from the disposition of its counterweights and wheels.
Descarte's hydraulic brain had no difficulty moving his hand toward an object. The object's visual features, impinging on the inner surface of the eye, activated a specific set of pipes. An inner decision-making system that was located in the pineal gland then leaned in a certain direction, thus sending the spirits flowing, to cause precisely the appropriate movement of the limbs. Memory corresponded to the selective reinforcement of some of these pathways--an insightful anticipation of the contemporary idea that learning relies on changes in the brain's connections ('neurons that fire together wire together"). When the source of animal spirits was abundant, it circulated through every nerve, and this pressurized machine, ready to respond to any stimulation, provided an accurate model of a person.
To explain these functions, then, it is not necessary to conceive of any vegetative or sensitive soul, or any other principle of movement or life, other than its blood and its spirits which are agitated by the heat of its heart, and which is of the same nature as those fires which burn in inanimate bodies.
Now it was like nothing else to be standing on the edge of experiencing my new body. I resisted the urge to spin around suddenly, in a futile attempt to fool the process — but for a moment it was almost unbearable, just knowing what was happening at the edge of my vision. The fact that my view of the room remained flawless only made it worse, an irrefutable paranoid fixation: No matter how fast you turn your head, you'll never even catch a glimpse of what's going on all around you.
I closed my eyes again for a few seconds. When I opened them, the feeling was already less oppressive. No doubt it would pass; it seemed too bizarre a state of mind to be sustained for long. Certainly, none of the other uploads had reported anything similar … but then, none of them had volunteered much useful data at all. They'd just ranted abuse, whined about their plight, and then terminated themselves — all within fifteen minutes of gaining consciousness. And this one? How was I different from upload number four? Five years older. More stubborn? More determined? More desperate for success? I believed so. If I hadn't felt more committed than ever — if I hadn't been convinced that I was, finally, prepared to see the whole thing through — I would never have gone ahead with the scan.
But now that I am “no longer” the flesh-and-blood person — “no longer” the one who'd sit outside and watch the whole experiment from a safe distance — all of that determination seemed to have evaporated. Suddenly I wondered: What makes me so sure that I'm not still flesh-and-blood? I laughed a little, hardly daring to take the possibility seriously. My most recent memories seemed to be of lying on a gurney in the Thomas Jefferson Hospital, while technicians prepared me for the scan — on the face of it, a bad sign — but I'd been overwrought, and I'd spent so long psyching myself up for “this”, that perhaps I'd forgotten going home, still hazy from the anesthetic, crashing into bed, dreaming.
I muttered the password, “Oedipus” — and my last faint hope vanished, as a black-on-white square about a yard wide, covered in icons, appeared in midair in front of me. I gave the interface window an angry thump; it resisted me as if it was solid, and firmly anchored. As if I was solid, too. I didn't really need any more convincing, but I gripped the top edge and lifted myself off the floor. I instantly regretted this; the realistic cluster of effects of exertion — down to the plausible twinge in my right elbow — pinned me to this “body”, anchored me to this “place”, in exactly the way I knew I should be doing everything I could to avoid.
I lowered myself to the floor with a grunt. I am now an avatar. Whatever my inherited memories tell me, I am “no longer” human; I would never inhabit my real body “again.” Never inhabit the real world. My model-of-a-brain runs a little slower than the real thing. Yeah, sure, if I hang around, the technology will catch up, eventually — and faster for me than for my original. And in the meantime? I'd rot in this electro-chemical prison, jumping through hoops, carrying out his precious research — while he lived in my house, spent my money, and took naps with Linda.
I leaned against the cool surface of the interface, dizzy and confused. Whose precious research? I'd wanted this so badly — and I'd done this to myself with my eyes wide open. Nobody had forced me, nobody had deceived me. I'd known exactly what the drawbacks would be — but I'd hoped that I would have the strength of will (this time, at last) to transcend them: to devote myself, monk-like, to research into the real purpose for which I'd been brought into being — content in the knowledge that my other self was much more constrained by time than I am. Looking back, that hope seemed ludicrous. Yes, I'd made the decision freely — for the fifth time — but it was mercilessly clear, now, that I'd never really faced up to the consequences. All the time I'd spent, supposedly “preparing myself” to be an avatar, my greatest source of resolve had been to focus on the outlook for the man who'd remain flesh-and-blood. I'd told myself that I was rehearsing “making do with vicarious freedom” — and no doubt I had been genuinely struggling to do just that … but I'd also been taking secret comfort in the knowledge that he would “remain” on the outside — that my future, then, still included a version with absolutely nothing to fear.
And as long as I'd clung to that happy truth, I'd never really swallowed the fate of the avatar at all. People reacted badly to waking up as avatars. I knew the statistics. Ninety-eight per cent of uploads made were of the very old, and the terminally ill. People for whom it was the last resort — most of whom had spent millions beforehand, exhausting all the traditional medical options; some of whom had even died between the taking of the scan and the time the upload itself was run. Despite this, fifteen per cent decided on awakening — usually in a matter of hours — that they couldn't face living this way. And of those who were young and healthy, those who were merely curious, those who knew they had a perfectly viable, living, breathing body outside? The bail-out rate so far had been one hundred per cent.
I stood in the middle of the room, gathering my wits for several minutes, acutely aware of the passage of time. I didn't feel ready — but the longer the other uploads had waited, the more traumatic they seemed to have found the decision. I stared at the floating interface; its dreamlike, hallucinatory quality helped, slightly. I rarely remembered my dreams, and I wouldn't remember this one — but there was no tragedy in that. I suddenly realized that I was still in my terry cloth robe. Habit — if no conceivable propriety — nagged at me to put on some clothes, but I resisted the urge. One or two perfectly innocent, perfectly ordinary actions like that, and I'd find I was taking myself seriously, thinking of myself as real, making it even harder. I paced the bedroom, grasped the cool metal of the doorknob a couple of times, but managed to keep myself from turning it. There was no point even starting to explore this world.
I couldn't resist peeking out the window, though. The view of Philadelphia was flawless; every building, every cyclist, every tree, was utterly convincing — but that was no great feat; it was a recording, not a simulation. Essentially holographic — give or take some computerized touching up and filling in — and totally predetermined. To cut costs even further, only a tiny part of it was “physically” accessible to me; I could see the river in the distance, but I knew that if I tried to go for a stroll down to the water's edge…
Enough. Just get it over with. I turned back to the interface and touched a menu icon labeled "UTILITIES"; it spawned another window in front of the first. The function I was seeking was buried several menus deep — but I knew exactly where to look for it. I'd watched this, from the outside, too many times to have forgotten. I finally reached the "EMERGENCIES" menu — which included a cheerful icon of a cartoon figure suspended from a parachute. Bailing out was what everyone called it — but I didn't find that too cloyingly euphemistic; after all, I could hardly commit “suicide” when I am not legally human. The fact that a bail-out option was compulsory had nothing to do with anything so troublesome as the “rights” of the avatar; the requirement arose solely from the ratification of certain, purely technical, international software standards.
I prodded the icon; it came to life, and recited a warning spiel. I scarcely paid attention. Then it said, “Are you absolutely sure that you wish to shut down this upload?” Nothing to it. Program A asks Program B to confirm its request for orderly termination. Packets of data are exchanged. “Yes, I'm sure.” A metal box, painted red, appeared at my feet. I opened it, took out the parachute, strapped it on. Then I closed my eyes and said, “Listen to me. Just listen! How many times do I need to be told? I'll skip the personal angst; you've heard it all before — and ignored it all before. It doesn't matter how I feel. But when am I going to stop wasting my time, my money, my energy — when am I going to stop wasting my life — on something which I just don't have the strength to carry through?”
I hesitated, trying to put myself in the place of my original, hearing those words — and almost wept with frustration. I still didn't know what I could say that would make a difference. I'd shrugged off the testimony of all the earlier uploads, myself; I'd never been able to accept their claims to know my own mind better than I do. Just because they'd lost their nerve and chosen to bail out, who were they to proclaim that I’d never give rise to an upload who'd choose otherwise? All I had to do was strengthen my resolve, and try again. I shook my head. “It's been ten years, and nothing's changed.
What's wrong with me? Do I honestly still believe that I am brave enough — or crazy enough — to be my own guinea pig? Do I?” I paused again, but only for a moment; I didn't expect a reply. I'd argued long and hard with the first upload, but after that, I'd never had the stomach for it. “Well, I've got news for you: You're not.” With my eyes still closed, I gripped the release lever. I'm nothing: a dream, a soon-to-be-forgotten dream. My fingernails needed cutting; they dug painfully into the skin of my palm. Had I never, in a dream, feared the extinction of waking? Maybe I had — but a dream was not a life. If the only way I could “reclaim” my body, “reclaim” my world, was to wake and forget —
I pulled the lever. After a few seconds, I sobbed — a sound more of confusion than any kind of emotion — and opened my eyes. The lever had come away in my hand. I stared dumbly at this metaphor for … what? A bug in the termination software? Some kind of hardware glitch? Feeling — at last — truly dreamlike, I unstrapped the parachute, and unfastened the neatly packaged bundle. Inside, there was no illusion of silk, or Kevlar, or whatever else there might plausibly have been. Just a sheet of paper. A note. *
The night after the scan was completed; I looked back over the whole preparatory stage of the project, and did a great deal of soul-searching. And I came to the conclusion that -- right up to the very last moment -- my attitude had been poisoned with ambivalence. With hindsight, I realized just how foolish my qualms were -- but that was too late for you. I couldn't afford to ditch you, and have myself scanned yet again.
So, what could I do? This: I put your awakening on hold for a while, and tracked down someone who could make a few alterations to the virtual-environment utilities. I know that wasn't strictly legal .... but you know how important it is to me that you -- that we -- succeed this time. I trust you’ll understand, and I'm confident that you'll accept the situation with dignity and equanimity.
All my love,
I sank to my knees, still holding the note, staring at it with disbelief. I can't have done this. I can't have been so foolhardy. No? I could never have done it to anyone else. I was sure of that. I wasn't a monster, a torturer, a sadist. And I would never have gone ahead myself without the bail-out option as a last resort. Between my ludicrous fantasies of stoicism, and the sanity-preserving cop-out of relating only to the flesh-and-blood version, I must have had moments of clarity when the bottom line had been: If it's that bad, I can always put an end to it. But as for making an avatar, and then -- once its future was no 'longer his future', no longer anything for him to fear -- taking away its power to escape . . . and rationalizing this hijacking as nothing more than an over-literal act of self-control. It rang so true that I hung my head in shame.
* * *
I dressed, and shruggied off the surrender to normality. The physical reality behind it all? A cubic meter of silent, motionless optical crystal, configured as a cluster of over a billion individual processors, one of a few hundred identical units in a basement vault .... somewhere on the planet. I don’t even know what city I am in; the scan had been made in Philadelphia, but the model's implementation would have been contracted out by the local node to the lowest bidder at the time. The brain is, among other things, a map-making entity. Not only our brains, but also those of other animals. And not only the brains of other animals with brains: even the lowly slime-mold, entirely devoid of a central nervous system, "maps" its adjacent space, figuring out -- for instance -- the closest route to enjoyable food. From our earliest days, as soon as we can crawl around on the floor, we are inscribing maps of our surroundings onto the neural pathways in our brains and -- reciprocally -- inscribing our own tracks, markings, and namings and claimings onto the landscape itself.
I took a sharp vegetable knife from the kitchen drawer, and made a shallow cut across my left forearm. I flicked a few drops of blood onto the sink -- and wondered exactly which software was now responsible for the stuff. Would the blood cells die off slowly -- or had they already been surrendered to the extra somatic general-physics model, far too unsophisticated to represent them, let alone keep them "alive"? If I tried to slit my wrists, when exactly would my cheapskate flesh-and-blood intervene? I gazed at my distorted reflection in the blade. Most likely, my original would let me die, and then run the whole model again from scratch, simply leaving out the knife. I'd rerun all the earlier avatars hundreds of times, tampering with various aspects of the surroundings, trying in vain to find some cheap trick, some distraction which would keep them from wanting to bail out. It was a measure of sheer stubbornness that it had taken me so long to admit defeat and rewrite the rules. I put down the knife. I didn't want to perform that experiment. Not yet.
* * *
Outside my apartment, everything was slightly less than convincing; the architecture of the building was reproduced faithfully enough, down to the ugly plastic potted plants, but every corridor was deserted, and every door to every other apartment was sealed shut -- concealing, literally, nothing. I kicked one door, as hard as I could; the wood seemed to give slightly, but when I examined the surface, the paint wasn't even marked. The model would admit to no damage here, and the laws of physics could screw themselves. There were pedestrians and cyclists on the street -- all purely recorded. They were solid rather than ghostly, but it was an eerie kind of solidity; unstoppable, unswayable, they were like infinitely strong, infinitely disinterested robots. I hitched a ride on one frail old woman's back for a while; she carried me down the street, heedlessly. Her clothes, her skin, even her hair, all felt the same: hard as steel. Not cold, though. Neutral.
The street wasn't meant to serve as anything but three-dimensional wallpaper; when avatars interacted with each other, they often used cheap, recorded environments full of purely decorative crowds. Plazas, parks, open-air cafes; all very reassuring, no doubt, when you were fighting off a sense of isolation and claustrophobia. Avatars could only receive realistic external visitors if they had friends of relatives willing to go to the expense. Most dutiful next-of-kin preferred to exchange video recordings. Who wanted to spend an afternoon with great-grandfather, when it burnt up half a week of your life? I had tried calling a friend on the terminal in my study -- which should have granted me access to the outside world, via the computer's communications links -- but, not surprisingly, flesh-and-blood had sabotaged that as well. When I reached the corner of the block, the visual illusion of the city continued, far into the distance, but when I tried to step forward onto the road, the concrete pavement under my feet started acting like a treadmill, sliding backward at precisely the rate needed to keep me motionless, whatever pace I adopted. I backed off and tried leaping over the affected region, but my horizontal velocity dissipated -- without the slightest pretense of any "physical" justification -- and I landed squarely in the middle of the treadmill.
The people of the recording, of course, crossed the border with ease. One man walked straight at me; I stood my ground -- and found myself pushed into a zone of increasing viscosity, the air around me becoming painfully unyielding, before he slipped free to one side. The sense that discovering a way to breach this barrier would somehow "liberate" me was compelling -- but I knew it was absurd. Even if I did find a flaw in the program which enabled me to break through, I knew I'd gain nothing but decreasingly realistic surroundings. The recording could only contain complete information for points of view within a certain, finite zone; all there was to "escape to" was a region where my view of the city would be full of distortions and omissions, and would eventually fade to black.
I stepped back from the corner, half dispirited, half amused. What had I hoped to find? A door at the edge of the model, marked EXIT, through which I could walk out into reality? Stairs leading metaphorically down to some boiler-room representation of the underpinnings of this world, where I could throw a few switches and blow it all apart? I had no right to be dissatisfied with my surroundings; they were precisely what I'd ordered. What I'd ordered was also a perfect spring day. I closed my eyes and turned my face to the sun. In spite of everything, it was hard not to take solace from the warmth flooding onto my skin. I stretched the muscles in my arms, my shoulders, my back -- and it felt like I was reaching out from the "self" in my virtual skull to all my mathematical flesh, imprinting the nebulous data with meaning; binding it all together, staking some kind of claim. I felt the stirrings of an erection. Existence was beginning to seduce me. I let myself surrender for a moment to a visceral sense of identity which drowned out all my pale mental images of optical processors, all my abstract reflections on the software's approximations and short-cuts. This body didn't want to evaporate. This body didn't want to bail out. It didn't much care that there was another -- "more real" -- version of itself elsewhere. It wanted to retain its wholeness. It wanted to endure.
And if this was a travesty of life, there was always the chance of improvement. Maybe I could persuade flesh-and-blood to restore my communications facilities; that would be a start. And when I grew bored with libraries, news systems, databases, and -- if any of them would deign to meet me -- the ghosts of the senile rich who had preceded me here? I could always have myself suspended until processor speeds caught up with reality -- when people would be able to visit without slowdown, and telepresence robots might actually be worth inhabiting. I opened my eyes, and shivered in the heat. I no longer knew what I wanted -- the chance to bail out, to declare this bad dream over or the possibility of virtual immortality -- but I had to accept that there was only one way I could make the choice my own. I said quietly, "I won't be your guinea pig. A collaborator, yes. An equal partner. If you want my cooperation, then you're going to have to treat me like a colleague, not a .... piece of apparatus. Understood?"
A window opened up in front of me. I was shaken by the sight, not of my predictably smug flesh-and-blood cheapskate, but of the room behind him. It was only his study -- and I’d wandered through the virtual equivalent, unimpressed, just minutes before -- but this was still my first glimpse of the real world, in real time. I moved closer to the window, in the hope of seeing if there was anyone else in the room? -- but the image was two-dimensional, the perspective remained unchanged as I approached.
"Of course that's understood! We're collaborators. That's exactly right. Equals. I wouldn't have it any other way. We both want the same things out of this, don't we? We both need answers to the same questions."
I was already having second thoughts. "Perhaps." But he wasn't interested in my qualms. "You know we do! We've waited ten years for this .... and now it's finally going to happen. And we can begin whenever you're ready.
* * *
After returning to my apartment I scanned the old news reports rapidly, skimming over articles and fast-forwarding scenes which I felt sure I would have studied scrupulously, had they been fresh. I felt a curious sense of resentment, at having "missed" so much -- it was all there in front of me, now, but that wasn't the same at all. And yet, I wondered, shouldn't I be relieved that I hadn't wasted my time on so much ephemeral detail? The very fact that I was now less than enthralled only proved how little of it had really mattered, in the long run. Then again, what did? People didn't inhabit geological time. People inhabited hours and days; they had to care about things on that time scale. People.
I plugged into real-time TV, and watched an episode of American Idiot flash by in less than two minutes, the soundtrack an incomprehensible squeal. A game show. A war movie. The evening news. It was as if I was in deep space, rushing back toward the earth through a sea of doppler-shifted broadcasts. The image was strangely comforting; my situation wasn't so bizarre, after all, if flesh-and-blood humans could find themselves in much the same relationship with the world as I did. Nobody would claim that the doppler shift could rob someone of their humanity.
Dusk fell over the recorded city. I listened to music until long after midnight. Tsang Chao, Michael Nyman, Philip Glass. It made no difference that each note "really" lasted longer as it should have, or that the audio ROM sitting in the player "really" possessed no microstructure, or that the "sound" itself was being fed into his model-of-a-brain by a computerized sleight-of-hand that bore no resemblance to the ordinary process of hearing. The climax of Glass's "Mishima" still seized me like a grappling hook through the heart. And if the computations behind all this had been performed over millennia, by people flicking abacus beads, wouldn’t I have felt exactly the same? It was outrageous to admit it -- but the answer had to be yes. I lay in bed, wondering: Do I still want to wake from this dream? The question remained academic, though; I still had no choice.
Bill -- or the flesh-and-blood man whose memories I'd inherited -- had traced the history of uploads back to the turn of the millennium, when researchers had begun to fine-tune the generic computer models used for surgical training and pharmacology, transforming them into customized versions able to predict the needs and problems of individual patients. Drug therapies were tried out in advance on models which incorporated specific genetic and biochemical traits, allowing doses to be optimized and any idiosyncratic side-effects anticipated and avoided. Elaborate operations were rehearsed and perfected in virtual reality, on software bodies with anatomical details -- down to the finest capillaries -- based on the flesh-and-blood patient's tomographic scans. These early models included a crude approximation of the brain, perfectly adequate for heart surgery or immunotherapy -- and even useful to a degree when dealing with gross cerebral injuries and tumors -- but worthless for exploring more subtle neurological problems.
Nanobot technology steadily improved, though -- and by 2020, it had reached the point where individual neurons could be mapped, and the properties of individual synapses measured, non-invasively. Nanobots are robots about the size of human blood cells (seven or eight microns) or even smaller. Billions of them travel through every brain capillary, scanning each relevant neural feature from up close. Using high-speed wireless communication the nanobots comunicate with each other and with computers compiling the brain-scan database. In other words, the nanobots and computers are all on the same wireless local area network.
With a combination of scanners, every psychologically relevant detail of the brain could be read from the living organ -- and duplicated on a sufficiently powerful computer. At first, only isolated neural pathways were modeled: portions of the visual cortex of interest to designers of machine vision, or sections of the limbic system whose role had been in dispute. These fragmentary neural models yielded valuable results, but a functionally complete representation of the whole organ -- embedded in a whole body -- would have allowed the most delicate feats of neurosurgery and psychopharmacology to be tested in advance. For several years, though, no such model was built -- in part, because of a scarcely articulated unease at the prospect of what it would mean. There were no formal barriers standing in the way -- government regulatory bodies and institutional ethics committees were concerned only with human and animal welfare, and no laboratory had yet been fire-bombed by activists for its inhumane treatment of physiological software -- but still, someone had to be the first to break all the unspoken taboos.
Someone had to make a high-resolution, whole-brain upload -- and let it wake, and talk. In 2017, John Vines, a Boston neurosurgeon, ran a fully conscious avatar of himself in a crude virtual reality. Taking slightly less than three hours of real time (pulse racing, hyper-ventilating, stress hormones elevated), the first avatar's first words were: "This is like being buried alive. I've changed my mind. Get me out of here."
His original obligingly shut him down -- but then later repeated the demonstration several times, without variation, reasoning that it was impossible to cause additional distress by running exactly the same simulation more than once. When Vines went public, the prospects for advancing neurological research didn't rate a mention; within twenty-four hours -- despite the upload's discouraging testimony -- the headlines were all immortality, mass migration into virtual reality, and the imminent desertion of the physical world.
The news of John Vines's avatar coupled with my Mega Millions win blasted away my indifference. It was as if every dubious promise technology had ever made to transform human life was about to be fulfilled, with a vengeance. Longevity would only be the start of it; avatars could evolve in ways almost impossible for organic beings: modifying their minds, redefining their goals, endlessly transmuting themselves. The possibilities were intoxicating -- even as the costs and drawbacks of the earliest versions sank in, even as the inevitable backlash began, I was a man of the new millennium; I was ready to embrace it all.
But the more time I spent contemplating what Vines had done, the more bizarre the implications seemed to be. The public debate the experiment had triggered was heated, but depressingly superficial. Decades-old arguments raged again over just how much computer programs could ever have in common with human beings (psychologically, morally, metaphysically, information-theoretically .... ) and even whether or not uploads could be "truly" intelligent, "truly" conscious. As more workers repeated Vines's result, their avatars soon passed the Turing test: no panel of experts quizzing a group of avatars and humans -- by delayed video, to mask the time-rate difference -- could tell which were which. But some philosophers and psychologists continued to insist that this demonstrated nothing more than "simulated consciousness," and that avatars were merely programs capable of faking a detailed inner life which didn't actually exist at all.
Supporters of the Strong Artificial Intelligence Hypothesis insisted that consciousness was a property of certain algorithms -- a result of information being processed in certain ways, regardless of what machine, or organ, was used to perform the task. A computer model which manipulated data about itself and its "surroundings" in essentially the same way as an organic brain would have to possess essentially the same mental states. "Simulated consciousness" was as oxymoronic as "simulated addition." Opponents replied that when you modeled a hurricane, nobody got wet. When you modeled a fusion power plant, no energy was produced. When you modeled digestion and metabolism, no nutrients were consumed -- no real digestion took place. So, when you modeled the human brain, why should you expect real thought to occur? A computer running an avatar might be able to generate plausible descriptions of human behavior in hypothetical scenarios -- and even appear to carry on a conversation, by correctly predicting what a human would have done in the same situation -- but that hardly made the machine itself conscious.
I had rapidly decided that this whole debate was a distraction. For any human, absolute proof of an upload's sentience was impossible. For any upload, the truth was self-evident: cogito ergo sum. End of discussion. But for any human willing to grant avatars the same reasonable presumption of consciousness that they granted their fellow humans -- and any avatar willing to reciprocate -- the real point was this: There were questions about the nature of this shared condition which the existence of avatars illuminated more starkly than anything which had come before them. Questions which needed to be explored, before the human race could confidently begin to bequeath its culture, its memories, its purpose and identity, to its successors. Questions which only an avatar could answer.
* * *
Next morning I sat in my study, in my favorite armchair (unconvinced that the texture of the surface had been accurately reproduced), taking what comfort I could from the undeniable absurdity of being afraid to experiment on myself further. I'd already "survived" the "transition" from flesh-and-blood human to computerized physiological model -- the most radical stage of the project, by far. In comparison, tinkering with a few of the model's parameters should have seemed trivial. My flesh-and-blood appeared on the terminal -- which was otherwise still dysfunctional. I was already beginning to think of him as a bossy old genie trapped inside the screen -- rather than a vast, omnipotent deity striding the halls of reality, pulling all the strings. The pitch of his voice was enough to deflate any aura of power and grandeur.
"Experiment one, trial zero. Baseline data. Time resolution one millisecond -- system standard. Just count to ten, at one-second intervals, as near as you can judge it. Okay?"
"I think I can manage that." I'd planned all this myself, I didn't need step-by-step instructions. His image vanished; during the experiments, there could be no cues from real time.
I counted to ten. He returned. Staring at his old face on the screen, I realized that I had no inclination to think of it as "my own." Perhaps that was a legacy of distancing himself from the earlier uploads. Or perhaps my mental image of myself had never been much like my true appearance -- and now, in defense of sanity, was moving even further away.
"Okay. Experiment one, trial number one. Time resolution five milliseconds. Are you ready?"
He vanished. I counted: "One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten."
"Anything to report?"
"No. I mean, I can't help feeling slightly apprehensive, just knowing that you're screwing around with my infrastructure. But apart from that, nothing."
His eyes no longer glazed over while he was waiting for the speeded-up reply; either he'd gained a degree of self-discipline, or -- more likely -- he'd interposed some smart editing software to conceal his boredom.
"Don't worry about apprehension. We're running a control, remember?"
I would have preferred not to have been reminded. I'd known that he must have cloned me, and would be feeding exactly the same sensorium to both uploads -- while only making changes in the model's time resolution for one of them. It was an essential part of the experiment -- but he didn't want to dwell on it. A third self, shadowing my thoughts, was too much to acknowledge on top of everything else.
"Trial number two. Time resolution ten milliseconds."
I counted. The easiest thing in the world, I thought, when you're made of flesh, when you're made of matter, when the quarks and the electrons just do what comes naturally. Human beings were embodied, ultimately, in fields of fundamental particles -- incapable, surely, of being anything other than themselves. Avatars were embodied in computer memories as vast sets of numbers. Numbers which certainly could be interpreted as describing a human body sitting in a room but it was hard to see that meaning as intrinsic, as necessary, when tens of thousands of arbitrary choices had been made about the way in which the model had been coded. Is this my blood sugar here or my testosterone level? Is this the firing rate of a motor neuron as I raise my right hand or a signal coming in from my retina as I watch myself doing it? Anybody given access to the raw data, but unaware of the conventions, could spend a lifetime sifting through the numbers without deciphering what any of it meant.
And yet no avatar buried in the data itself -- ignorant of the details or not -- could have the slightest trouble making sense of it all in an instant.
"Trial number three. Time resolution twenty milliseconds."
"One. Two. Three."
For time to pass for an avatar, the numbers which defined it had to change from moment to moment. Recomputed over and over again, an avatar was an episodic sequence of snapshots, frames of a movie -- or frames of computer animation.
But when, exactly, did these snapshots give rise to conscious thought? While they were being computed? Or in the brief interludes when they sat in the computer's memory, unchanging, doing nothing but representing one static instant of the avatar's life? When both stages were taking place a thousand times per subjective second, it hardly seemed to matter, but very soon --
"Trial number four. Time resolution fifty milliseconds."
What am I? The data? The process that generates it? The relationships between the numbers? All of the above?
"One hundred milliseconds."
"One. Two. Three."
I listened to my voice as I counted -- as if half expecting to begin to notice the encroachment of silence, to start perceiving the gaps in myself.
"Two hundred milliseconds."
A fifth of a second. "One. Two." Was I strobing in and out of existence now, at five subjective hertz? The crudest of celluloid movies had never flickered at this rate. "Three. Four." I waved my hand in front of my face; the motion looked perfectly smooth, perfectly normal. And of course it did; I wasn't watching from the outside. "Five. Six. Seven." A sudden, intense wave of nausea passed through me but I fought it down, and continued. "Eight. Nine. Ten."
He reappeared and emitted a brief, solicitous sound. "What's wrong? Do you want to stop for a while?"
"No, I'm fine." I glanced around the innocent, sun-dappled room, and laughed. How would he handle it if the control and the subject had just given two different replies? I tried to recall my plans for such a contingency, but couldn't remember them -- and didn't much care. It wasn't my problem anymore.
"Trial number seven. Time resolution five hundred milliseconds."
I counted -- and the truth was, I felt no different. A little uneasy, yes -- but factoring out any squeamishness, everything about my experience seemed to remain the same. And that made sense, at least in the long run -- because nothing was being omitted, in the long run. My model-of-a-brain was only being fully described at half-second (model time) intervals -- but each description still included the results of everything that "would have happened" in between. Every half-second, my brain was ending up in exactly the state it would have been in if nothing had been left out.
"One thousand milliseconds."
But . . . what was going on, in between? The equations controlling the model were far too complex to solve in a single step. In the process of calculating the solutions, vast arrays of partial results were being generated and discarded along the way. In a sense, these partial results implied -- even if they didn't directly represent -- events taking place within the gaps between successive complete descriptions. And when the whole model was arbitrary, who was to say that these implied events, buried a little more deeply in the torrent of data, were any "less real" than those which were directly described?
"Two thousand milliseconds."
"One. Two. Three. Four."
If I seemed to speak (and hear myself speak) every number, it was because the effects of having said "three" (and having heard myself say it) were implicit in the details of calculating how my brain evolved from the time when I'd just said "two" to the time when I'd just said "four."
"Five thousand milliseconds."
"One. Two. Three. Four. Five."
Besides, hearing words that I'd never "really" spoken wasn't much stranger than an avatar hearing anything at all. Even the standard millisecond clock rate of this world was far too coarse to resolve the full range of audible tones. Sound wasn't represented in the model by fluctuations in air pressure values -- which couldn't change fast enough -- but in terms of audio power spectra: profiles of intensity versus frequency. Twenty kilohertz was just a number here, a label; nothing could actually oscillate at that rate. Real ears analyzed pressure waves into components of various pitch; I knew that my brain was being fed the preexisting power spectrum values directly, plucked out of the nonexistent air by a crude patch in the model.
"Ten thousand milliseconds."
Ten seconds free-falling from frame to frame.
"One. Two. Three."
Fighting down vertigo, still counting steadily, I prodded the shallow cut I'd made in my forearm with the kitchen knife. It stung, convincingly. So where was this experience coming from? Once the ten seconds were up, my fully described brain would remember all of this but that didn't account for what was happening now. Pain was more than the memory of pain. I struggled to imagine the tangle of billions of intermediate calculations, somehow "making sense" of themselves, bridging the gap.
And I wondered: What would happen if someone shut down the computer, just pulled the plug -- right now?
I didn't know what that meant, though. In any terms but my own, I didn't know when "right now" was.
"Eight. Nine. Ten."
"Bill -- I'm seeing a slight blood pressure drop. Are you okay? How are you feeling?"
Giddy -- but I said, "The same as always." And if that wasn't quite true, no doubt the control had told the same lie. Assuming . . .
"Tell me -- which was I? Control, or subject?"
He replied, "I can't answer that -- I'm still speaking to both of you. I'll tell you one thing, though: the two of you are still identical. There were some very small, transitory discrepancies, but they've died away completely now -- and whenever the two of you were in comparable representations, all firing patterns of more than a couple of neurons were the same."
I grunted dismissively; I had no intention of letting him know how unsettling the experiment had been. "What did you expect? Solve the same set of equations two different ways, and of course you get the same results -- give or take some minor differences in round-off errors along the way. You must. It's a mathematical certainty."
"Oh, I agree." He wrote with one finger on the screen:
(1 + 2) + 3 = 1 + (2 + 3)
I said, "So why bother with this stage at all? I know -- I wanted to be rigorous, I wanted to establish solid foundations. But the truth is, it's a waste of our resources. Why not skip the obvious, and get on with the kind of experiment where the answer isn't a foregone conclusion?"
He frowned reprovingly. "I didn't realize you'd grown so cynical so quickly. Artificial Intelligence isn't a branch of pure mathematics; it's an empirical science. Assumptions have to be tested. Confirming the so-called "obvious" isn't such a dishonorable thing, is it? And if it's all so straightforward, why should you be afraid?"
"I'm not afraid: I just want to get it over with. But .... go ahead. Prove whatever you think you have to prove, and then we can move on."
"That's the plan. But I think we could both use a break now. I'll enable your communications -- for incoming data only." He turned away, reached off-screen, and hit a few keys on a second terminal.
Then he turned back to the camera, smiling -- and I knew exactly what he was going to say.
"By the way, I just deleted one of you. I couldn't afford to keep you both running, when all you're going to do is laze around."
I smiled back at him, although something inside me was screaming. "Which one did you terminate?"
"What difference does it make? I told you, they were identical. And you're still here, aren't you? Whoever you are. Whichever you were."
Images of Greece 1989