Digital life – personal oblivion?

I’ve become interested lately in questions concerning mind “uploading” – digital “immortality”. Such questions are unavoidable when you’re thinking about the implications of artificial general intelligence, as I was doing for an MA dissertation recently. Easy steps lead inexorably from the ideas of bodily enhancement by electronic prostheses, through brain enhancement and supplementation, and thence to brain emulation and other forms of mind-copying.

I take exception to the term “uploading” to describe this digital copying and dissemination. The word suggests the movement of something compact, localizable, persistent. It’s misleading even applied to the copying of a text file; we use it because we so often want to preserve a single relatively unchanging, localizable text. Any future “uploading” of personality will be more like circulating a text and having several people work on revising it, so that the original text and authorship dissolve. For the person-successor produced by  “mind-uploading” will be intended to go forth and have a history: its many copies will be taking advantage of all the possibilities for interaction and development in a world of many other intelligences. So “mind-uploading” will in reality be the dissolution of the self into the cyberworld.

Well, I don’t fancy that. I don’t want to say goodbye to this single, compact, circumscribed self.

I talked last week to Brian Micklethwait’s monthly libertarian-inclined meet-up. I don’t often give talks, and I overran wildly on the basic concepts of AGI, and only gave brief, hurried afterthoughts on the implications for libertarianism. One – and just one – of the points I was trying to make somewhere in the talk was that I don’t think that personal identity can survive translation from meat to metal. And I rather cherish such identity.

The prospect of a digital destiny for humanity makes me feel rather better about not having taken any steps to ensure my own immortality. I’m just going to let my carcase be cremated, like most other people.

My lethargy in this respect couldn’t be justified otherwise. For I don’t have any respect for physical ageing and dying: I don’t think these things are a necessary part of the best of all possible worlds. I don’t think there’s nobility in the human race being resigned to these things. There is a nobility in being resigned to what you really can’t change; none at all in acquiescing in what could and ought to be changed.

I feel that I and my generation have narrowly missed the indefinitely prolonged lives of youth and vigour that our descendants will know. Perhaps my grand-daughter, now rising three, will have such a life.

Our view of such a life without a predictable end is distorted by another misnomer – this time, the misnomer of “immortality”. Trying to live healthily and vigorously isn’t trying to live for ever. Accident and violence will still exist to rescue us from the horror of endless life, if horror it be. And if neither of these contingencies happens along, there will always be suicide. Suicide must always be an option.

But actually, life with no end in sight holds no terrors for me. I see no reason to fear Bernard Williams’s “tedium of immortality”. It seems to me that human beings are defined by their projects, in Sartrean style. As long as vigorous life persists, there can be further projects and further reason to live. Not to mention simple enjoyments to carry us from day to day.

But indefinitely prolonged health and youth are not going to arrive in time for me. I live under the same worse-than-death sentence that we all – except, perhaps, the infants – live under: the threat of dementia, or cancer, or some other of the horrors.

It’s a very real dread.

Our human descendants will become cyborgs But as long as they live, the cyborgs will find themselves challenged by the silicon-brained pioneers. Can’t we assume, a priori, that a pure-machine intelligence can excel an animal–machine hybrid? So that means that the longest-range future is fully machinic: meat people and hybrid meat–metal people must be outclassed by the pure-blooded race of all-metal entities. As far as I can see, we can’t hope to keep up by merging with the machines.

It will be no salvation to go into the brain-scanning chamber in order to bring a hardware simulation into the world. If the scanning process destroys the original brain, I would be terrified by the process. I don’t know what could convince me that this wouldn’t be death. If, by contrast, the process left meat-me intact and merely created my noetic double, I wouldn’t be able to regard the creation as in any sense me as long as I lived. And I’d take it amiss if anyone else did.

And as I wrote above, the double wouldn’t remain identifiable for long. There would be payoffs in having it disappear into cyberspace, dissolving, replicating, fetching rewards, being revised and revising itself, getting things done in countless places … it would digitally disperse while meat-me was still blundering around.

So I can’t look forward to the next thousand years of human destiny, even though I’m a techno-optimist. I literally can’t look forward because I can’t get a glimpse of what that destiny will be like. David Roden wrote a whole book called Posthuman Life, and it just comes down to: not only haven’t we got a clue what it will be like, we couldn’t possibly have a clue.

Still, it would be nice to last a century or two to see what the prospects look like then. Things are bound to be so unforeseeably different that present-day speculation isn’t worth much.

But that just means that I ought to be breaking open the piggy-bank to buy myself some cryonics. And what’s stopping me from doing that is just a combination of lethargy, incredulity about the prospects of cryonics being successful and the thought of having to persuade my loved ones to join me in the venture. I would have to convince them not only that we are all on the Titanic – which we all know perfectly well – but also that they should really stop the merrymaking and like me make the effort to get one of these expensive but unconvincing-looking lifejackets called “cryonics”. And first I’d have to convince myself.

Really, there’s so much else to do …


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