Living Forever in a Computer

This is fascinating. Robin Hanson, in conversation with Bryan Caplan:

Robin didn’t care about biological survival. He didn’t need his brain implanted in a cloned body. He just wanted his neurons preserved well enough to “upload himself” into a computer.

To my mind, it was ridiculously easy to prove that “uploading yourself” isn’t life extension. “An upload is merely a simulation. It wouldn’t be you,” I remarked. “It would if the simulation were accurate enough,” he told me.

Karl and Adam at Modeled Behavior respond, and so does Julian Sanchez:

Suppose that via some kind of Star Trek replication or some combination of cloning, highly advanced brain scanning, and neuron-etching nanotech, scientists create a precise physical duplicate of you. Just as your duplicate is waking up—so let’s be clear, there are now two extremely similar but clearly distinct loci of conscious experience in the room—you’re told (ever so sorry) that as an unfortunate side-effect of the process, your original body (you’re assured you are the original) is about to die. Should you be alarmed, or should you consider your copy’s survival, in effect, a means by which you survive?

Three things.

1. I’ve been wanting to post this, from Pope Benedict XVI’s Encyclical letter Spe Salvi forever, and I finally found an excuse! I, about as lapsed of a Catholic as you’ll find, associate more with this than Hanson’s desires:

To continue living for ever — endlessly — appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable…

In some way we want life itself, true life, untouched even by death; yet at the same time we do not know the thing towards which we feel driven. We cannot stop reaching out for it, and yet we know that all we can experience or accomplish is not what we yearn for. This unknown “thing” is the true “hope”…

To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality — this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time — the before and after — no longer exists.

(From Reading The Maps, a fascinating discussion of Continental anti-Enlightenment Theory’s influence on Cardinal Ratzinger.)

2) The discussion here is strongest, especially in Julian’s example, across space. I die in this room but my clone wakes up in another room. But we need to extend this in order to consider the replication across time. I go to sleep now, and wake up in the year 3009. Am I the same person shortly thereafter?

Imagine someone in the year 1009. Now certainly he’ll be a different person in the year 1010 – new experiences, new situations. But instead of aging that year, he falls into a pit and comes out in the year 2009 in the United States. All the stuff that was notable about him in that context will change. His speech, perhaps brutish in his own time period, could seem eloquent now. His skill, pride and reputation he takes in being a master weaver will have long been replaced by machines. The way he organizes his thoughts about the world and nature will be completely anachronistic.

Even in the metaphysics-free space that has been cleared here, it’s easy to imagine this person being a radically different person in 2010, as opposed to if he had stayed and ended up in 1010, as a result of adjusting to our current world of goods and ideas. Is that person still the same person? The inputs and outputs to his brain won’t match up in the functions they carried out before in their social context. Large amounts of his “black box” to his identity will be useless, and will have to be junked or reconfigured. Now our pliability is part of what makes us human (but how ‘of this moment’ is that something to value?), and we change naturally over the course of our lives and the places and situations we inhabit. But does placing someone somewhere alien to him make him alien to himself?

I assume cryogenics people will want to assimilate well into whatever time period they wake up. (Or do they want to live on some sort of island set in 2009?) Since we are talking about black boxes, let’s speak of my favorite black box, the television set. I know how how to plug it into the wall and watch it, but I have no clue to what is going on in between those two steps. If I took my television to 1009, and presumably 3009, it wouldn’t work right – there’s nothing to plug it into. Does our brain, and thus “ourselves”, have the same issue across enough time?

3. Like man himself, Uploaded Computer Man will have an evolution. And we currently have the technology to start. Let’s say, heavens forbid, I learn I only have a day left to live. I create a Second Life character that looks like me, an avatar in the online site where people can go and do stuff, and let’s also say that I am a skilled enough programmer to create a script that makes the avatar do stuff I would want it to do. I don’t know Second Life at all, but imagine World of Warcraft, where it’s possible my paladin could have a macro that would have it wander around fighting dragons and zombies. Let’s also assume I have enough money put aside to hire a credible firm to replace my computer every few years, tweak the script, run electricity, check network connectivity, etc.

At my funeral, this computer, running the Mike Konczal macro script, is brought out, and there’s my Second Life character, driving around in a virtual car and going to the virtual beach and saying random things to other people based on what the script has picked out. Does this count as living forever? Is this the fish that goes on the beach of computerized living forever?

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8 Responses to Living Forever in a Computer

  1. Rebecca Z. says:

    This has been the plot of a number of sci-fi novels; most frightening was one that had the hero in a constant death spiral. He was executed by the state for a crime, his brain uploaded just as he died, and then downloaded into a new body, and the whole process was repeated. His were memories of dying over and over again. (Sorry, don’t remember title or author, and of course, since he was the hero, he soon broke out of his death spiral.)

    On the other side of the spectrum is the main character on Tad Williams “River of Fire” series, who got to live in a virtual world after dying in the real world, but these books have several other disturbing ideas about that virtual world.

    Me, I don’t really care what a “virtual” Rebecca might do; just let me live as a unique person and die in peace. I have no responsibility for her electronic decisions, just as she has no responsibility for my meaty decisions. But I do hope you’ll give her a ride in your car; perhaps to admire the glow of the mother board as it resets the clock for the next second.

  2. Matt Frost says:

    Dollhouse has been fantastic on this subject. Amazingly reactionary.

    Says the villainess at one point: “I used to grow organs from stem cells. At least then people understood what I was doing.” [paraphrased]

  3. gabe says:

    I think this whole debate shows that we care much more about ourselves in terms of self preservation of ourselves simply to continu recieving stimuli to our self-aware selves than in terms of continuing our features, personalities, mannerisms, etc.

    Basically, we want to feel more than we want to exist. This is why I don’t immediately pick the second life character, as I wouldn’t feel anything in that case, though it would definitely be my existence for all practical purposes.

    Beyond any biological physical drive for self preservation, our id seems much more interested in continuing itself than preserving our physical bodies.

  4. Sundog says:

    Haven’t read the Hanson/Caplan conversation, but I’ve been loosely following discussions of post-humanism for a while.

    As it happens, FT Alphaville hosted CS economist Jonathan Wilmot today (well worth a peek) and he linked to a good short interview with Ray Kurzweil. The latter is an engineer who’s been making good efforts to encourage people to think about the implications of exponential advancements in technology.

    http://emagazine.credit-suisse.com/app/article/index.cfm?fuseaction=OpenArticle&aoid=272506&coid=252457&lang=EN

    Must give a bump to h+ Magazine.

    http://www.hplusmagazine.com/

    Thinking about aspects of post-humanism from the perspective of science and engineering, or via interpretive disciplines like history or anthropology, is more appealing to me than BSing about “the human essence.” So, rather than read Hanson/Caplan I’ll have a go at Singer’s book “Wired for War: the robotics revolution and conflict in the 21st century.”

    Thanks for the pope quote; brings to mind the Lucinda Williams song “Ventura” from her masterpiece, World Without Tears.


    I wanna watch the ocean bend
    The edges of the sun then
    I wanna get swallowed up in
    An ocean of love

    I heard her say in an interview that she was really surprised at the strong audience reaction the song got when she started playing it on tour; later she used it as the first track on a live album. My interpretation is that the song is about toying with suicide.

    A few more lines from Lucinda seem pertinent, these from Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’s “I Lost It”.

    I think I lost it
    Let me know if you come across it
    Let me know if I let it fall
    On a back road somewhere

    Money can’t replace it
    No memory can erase it
    And I know I’m never gonna find
    Another one to compare

  5. noompa says:

    Might as well muddy the waters further: once you have revived your cryogenically preserved self, suppose you decide that the entire experience creeps you out too much. Now, you don’t want the clone after all and decide to “terminate” it- is this murder? Do you technically own the clone as a material possession, or is he an entirely foreign locus of consciousness i.e. a separate living being? Is a distinction made between your relationship with him and your relationship with someone else?

    Taking this debate far into the future (and being extremely facetious): would cryogenics be covered by the public option?

  6. Consumatopia says:

    I’m surprised at how few people in this argument bring up the possibility that personal identity could itself just be an illusion, with or without physical continuity.

  7. We thought this through a few months ago on another blague, far far away (“we” is me and a 1/32 scale Kurzweil doll):

    Forget the meat. We can simulate sensation or develop alternate sensors if we need that sort of thing. Basically all we need is a reliable storage medium, the hardware necessary to keep it running, including robots to keep the hardware maintained or energy going, if necessary. Those who desire, could spend aeons playing 20 dimensional chess or farmville. Others might want an eternity of physical pleasure (sound painful!). Yet others might want to continue doing physics, or create other civilizations for fun. Bottom line: our future is going to be…. weird. Especially since we’ll all be linked together, thought-wise, even more than we are now, here on the [insert cute-pretentious nickname for the internet]. We’ll be like a schizophrenic with billions of voices in their head, in any case, until they get some good virtual flackery going to astroturf consensus.

  8. Pingback: Weekend Reading/Viewing Laundry List (12/05/09) « Chasing Fat Tails

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