Would I still be me?

3
Mar
2012

I was just reading an interesting article on Popular Science about “uploading” human consciousness to a robotic body. There are many variations on this idea, and many purveyors and proponents as well, most notable among them perhaps Ray Kurzweil. This is one idea among many that are currently floating about to enable humanity to achieve functional immortality, or at least vastly longer life spans. I have a fascination with this particular idea because it begs all sorts of questions about identity, feeling, and what is essential about being human. The article talks about several stages of scientific advancement that would start

first by creating a robot controlled by the human brain, then by actually transplanting a human brain into a humanoid robot, and then by replacing the surgical transplant with a method for simply uploading a person’s consciousness into a surrogate ‘bot.

The first two are definitely coming at some point in our lifetime, the third I can imagine happening at some point, but they all beg a series of questions about what it means to be human, and more specifically, What is essential to being oneself? What is identity?

1. This business of uploading one’s consciousness reminds me of the trouble with the Star Trek transporter idea: One is not really being transported, what is happening is that one example human is being exactly copied, and the original destroyed. While what is on the other end no doubt fully believes it is the original, the basis of that copy also believed itself to be real, and was annihilated.

2. Let’s say my human brain could be put inside a robot body. What would I feel? How would my senses be different? What about hunger, sex, and the feel of the wind against my skin? How much of being oneself is inseparable from the feelings of a human body? How alienating would it be to be a human mind in an artificial body? What inevitable transformations would consciousness go through to adapt and what comes out the other side?

3. What if parts of my brain and body could be slowly replaced, molecule by molecule, over time, until everything was brand new and a part of some advanced robot? Would I still be me? At what point would I stop being me? Even in biology, our bodies are replacing themselves all the time. The cells that make up one’s body today are mostly replacements for earlier ones. Are we the same people? Yes and no. How would this apply to replacing our cells with robotic parts?

Ultimately, all of these questions are as interesting for what they tell us about being human today, and the illusions we are under about our “immutable” selves. This immutability is more of a fearful belief we have, and the reason why obvious afflictions of self and identity (mental illness, Alzheimer’s) are among the most terrifying things for us to contemplate. But in reality, can you say you are the same as you were many years ago, and would you even want to? We value the hard won experiences that we gather over a lifetime, and we mostly think of these as additive to our total knowledge and personhood. But in a very real sense we can be thought of as completely different people than we were previously. The self is truly an illusion, we are a bundle of ever changing experiences, along for the ride. But what an amazing ride.

 

simple, stupid.

30
Dec
2011

We all have mild annoyances in our lives that we don’t respond to with changes or a fix. Sometimes they stay in the background and we just live with them, and sometimes after a long period we snap and decide to change something. Such was the case with my shower curtain. Since moving into my new apartment almost two years ago, I have had a problem with the shower curtain often being sucked inward and sticking to me (a mild annoyance). It was due to the differential pressure generated by the hot water on the inside versus the colder air outside, or something like that. I finally got so fed up with it, that I ordered a heavy duty and stiffer shower curtain, hoping that would curtail the movement. It helped a little, but failed to sufficiently stop the inward movement. I was really getting fed up now, and searched high and low on the internet for some sort of attachable weight one could affix to the bottom which would hold it more in place. I did my internet research and found none that fit the bill and for a brief moment considered designing and manufacturing them, and how I would become rich filling this unmet need. And then I read a blog post from someone with a similar problem that pointed to a very simple solution: don’t close the curtain all the way. Miraculously (or not, when you stop to think about it) this worked. By leaving about a foot or two of space at the far end of the shower, the air was able to move freely around and voila, problem solved. The curtain stays put. For someone as science smart as I (like to imagine I) am, I have to admit some embarrassment for not figuring this out sooner.