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.