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Immortality

January 14, 2009

In George Hrab’s recent podcast, he answered a question from a user above whether he would accept immortality if it were offered him. I thought his answer was interesting.

Anyone who really knows me knows that I plan to live forever. I totally hate the idea of dying – of ceasing to exist as a thinking entity. In that regard, I cannot entirely side with George (who was not entirely sure he would be into the idea). I would far rather live as long as I wanted to – even if (perhaps especially if) it means thousands of years – and die when I felt I had done everything interesting that I could possibly do than to leave this life at any earlier time.

George raised related issues, though, which I have thought about on and off over the years. It all revolves around three points of view – those of our current mind (the “meat”), the new mind (digital), and everyone else in the universe (others).

Machine intelligence
A common theme in sci-fi and near-future predictions is the ability to “download” (although, really, “upload” is a more appropriate term) our minds into a machine of some sort – computer, robot, whatever – and thus live happily forever.

My problem with this is that our mind is a collection of the entire contents of our brain. If that brain is emptied, our mind is gone. A copy may exist in that machine, but that copy is not, as far as our meat body is concerned, our mind. The meat mind will, for all intents and purposes, consider itself to be dying and will cease to exist as soon as the transfer is complete. The digital mind will think of itself as the “original,” because it will have all the thoughts of the meat mind up to and including the transfer, so it will feel as though it experienced a continuous existence. The rest of the universe will consider the digital mind to be “original,” because it will behave and react exactly as the original mind.

So, from a universal point of view, including that of the digital mind, a transfer from meat to machine would appear to produce the original consciousness in the new medium. However, to the meat, it will still feel like dying – the original consciousness will be gone and no amount of copying will ever change the fact that you, as the original meat, will have died.

Transporter disruption
This brings up a concept I thought of some time ago relating to Star Trek. From everything I understand about the “science” behind transporters, and without going too deep into semi-nonsensical Trekker speak, a transportee’s body is captured in a matrix, disassembled and then reassembled in the new location. (Keep any discrepancies between that simplistic explanation and Trekker lore to yourself – I really don’t care all that much.) From my point of view, the original transportee’s mind is destroyed at the first disassembling. Therefore, every person in the Star Trek universe who has ever been transported has been killed – there just happens to be a new entity with the same mind replacing that person. From a universal point of view, there has been a full transfer. From the original meat POV, death has occured. However, nobody notices it because everyone who goes through the transporter has died, leaving only perfect (or sometimes not-so-perfect) copies behind.

Ultimately, the best way to immortality without risking the meat/digital dichotomy presented above is to do it piecemeal. Don’t replace the brain, make modifications to it; change just a bit at a time via memory expansions, processor upgrades, sense modification, whatever the options are. If I just increase my memory, my mind is not destroyed. If it just works faster, nothing has otherwise changed. Over time and many changes, it is entirely possible that only digital will be left, but I am confident that during the entire process, there is no discontinuity of the original “meat” consciousness. It is the only form of digital immortality that would be acceptable to me. (Hurry up, science!)