Transcendence Movie Problems
Consciousness uploading - now with 50% less fiction!
For those who saw the recent Johnny Depp movie called "Transcendence", you probably appreciated the nanobot swarms ("grey goo"), and if you're anything like me, you enjoyed seeing the supercomputer that was going to be used for Depp's brain storage and processing. You might have liked the conflict between the modern-day Luddites (technophobes of almost religious magnitude), and you could probably have taken or left behind the love story.
However, if you're like me, there is one annoying plot hole that pokes at your existence more than all of the others combined (yes, even more than the idea that a super-human AI wouldn't be able to predict and prevent the actions of the humans involved). This discussion, more to the point, needs to be brought to the forefront of the "technological singularity" conversation field. The major issue: consciousness must be continuous in order for whatever comes out on the other side to be "you."
When will human brain emulation be possible?
I need to open this Pandora's Box that is the discussion over continued consciousness, because the conversation simply can't wait any longer. Why? Because with the ever-accelerating expansion of technology and improvement upon improvement (because of the "standing on the shoulders of giants" phenomenon associated with Moore's Law and what Ray Kurzweil terms the "Law Of Accelerating Returns"), total brain emulation may be many decades sooner than the overwhelming majority (linear thinking public) may think.
Worm brains are currently being emulated, and there is a goal out there right now to not only upload a bee's brain and exactly emulate it, but also to have this brain control an artificial bee body. Creepy? Maybe, but it's a giant leap forward, and because of the aforementioned LOAR (Law Of Accelerating Returns), human brains may well be within reach in just a few short decades.
Manipulating atoms - definitely not fiction
Don't think it's ever going to be possible?
Well, let me persuade you otherwise. Consider that the human brain, as utterly complex as it is, is at its core only a combination of atoms, nothing more. Granted, the number of atoms that make up the human brain is astronomical, but I think we can agree that in principle the human brain could be recreated in its entirety, atom by atom, and nobody could tell the copy apart from the original.
Consider the concept of nanotechnology, popularized in part by Eric Drexler, who wrote Engines of Creation. Drexler's main concept is that of a "factory in a box": a shoebox filled with small, autonomous machines that are capable of putting together other small, autonomous machines, potentially much smaller than they are. The great thing about this concept is that the same fundamental physical laws that govern the macroscopic world also govern the microscopic world, and as a consequence, the nanoscale machines would work far, far more efficiently (and quickly) than the larger machines.
It is a matter of time before we are able to manipulate atoms on the scale of mass production. IBM scientists (and others) have been manipulating individual atoms into desired forms, even famously into the word "IBM" (see the related picture) back in 1990- an eternity ago as far as technological advancement goes.
Star Trek's transporter
Which brings me to my main point: the method by which a "consciousness" is uploaded. This is the crucial point, and the crux of my whole point: if the consciousness is not continuous, what is the difference between me dying and a "new me" being created over there?
Perhaps one good example of this would be Star Trek's transporter. You are instantly disintegrated, and then, atom by atom, you are recreated on the other side, perhaps miles away. My simple contention is that that isn't you. If you're still not convinced, consider the "instant replica consciousness theory": the idea is that an exact replica of you is created by a computer, instantly indistinguishable in every conceivable way form you, perhaps in the same room as you. Of course you don't get to experience what your replica experiences, so it's pretty easy to contend that the replica isn't you. If I kill you the same instant that your replica is created, that doesn't make the replica you either, and the "you" on the other side of the transporter isn't really you either.
Bones was right!
Is this really possible?
What we need for this to happen
- Superior brain imaging technology (so we can see what to replicate and/or "upload")
- Atomic manipulation to do it exactly, atom by atom, or an incredible program to simulate the brain
- A gradual transition to the cloud (not a sudden uploading)
The solution: continuous consciousness
The solution is actually pretty simple and straightforward: ensure that consciousness is never lost. This will no doubt ignite a philosophical debate, and rightly so- if I'm under anesthesia, I'm still me when I wake up, right? Or am I?
I contend that you are. Your brain activity never ceases, even while under deep anesthesia, or after, say, being choked unconscious (as I have been on the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu mats, under controlled settings). For us to make a "transhumanist" transition, what's going to have to happen is akin to what is already happening: more and more of our thoughts are going to "live" in the cloud. Consider how many phone numbers you currently have committed to memory. One? Two? Three including 911? How about 20 years ago? I know I had dozens when I was a kid, but there's simply no need for it now.
Likewise, trivial information like geographical statistics, foreign language translation, and math problems are gradually being done by computers, and stored online.
Now, I know what you're thinking: but if my brain is online, that's not really me, either. But it can be. Suppose I remove just a tiny sliver of your brain and replace it with something that is made of silicon and data. Aren't you still you? Most people would say yes, sure. If I have a cochlear implant, I'm still me (unless you think that makes you a cyborg). What if I was able to gradually replace parts of my brain with computers, so gradually that there would be no way for me to tell the difference at any of the steps (or for you to tell the difference from the outside)?
That, friends and neighbors, is where the future is bringing us.