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Transcendence Movie Problems

Updated on February 21, 2017

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."

Consciousness uploading

When will human brain emulation be possible?

See results

"Broken" consciousness

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

Transporter time!
Transporter time!

Continuous consciousness

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.


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    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Very interesting. I have basically said the same a couple of decades ago. In fact, I took it a step further. I call the continuum of consciousness "Q", and basically if Q remains unbroken, then you are -- supposedly -- the same person.

      But let's take the case of someone suffering from cryogenic death and is brought back. Like, for example, someone falling into the frigid waters of a frozen lake. Chilled below viability quicky, heart stop, brain stops -- but because of the reduced temperature, does not suffer a global ischemic meltdown it otherwise would if at the normal 37 degrees deprived of oxygen.

      Such people have been revived. So, comma, the big question is, since their Q was interrupted, are they the same person?

      Here's another more hypothetical scenario. Imagine, if you will, a matter spliter where an object enters on one side and 2 identical objects exits on the other. The splitting occurs in similar fashion to beam splitting. The split is at the subatomic level, and every atom and its state is exactly and indistinguishably "split".

      So in which person exiting on the opposite side would Q reside? Or would it not now reside in both persons? There is no way to discern by measurement which of the persons is the "original", or one can say they are both "original".

      So where is the real "you" after the split?

      This paradox strongly has me asserting that the very Q itself is an illusion. Each one of your split selves will be 100% convinced of his or her genuineness, share exactly the same memories up to the spit, etc.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Since we can't entirely explain what conciousness is yet, this is kind of an obsolete discussion. First we need to fully understand how conciousness works, then we should be able to determine if it can be transfered to a new "vessel".

      My guess is that yes, it will be possible, but maybe not in the way that we think. I like how it is addressed in the movie The Prestige (*SPOILER*) where Angier creates clones of himself. Both the clone and him have the same memories, yet their conciousness is separate. And they never know which one of them will die that night...

    • revolutionbjj profile image

      Andrew Smith 

      3 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Also, just to add to the confusion of this format - "revolutionbjj" = "goatfury" (both are me). Doh!

    • revolutionbjj profile image

      Andrew Smith 

      3 years ago from Richmond, VA

      I know what you mean about not condensing. I'm intrigued with the "splitting" idea, though- would you then determine if you have a "consciousness" in both minds? My thought process would be that you would not; a duplicate mind wouldn't have your consciousness.

      Unfortunately, all we can do right now is thought experiments, no pun intended. Also: I don't mind you mentioning your book at all here. :)

    • profile image

      Keith Wiley 

      3 years ago

      Unfortunately, these issues do not easily fall to "proof" along any lines. Therefore, we should seek philosophical positions that minimize inconsistencies and paradoxes. The best solution anyone has really put forward is the one I propose in my book (and which others have offered independently as well -- it is an idea that has surface from more than one proponent). I call it "splitting" a mind (see my book for more information obviously). Others refer to it as "divergence" or "fission" of minds (I've seen these two terms used frequently for the same basic idea), and yet others, perhaps more formally, refer to "branching identity theory" (see Michael Cerullo's 'Uploading and Branching Identity'). I believe Anthony Brueckner and Derek Parfit may have written on this idea as well, although I don't have good references available at the moment.

      Permitting minds to split into multiple descendant minds, and allowing all such descendants to be interpreted as *equal* descendants of the common ancestral mind, is the least philosophically challenging proposal frankly.

      I don't mean to promote my book too heavily, because I am aware of how negatively self-promotion can be taken sometimes, but the reason I wrote an entire book on this topic is that it does not easily condense, with all the necessary details, down to the length of a mere comment in a discussion or feedback forum. Sorry.


    • goatfury profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Smith 

      3 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Keith, my intention was more to open a dialogue on what I perceived to be an "open and shut" case. It is my contention that those espousing the same views presented in the movie "Transcendence" bear the burden of proof, because they're essentially saying, "hey, consciousness uploading works because you can't prove that it doesn't!", but doesn't bother to attempt to explain why a complete recreation of an individual works.

      Imagine an exact duplicate of you over there while you exist. Is that you? Do you get to experience the duplicate as well as the current "you" you're experiencing?

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      "I need to open this Pandora's Box that is the discussion over continued consciousness, because the conversation simply can't wait any longer"

      Sure, because this subject totally hasn't been discussed to death on every transhumanist website

    • profile image

      Keith Wiley 

      3 years ago

      You really haven't offered a very definitive explanation for *why* continuity of consciousness should be required. You are just restating a common relative discomfort with the idea of discontinuous procedures. Your discomfort with the idea is irrelevant. You really haven't proven that the only interpretation of a discontinuous procedure must be "death of one and birth of another", you are just stating it because you feel that way, or intuit it, or perhaps simply because you prefer it. That is not a good argument and surely your feelings on the matter can't possibly inform of us actual truth.

      For a deeper analysis, I would suggest reading my own book on the subject frankly, if you are curious.


      Keith Wiley

      Author: A Taxonomy and Metaphysics of Mind-Uploading

    • goatfury profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Smith 

      3 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Yeah, Mike- I read the same thing when you said it on Facebook. Again, I think saying it has "long ago been debunked" would meet a great deal of disagreement across wide ranges of communities, from transhumanist to medical to philosophical.

    • profile image

      Mike Lorrey 

      3 years ago

      Fallacious argument that has long ago been debunked, and quite simply: when an anasthesiologist puts you under for an operation, you lose continuity of consciousness. By your logic, the post-surgery you is an entirely different person than the pre-surgery you. Likewise, a person who drowns, who is physiologically dead for up to a half hour under water in cold conditions, is revived. Is that post-drowning person an entirely different person than the pre-drowning person? No, they aren't, and not just because they are the same physical body.

    • Michael Kismet profile image

      Michael Kismet 

      4 years ago from Northern California

      A very controversial topic, but nevertheless intriguing for the person of an atheist persuasion. I think transcendence is entirely possible, we just have to work out the details. Great article, thanks for sharing!


    • goatfury profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Smith 

      4 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Gear - couldn't agree more, and I'm glad others see it that way.

    • profile image

      Gear Mentation 

      4 years ago

      Yup, been saying this for years. We have to have our brains replaced gradually, and in the end maybe we can upload.


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