If You’re Uploaded to a Cyber-Existence, Are You Still You?

Posted on June 20, 2013

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Ever since seeing the transporter on the original Star Trek, I have wondered:  if your molecules are disassembled here and an exact copy of you is reconstructed somewhere else out of other molecules, are you really still you?  I have my doubts, enough that should teleportation ever become feasible, I don’t think I’d have the nerve to try it.  I mean… the reassembled “you” might even have all of your memories and believe she’s you, but… is it you?  Or were you destroyed by the teleporter and replaced by a copy?

Science fiction has asked these questions for a while, but now a young Russian tycoon, Dmitri Isakov, wants to make immortality possible through cybernetic means.  As the Washington Post reports, he pictures a swift timetable.  By 2020, we would have robots that we can control with our brains, and indeed we are on the verge of that with prosthetics (which I think is very cool for those who have lost limbs or mobility).  By 2025, he hopes that the capability will exist to transplant the brain into a life-support system; essentially, a whole prosthetic body to replace a failing organic one (this might be okay for a few years, but the brain itself ages, malfunctions, and eventually would die, so robot bodies are not really a prescription for immortality).  By 2035, he pictures the ability to actually move the mind from its brain-based existence to a computer-based existence… and that’s where he loses me on the feasibility of the concept.

Kind of like the transporter in Star Trek, uploading consciousness to a computer would probably really only amount to making a copy of your consciousness.  The resulting artificial intellect might be such a good copy that it even believes it really is you, but you yourself would not have gotten into the computer.

There was a short-lived TV series, Dollhouse, that dealt with this concept in an interesting way:  The “dolls” had their own personalities and memories uploaded into storage upon arrival, leaving them as blank slates.  The “Dollhouse” then used them to fill various assignments, simply downloading the necessary programming and memories for the task and then erasing them upon completion, leaving the “dolls” ready for a new assignment.  Upon completing a five-year contract, the “dolls” were reloaded with their own memories and personalities, which picked up exactly where they left off five years previously, and went their way with a hefty paycheck and no recollection at all of their five-year stint.

One episode, “Haunted,” was particularly thought-provoking on the nature of consciousness and the self.  As we learn, a wealthy woman had been coming to the Dollhouse weekly, and having a copy of her consciousness uploaded and stored.  When she dies suddenly, her friends at the Dollhouse download that copy into one of the dolls so that she can investigate her own death.  For all intents, this consciousness seems to be her, but it isn’t really; it’s just a copy.  The real woman, the original, is really, really dead.  At the end of the episode, this is recognized as her case is solved and she surrenders her temporary reprieve… which was never a real reprieve anyway.

I suspect it would be the same with any real-life attempts to upload our minds into machines.  We may reach a point that we can somehow copy a mind into a machine, and it may be worthwhile to preserve such intellects as, say, Stephen Hawking’s for the benefit of mankind; but I don’t think it’s possible to save individuals from the death that comes to all organic things, nor is it even desirable.

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