ALT! WHO GOES THERE? PART 6D.
“HE’S ALIVE! ALIVE!”
The ability to bring the dead back to life is already a medical reality. There is a surgical technique known as Profound Hypothermia and Circulatory Arrest. PHCA involves stopping the heart and blood flow and lowering the body temperature to 10 degrees Celsius. At this temperature, all communication and patterned activity between neurons is halted. The patient therefore meets most of the legal requirements of death. This condition lasts for up to an hour, after which the brain is re-warmed, the heart and blood flow re-started, and the patterned activity between neurons ‘boots up’.
HOW TO ACHIEVE SUSPENDED ANIMATION INDEFINITELY
The patient cannot be kept in the ‘dead’ state indefinitely, because that would cause irreparable damage. But, if it were possible to preserve the brain and prevent damage, there would be no reason why the patient could not be kept in the ‘dead’ state for days, weeks, years…even centuries. It so happens that we have the capacity to do this today. Here’s how. The patient’s vascular system is hooked up to external pumps via open-heart bypass surgery. The pumps perfuse a chemical fixative called glutareldehyde through the vasculature, so that it reaches every cell in the body. What glutareldehyde does is cross-link proteins, fixing them in place and preventing decay. Next, another fixative- osmian textroxide- is perfused and this fixes lipid molecules in place. With all the molecular machinery within the patient’s cells fixed and prevented from decaying, the next stage is to replace all the water in the body with pure pastic resin. Once this is complete, the patient is placed in an oven and baked at 60 degrees Celsius, which hardens the plastic resin into a solid block. The result could be likened to a flawless fossil, with every delicate neuronal processes in the nervous system perfectly preserved down to the nanometer level.
AND HOW TO REANIMATE YOUR PATIENT
But how is this of any use to the patient? You have been placed in such a state, but how can you be revived? Well, what would being revived actually entail? The answer is: Re-starting the patterned activity and communication between neurons. So, we might as well remove any and all parts of the body that are not strictly necessary. Skin, muscles and bones (skull included) are stripped away to reveal the dura mater sack, a tough material that contains the brain and spinal cord. This, too, is peeled away to reveal a perfectly-preserved brain and spinal cord, including all the nerve roots that connect the brain to the body’s sense receptors and muscles. OK, but again, how will we restore the patterned activity and communication? Well, we do not require the exact same brain, only a brain that will produce the same patterns of activity that would occur if the patient were revived.
So, the resin fossil of the brain and spinal cord is sliced into strips, each one 100 microns thick, using incredibly sharp knives that will not damage any organic material during this process. Each 100 micron section is then scanned by a bank of electron microscopes. They scan a layer 5 nanometers thick, that layer is then removed using a focused ion beam, the next layer is scanned, and after 20,000 repeats the process has mapped, in astonishing detail, every neuron, every connection, neurotransmitter concentrations, and all other components. Once every section of the brain and spinal cord has been scanned, the result would be a 5-nanometer resolution map of the functional properties of all neurons and connections. This wealth of information is used to build a precise, functionally equivalent software model of the patient’s brain.
The neural computer’s simulated nerve roots would be hooked up to a robot body, signals from its actuators and sensors flowing to and from the simulated brain’s cranial and nerve roots. With the simulated brain set up to approximate waking up from a surgical procedure like PHCA, the whole brain emulation is booted up, and the patient is revived.
Obviously, quite a lot of the detail in this scenario relies on knowledge and technology that is not available, but it is all a reasonable extrapolation from current capabilities. We could perfectly preserve the brain using chemical fixatives and plastination, but it is illegal to perform the technique before death has occurred, which seriously limits its effectiveness. The scanning technology exists, but is currently too slow to image a whole brain in a reasonable time. Most important of all, we have developed highly-detailed models of neuronal components and large neuronal regions. Such models are already sufficiently detailed to allow simulations based on them to reproduce results obtained from experiments on actual brains. The whole brain has not yet been reverse-engineered, and no model is yet accurate to a level of nanometers (so far as I know) but both are reasonable extrapolations of current trends in brain scanning and reverse engineering.
WHO IS THIS GUY?
OK, but even if we grant that this procedure is feasible, would it really revive the patient? It might result in a conscious robot, but is the mind that of the patient or not? If we copy your mind and run an emulation that would operate just as your original brain would have done, does that make the subjective state ‘you’? Douglas Hoffstadter imagined a scenario in which the revived patient thinks otherwise:
“Oh, horrors, I’m not me! I’m merely someone…who has all my memories stretching all the way back to childhood”.
Of course, if the procedure did successfully reconstruct the synaptic activity of the patient’s cerebral cortex and basal ganglia ( which is where memories are mostly stored) and the whole brain emulation did indeed function just as the original brain would have done, such an exclamation would be absurd. And yet, there are plenty of people who believe such a copy cannot be ‘you’.
Why not? Well, for one thing the original brain was destroyed. The patient did not remain in perfect non-local continuous connection with his ‘new’ self. But is such a condition necessary? No. After all, during PHCA all neuronal activity is halted and therefore the patient does not remain in perfect continuous connection with his future self, but he still wakes up as the same guy. Well, OK, there are philosophical arguments to the effect that we cannot know this for sure, but no doctor or family member or friend ever said that a person revived after PHCA is a mere copy or p-zombie or some such thing. Another important point is that the brain is dynamic, always making and breaking connections, losing memories and forging new ones. And there is a lot of molecular turnover; for instance, the actin filaments in dendrites are replaced every 40 seconds or so and synaptic activity is replaced- molecule by molecule- every hour. You might feel as if you are the same person you were a month ago, but you no longer have the same brain.
But still, people insist ‘a copy of me is not me’. Which begs the question: To what should we attribute this most crucial of identities? We can think of a person as having two kinds of self-identity. One kind is what Ken Hayworth calls ‘MEMself’. That is, the ‘you’ which is associated with your unique set of memories, including semantic and episodic memories (your complete store of known facts and recollections of your past), procedural memories (how you react both mentally and physically under particular circumstances) and perceptual memories (which refers to all the brain circuits that enable you to sense the world around you). In other words, your MEMself refers to the hardwired circuitry of your brain.
The other type of self is what Hayworth calls ‘POVself’. POV as in ‘point-of-view’, the ‘you’ that is experiencing the world on a moment-by-moment basis. Hayworth explained, “you can roughly think of POVself as the currently active representational state of the brain”. If either MEMself or POVself were absent, you would not exist. Stripped of all your memories (including your ability to perceive the world) you would not be a person, let alone yourself. And if the POVself were absent, there would be no ongoing activity in the brain. But we are not asking which is crucial for life, but which is responsible for our uniqueness. Is it my POVself or my MEMself that is the source of my ‘I’?
Those who reject whole brain emulation on the grounds that ‘a copy of me is not me’ attribute self-identity to the POVself. According to this position, Gwyneth Llewelyn’s mind has a quale (singular of qualia) we might call ‘being Gwyn’. The ‘being Gwyn’ quale remains the same (or, at least, very similar) whether Gwyn is relaxing on a beach feeling happy or riding a train to work feeling angry. I, meanwhile, have a ‘being Extie’ quale which is qualitatively different to ‘being Gwyn’. So, if I too am on the train feeling angry, it is a conscious experience that is utterly missing in Gwyn’s subjective state-of-mind. According to Hayworth, “our intuition assumes a kind of omniscience to our POVself (our moment-to-moment consciousness) that somehow incorporates all the various memories and abilities of MEMself”.
MIRROR NEURONS MEAN I AM NOT AN ISLAND
Intuition is all well and good, but when it goes astray we should reject it in favour of the known facts. The notion is a philosophically redundant one. The idea that my mind is an island, separate from Gwyn’s or anyone else’s, collapses once the capabilities of so-called ‘mirror neurons’ are understood. If you hear someone speaking, areas in your frontal cortex which are normally active when you speak are activated. Watching someone being tickled triggers activity in the areas where this sort of sensory input is registered and processed- the secondary soma sensory cortex. And while we do not have mirror neurons in the limbic system (which is involved in the processing of emotions) the brain does possess communication links between the limbic system and frontal areas that are active in connection with imitation. UCLA researchers have proposed a model in which “mirror neurons…send signals to emotional areas, and it’s in connection with this communication that you really understand the feelings of others”.
Mirror neuron activity is crucial for understanding. We know this, because if strong magnetic stimulation is used to put mirror neurons out of play, the individual no longer comprehends what she is hearing.
Marco Iacaboni, whose team discovered many of the capabilities of mirror neurons, said “on the academic level, people have believed up to this point that our brains work with sharply divided systems that sense and comprehend on one side and act on the other…Instead, we’ve got a system of brain cells that process my actions and your actions in a holistic way in one and the same procedure. They simulate and re-create not only others’ actions but also their intentions and feelings. Just being in the world means, on a fundamentally psychological level…our nervous systems are directly connected”.
Various studies of people with brain damage further debunk the idea that POVself is the source of a person’s unique sense of self. So-called ‘hemineglect’ patients have suffered a stroke to a large region of their right parietal cortex, and this results in their losing perception of the whole left side of their body and visual world. But, they often do not appreciate this loss. Hayworth pointed out that “we could disconnect the entire left side of [your] phenomenal world (through a lesion in your parietal cortex) and [you] would not realise you had lost anything”.
And consider those unfortunate souls who have extensive damage to the areas responsible for episodic memory. Such people live in a perpetual present, convinced that this moment now is the very first time they have been alive. But, during situations where the person is not trying to access episodic memories, they will behave quite normally. Hayworth commented, “if you…were engaged in playing the piano and someone destroyed all the neural circuitry encoding the episodic memories of your life…you…would not know something is missing until you stopped playing the piano, at which point you would attempt to access your episodic memories, find none, and declare that this is the first time you have been alive!”.
We notice the same lack of perception in every single aspect of brain function. Far from being omniscient, POVself is actually quite unaware of all aspects of the MEMself that are not actively engaged right now. Furthermore, Hayworth pointed out how (based on many neuroscientific and psychological studies) “our wide range of POVself states overlaps almost completely with those of other people, except in those few instances that we call up an episodic memory that is unique to our personal history”.
It is the MEMself- the unique set of perceptual, declarative and procedural memories and individual builds up over a lifetime- that is the true source of one’s identity. The reason why it seems as if all our memories are present in the here and now is similar to the reason why we appear to have instantaneous visual clarity of a scene, even though the construction of the eye makes this impossible. We can only distinguish fine detail in a tiny region in the centre of the retina, but any part of the visual field including the periphery can be accessed within 300 milliseconds simply by moving the eyes. Similarly, it is obvious from what we know about the brain’s attention limits that all the unique episodic and declarative memories cannot be present in the here-and-now. But POVself does have quick access to such memories.
Any POVself that had the same quick and easy access to the vast quantity of inactive information that is your MEMself would be you. It would be the same self. If we were to copy your MEMself a hundred times, a hundred people would have the same self, with any differences in the moment-to-moment POVselves (due to being in different locations) too trivial to be considered a reason to differentiate the selves. After all, if you were to instantaneously jump from one place to another, this would not cause you to believe you had been erazed and replaced by a copy. So neither would occupying a different space to you instantaneously turn one of your duplicates into someone else. Only experiences built up over time and incorporated into a MEMself that differs by a sufficient degree could do that.
The only kind of uploading procedure that would fail to transfer a self from one substrate to another would be one that failed to copy a sufficient amount of MEMself. How much, then, is sufficient? Clearly, it need not be 100%, or else you would feel like a completely different person every time a memory is lost or new knowledge is gained. Bruce Katz spoke of ‘genuine illusion theory’ (the illusion being a perception of a core self that remains constant through time), saying “the transfer will be a success to the extent that an illusion of continuity of self is maintained despite loss of information. This illusion need not depend on completely smooth perception of continuation of the past into the present, but may break down in a nonlinear fashion if this continuation is sufficiently degraded”.
It would not doubt be arbitrary to stipulate a fixed threshold at which an upload ceases to be ‘you’ and becomes someone else. Instead, as MEMself degrades due to increasingly imperfect copying procedures, a new self that smoothly connected with the old self would feel gradually feel more different and less connected to the old self, effectively transforming into a new person who shares some memories with the old self but (in Katz’s words) “no more feels like the old person than you would think you are your roommate, simply because you share a number of memories and experiences”.
THE POINT OF ALL THIS IS…
Why does any of this matter? It matters because it is a characteristic trait of the human species to go beyond the limits. A technological species need not wait for natural selection to evolve wings so it can fly. It can acquire knowledge of the physical principles governing flight and arrange matter and energy in such a way as to achieve that goal. It can equip itself with new ‘bodies’ that enable it to survive in the depths of the ocean or on the surface of the Moon. It can build eyes that can see microscopic creatures or galaxies far, far away at the edge of the visible universe. Whatever limits our biological bodies and senses impose on us, we can overcome through science and technology if we choose to. The only real limits are our imagination and the ultimate limits enshrined in the laws of physics.
Since the mind is what the brain does, if we make substantial improvements to the brain we would also improve the mind- or at least we would significantly expand our potential to achieve a superior state-of-mind. That is the real promise of uploading. Not that your mind is transferred to a new brain that is, functionally at least, just like the old one. Rather, that it is transferred to a brain that retains the salient features of the original but also has superior capabilities in terms of memory storage and retrieval, the body-maps it can generate, the connections it can establish with other minds, the kinds of world models it can build, and other capabilities I am currently not smart enough to think of.
The thing to bare in mind is, any uploading procedure that captures sufficient MEMself counts as a continuation of self. But, because many people believe (wrongly) that there is something unique about one’s moment-to-moment conscious self, they insist on such criteria as gradual transfer, in which awareness remains unbroken during the procedure. But it’s worth remembering that gradual replacement is meant as a thought-experiment designed to reveal a flaw in the assumption that one’s identity is tied to one’s brain and body. It was never intended to be viewed as the only way to maintain continuity, but in many discussions concerning uploading and identity, gradual-replacement is considered by some to be the only way of ensuring continuity.
In practice, systematically removing a tiny part of the brain and replacing its function with some kind of artificial equivalent, all while ensuring the ongoing mental and physical health of the patient, is probably not impossible but is likely to be far more difficult an approach than simply fixing the brain, destructively scanning it and then using building a completely artificial brain that emulates the original. The end result is identical: A functionally-equivalent artificial brain that captures sufficient MEMself to maintain the illusion of a core self. The advantage lies in the fact that we are very close to being able to prepare a brain and preserve its cellular and sub-cellular structures and machinery for hundreds of years, so anyone alive today could arrange for an upload as and when the other necessary condition (the creation of a whole-brain emulation detailed enough to include your MEMself) is feasible- so long as you do not mind being effectively dead during the interim period between now and when brain-scanning/ reconstruction is perfected.
ENABLING TECHNOLOGIES, CHANGING PERCEPTIONS
When discussing the future, one has to be careful not to consider one change in isolation, as if this one aspect were to change while everything else remains the same. I think this is what happens when substrate-independent minds are discussed. People imagine mind uploading occurring today, with today’s beliefs about self and identity. But, if we consider a broader range of changes that the enabling technologies of uploading could bring about, it becomes reasonable to suppose that the classic upload dilemma (is a copy of my mind me? Or somebody else?) will be rendered obsolete.
YOUR HEAD IN THE CLOUD.
Ever since the invention of writing, humans have offloaded aspects of cognition. Nowadays, we are surrounded by a plethora of personal computing/communication devices. The philosopher, David Chalmers, contemplated the relationship between himself and his iPhone; how he relied on it to remember addresses, used its calendar to help organize his schedules, and consulted Google when trying to settle disputes. “Friends joke that I should get the iPhone implanted in my brain”, he said. “But…all this would do is speed up the processing and free my hands. The iPhone is part of my mind already”. If Ray Kurzweil’s charts of technological evolution are accurate, we should expect computational devices to reach levels of miniaturization and sophistication where billions of nanobots patrol the vascular system, establishing wireless links between networks of themselves and the individual’s own organic brain cells. The intermediate stages between the nanobots and contemporary devices like the iPhone would be increasingly discrete computers and sensors, embedded in more and more places and networked so as to share data that would help to perform useful functions on behalf of people.
It will seem, in other words, like your mind is extending beyond the confines of your skull, thanks to what another philosopher (Andy Clarke) calls the ‘Parity Principle’: “If, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it to go on in the head, we would have no hesitation in accepting as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is…part of the cognitive progress”.
Those who have read ‘Accelerando’ by Charles Stross will recall Manfred Macx’s glasses and waist pouch: “They’ve got…distributed search engines running a bazillion inscrutable search tasks, and a whole slew of high-level agents that collectively form a large chunk of the society of mind that is their owner’s personality”. Imagine that uploading becomes available and affordable in a world where this kind of technology is commonplace. With so much of the cognitive processes running in the Cloud, anyway, would the prospect of uploading those processes still dependent on wetware be at all bothersome?
OUT OF THIS BODY, INTO THAT ONE
It won’t just be our minds that extend out into the world around us. Researchers have already implanted microwires into the motor cortex of monkeys and developed algorithms that translate the electrical activity of neurons into commands that control devices. In one experiment, a monkey was able to thought-control two robots arms, one of which was in a room across the hall, and the other was hundreds of miles away. If such technology becomes widely available for human use, how would it affect perceptions of the body?
It has been shown, using various psychological and neuroscientific experiments, that the mind does not actually know where the body ends and the rest of the world begins. So long as the mind can correlate a cognitive process with a change in some object (such as an intention to grasp something resulting in a remote claw performing that very action) that object becomes incorporated into your body map and will come to feel as much a part of your body as your leg. As more objects respond in some physical way to mental commands, it would become second-nature to think of the body as highly decentred, able to ‘be’ wherever there is a closed-loop between intention and action. So, the individual would have a body extended out into the Cloud as well as (much of) the mind. And then there are those states-of-mind, brought about by certain meditation techniques, whereby the mind feels as though it has become separate from the body, and is floating as one with the universe. Perhaps it will be possible to induce such sensations as part of the uploading procedure. The nanobots might, for instance, drive the left prosterior parietal lobe and other necessary regions into the state correlated with that feeling, as well as implementing a feeling of transferring from one body to another (recall from earlier installments in this series how VR can already provide a perception of occupying a position in space other than where your actual body currently is). Again, would the prospect of shedding off the organic body and relying completely on artificial or virtual bodies (assuming sensory input is on a par with the organic body) be bothersome?
THE NEW SELF.
You have one body, one brain, and therefore one self, right? Well, no, not necessarily. The reason why not is because there are many kinds of brain processes and these are capable of generating different states of mind. Sometimes these mind states give rise to a sense of self that is very ‘singular’, but other states-of-mind exist that create a sense of multiplicity, and there is a whole spectrum of states between the two extremes of feeling very singular and disassociative identity disorders. According to Richard Davidson (a neuroscientist specialising in happiness research) “we are…discovering that our personality in all possible dimensions is far more malleable than we thought. And it’s going to give us a more fluid concept of the self”. Such thoughts are echoed by philosophers like Thomas Metzinger, who reject the very idea of a fixed essence of identity.
Ignoring the extreme conditions which are indeed debilitating, neither a ‘singular’ nor a ‘multiple’ self are intrinsically good or bad, Instead, they are adaptations that are useful in certain environments. When routine and stability are the norm, that favours the singular self. For much of history, people rarely moved away from the place they were born and expectations of occupying the same job as grandfather were largely met. Limited horizons constrained people’s lives, so it is little wonder that the mind created an illusion of a core self. It was a useful fiction.
Nowadays, no job is for life and we find ourselves in a world in which we need to be flexible and adaptable. The accelerating rate of change continues apace, and broadening access to communication technologies opens us up to a far wider range of voices and opinions. This favours an ability to shift viewpoints and behaviour; to develop states-of-mind made up of a group of personalities held together by shared memories. According to Lone Frank, “a recognition of the fluid self sets the stage for a recognition that life is not so much about finding yourself but choosing yourself or moulding yourself into the shape you want to be”.
If it becomes second-nature to think of the self as fluid, changeable, a multiplicity rather than a solid core that threatens the extinction of the self if it is lost, would the possibility of another self that is not ‘you’ seem like an existential threat, or simply a recognition that there is no ‘you’ in that sense, because there is no fixed essence of identity?
Digital people occupy a kind of intermediate state between ‘me’ and ‘other’. They are sort of yourself and sort of somebody else at the same time. Giulio Prisco considers current virtual realities to be too crude to seriously consider avatars as people in their own right. But I am sure he would acknowledge that online worlds could one day be as persuasive as real life (while not necessarily being ‘realistic’).
Also, computers do more than store information. They also process it. This, potentially, makes a crucial difference between fictional characters like Harry Potter (created in the medium of books) and characters like, well, me (created in online worlds). People like Ian Bell and Martine Rothblatt have raised the possibility of ubiquitous computing and a proliferation of sensors logging sufficient details of a person’s habits, knowledge, facts about their life, favourite quips and phrases and so on, to enable autonomous avatars that can interact with others and respond just like you would have.
I believe that, as technologies like MyCyberTwin become more sophisticated, people will appreciate having an avatar that is not just a tool for communication, but also a person in its own right that collaborates with the user in order to get things done and help organize increasingly complex augmented realities. Sometimes it will be convenient to have full tele-operation of one’s avatar, but other times it would be convenient to allow one’s avatar to operate independently, perhaps to deal with a problem while the primary concentrates on something else.
Over time, it would seem like more and more aspects of your personality were migrating into cyberspace, becoming embodied in virtual people who are sometimes extensions of your own mind and other times independent agents. Perhaps someone like Samantha Atkins could regard an upload of her mind as ‘Serendipity Seraph’, once at an intermediate stage between herself and ‘other’, and now a fully-fledged Mind Child, taking everything important to her identity into post human realms where the flesh cannot follow.
AT THE THRESHOLD OF POSTHUMANITY
For those souls that do preserve MEMself until it can be transferred to a superior substrate, uploading would bring them to the threshold of posthuman existence. What will that be like?
COMING UP IN THE FINAL INSTALLMENT, FROM TRANS TO POST-HUMAN ALTS.