Submitted by Nigel Kerner on Thu, 09/22/2011 – 16:17
Envision a world in the not too distant future in which immortality has been achieved in the form of virtual databases containing all the information biological and psychological of each individual human being. These electronic databases can be used to reconstruct individuals even if the original model is long gone. Before 2050, Ray Kurzweil predicts that AI and nanotech will have advanced so far that our brains, with their memories, capabilities and characteristics, can be reduced to pure information and programmed into a non-biological interface be it a supercomputer, or a swarm of nanobots. He believes the essence to our immortal existence without end lies in a ‘continuity of pattern.’ A purely secularised pattern and no more.
But we are entitled to ask; how would the bridging mechanism work, how would the programme be transferred?
Brain machine interfaces (BMIs) that use neural signals to control machines are now in use. Non-invasive BMI techniques record electroencephalogram (EEG) signals along the scalp. These brainwave traces have been used for playing games, steering a car and even to allow soldiers to communicate “telepathically”. More invasive forms of the procedure involve implanting electrodes into the brain or beneath the skull, and these have been tested in a small group of paralysed people. Research is being conducted into the development of wheelchairs, robots and computers that can be controlled by brain signals alone. Krishna Shenoy of Stanford University believes BMIs will soon match or even surpass traditional ways to control computers. It is thus not difficult to envision the possibility of uploading a brain signal map of a human personality, including personal memories and qualities, via a BMI onto a biological robot. The process can work the other way around too by which the brain is connected to an external information processor to improve memory and cognition.
We are constantly uploading all that we are into an all pervasive ongoing brain machine interface – the internet and mobile phone networks. Twitter, Facebook, blog posts, phone texts all provide external electronic records of who, where and what we each individually are. Smart phones with apps that record a person’s biological data fine tune the ongoing record still further.
We are becoming more and more reliant upon these for our everyday existence out-sourcing our lives into electronic formats. But then it might be interesting to ask if there is anything about us that is not uploadable or downloadable electronically. Is our summary as human beings more than Kurzweil’s pattern of electronic information that can be programmed into storage devices and achieve in this way ‘immortality and existence without end?’ Indeed is such an existence worth having in the first place? Would Kurzweil be there to appreciate the continuance of his pattern of information in another format? Is it possible to electronically map and store all you are, all that is you, your hopes and dreams, your feelings for those you love and program them into another format such that you will be there in that format to experience all of these? If like me you know this to be an impossibility you may feel prompted to ask what exactly trans-humanist progenitors like Kurzweil are after. You might also wonder what it is about our consciousness that cannot be catalogued in this way.
Like a computer or a robot our bodies can receive information from around us. Our five senses are equivalent to a keyboard, microphone or camera that can input information into a computer. Our brains process that information and the processing unit of a computer does the same. As I mentioned, brain/machine Interfaces can translate human thought patterns into brainwaves which can then be used to give instructions to computers. If a chip was introduced into the brain of a baby at birth and this chip recorded all the thoughts of that human being throughout his or her life, could that information be programmed into an artificially intelligent entity such that the human being could be reproduced and live on in an artificial format? Michio Kaku, Ray Kurzweil and others seem to celebrate the possibility of a trans-human future in which we will find a form of technologically contrived immortality that replicates us after physical death. But is there something they are not taking into account? Will they be there to appreciate their continued existence? Will the consciousness and awareness that lies behind their eyes continue in artificial format?
To answer that question we have to first understand the origins of consciousness and awareness. If the origins of these lie in the brain then it would be no problem given time in reproducing them artificially, but could there be characteristics of awareness and consciousness that make such origins impossible?
What is the difference between you and your computer? Both hold information and store it. Both can analyse that information and come up with answers to questions. But you are conscious and aware of that information and your computer is not. Somehow you have a reference point, a viewing point, outside all that information that can be aware of that information. Run this past you again and get it clear in your mind. The computer only has points of view, it has no viewing point.
This can be explained using the analogy of a forest full of trees. The computer has the information for each individual tree in the forest and using that information it can map out the forest. In contrast we can view from above and see the whole forest without having to map it out tree by tree. We can choose to focus on the whole forest or any part of the forest whereas the computer can only view the whole forest as a summary of its parts. We can somehow look at the forest from a viewing point outside it. That viewing point gives us awareness, it gives us the ability to know the whole as more than just a summary of its parts. It gives us a single personal identity that retains a continuous sense of conscious awareness. The computer on the other hand, has no outside viewing point, it has nothing to implicitly bind each tree into a whole forest. It is my contention that it cannot do this without the phenomenon we naturally living beings all have and take for granted known as consciousness. A computer I contend can never have a true consciousness, it can never have an awareness of itself as individual in the scheme of time.
What then gives us that viewing point? What are the origins of awareness and consciousness? There has to be a reference against which we can be aware of anything. You cannot know hot if you do not know cold, and vice versa. You cannot know dark if you do not know light, you cannot know soft if you do not know hard. How then do we perceive the passage of time? What is the reference against which we are aware of time and how does that reference describe our viewing point outside the forest in my analogy?
Time is a sequence of separated moments. These are the individual trees in our analogy. If we had no reference outside of that sequence we could not be aware of it. We would simply be part of that sequence point by point by point and the continuum of points in time that is awareness would be impossible. Without that reference we would be in each present moment and have no way of knowing each present moment.
What then is the reference by which we can be conscious and aware of the passage of time? What is the reference that joins moments in a continuum of moments? If we can perceive the passage of time we must have a reference outside of time and this can only be a reference of timelessness.
To use another illustration, if you close the shutters on the windows in the cabin of a plane and there is no turbulence you will be unaware of the movement of the plane. Open the shutters and the still reference of the land on the ground will let you know you are moving. That reference of stillness is a pre-requisite for awareness of movement, just as a reference of timelessness is a pre-requisite for awareness of the passage of time. You cannot be aware of time without a reference of timelessness, you cannot be aware of movement without a reference of stillness, you cannot be aware of separation without a reference of union. All those things – timelessness, stillness and union, are the hallmarks of a state that is not of the physical universe. Could there be an implication here that the Universe of parts itself must have emerged from a whole and entire setting once upon no time? Could the very fact that we are conscious and aware imply that we have a connection to that non-physical state? If indeed we have such a connection then there is part of us that is non-physical, timeless. There is something about us that exists outside time itself. The implication is awesome and wonderful. It implies that there is an existential plausibility that prevails outside the Universe as we know it through the laws of physics.
If this is so then that part that comes with us cannot be copied or reproduced, simply because it is non-physical. For that reason an artificially intelligent replica of you would not be aware or conscious and would not therefore retain your sense of identity as you.