Virtual Afterlives will transform humanity

Endless fun

The question is not whether we can upload our brains onto a computer, but what will become of us when we do.

In the late 1700s, machinists started making music boxes: intricate little mechanisms that could play harmonies and melodies by themselves. Some incorporated bells, drums, organs, even violins, all coordinated by a rotating cylinder. The more ambitious examples were Lilliputian orchestras, such as the Panharmonicon, invented in Vienna in 1805, or the mass-produced Orchestrion that came along in Dresden in 1851.

But the technology had limitations. To make a convincing violin sound, one had to create a little simulacrum of a violin — quite an engineering feat. How to replicate a trombone? Or an oboe? The same way, of course. The artisans assumed that an entire instrument had to be copied in order to capture its distinctive tone. The metal, the wood, the reed, the shape, the exact resonance, all of it had to be mimicked. How else were you going to create an orchestral sound? The task was discouragingly difficult.

Then, in 1877, the American inventor Thomas Edison introduced the first phonograph, and the history of recorded music changed. It turns out that, in order to preserve and recreate the sound of an instrument, you don’t need to know everything about it, its materials or its physical structure. You don’t need a miniature orchestra in a cabinet. All you need is to focus on the one essential part of it. Record the sound waves, turn them into data, and give them immortality.

Imagine a future in which your mind never dies. When your body begins to fail, a machine scans your brain in enough detail to capture its unique wiring. A computer system uses that data to simulate your brain. It won’t need to replicate every last detail. Like the phonograph, it will strip away the irrelevant physical structures, leaving only the essence of the patterns. And then there is a second you, with your memories, your emotions, your way of thinking and making decisions, translated onto computer hardware as easily as we copy a text file these days.

That second version of you could live in a simulated world and hardly know the difference. You could walk around a simulated city street, feel a cool breeze, eat at a café, talk to other simulated people, play games, watch movies, enjoy yourself. Pain and disease would be programmed out of existence. If you’re still interested in the world outside your simulated playground, you could Skype yourself into board meetings or family Christmas dinners.

This vision of a virtual-reality afterlife, sometimes called ‘uploading’, entered the popular imagination via the short story ‘The Tunnel Under the World’ (1955) by the American science-fiction writer Frederik Pohl, though it also got a big boost from the movie Tron (1982). ThenThe Matrix (1999) introduced the mainstream public to the idea of a simulated reality, albeit one into which real brains were jacked. More recently, these ideas have caught on outside fiction. The Russian multimillionaire Dmitry Itskov made the news by proposing to transfer his mind into a robot, thereby achieving immortality. Only a few months ago, the British physicist Stephen Hawking speculated that a computer-simulated afterlife might become technologically feasible.

It is tempting to ignore these ideas as just another science-fiction trope, a nerd fantasy. But something about it won’t leave me alone. I am a neuroscientist. I study the brain. For nearly 30 years, I’ve studied how sensory information gets taken in and processed, how movements are controlled and, lately, how networks of neurons might compute the spooky property of awareness. I find myself asking, given what we know about the brain, whether we really could upload someone’s mind to a computer. And my best guess is: yes, almost certainly. That raises a host of further questions, not least: what will this technology do to us psychologically and culturally? Here, the answer seems just as emphatic, if necessarily murky in the details.

It will utterly transform humanity, probably in ways that are more disturbing than helpful. It will change us far more than the internet did, though perhaps in a similar direction. Even if the chances of all this coming to pass were slim, the implications are so dramatic that it would be wise to think them through seriously. But I’m not sure the chances are slim. In fact, the more I think about this possible future, the more it seems inevitable.

Full article available at Aeon.co

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