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Transhumanism 2: What Kind of Posthumans Will We Be?

Last week I introduced Transhumanism to our ongoing conversation about cybernetics and posthumanism. To recap: Transhumanism is defined as the desire to “fundamentally transform the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities” (Wikipedia).

I wrote mainly about human cyborgs in the most literal, physical sense – humans with mechanical bodily extensions, or prosthetics. In these instances, it is easier to see the line between humanity and technology, since it has physical barriers. Although one may have a prosthetic eye or other appendage, their “self” remains intact – their consciousness comes from within their own organic brains.

I only briefly touched on a different philosophy within transhumanism: mind uploading, or whole brain emulation. Some transhumanists believe that in the near future one could scan their brain and transfer their brain processes into a non-human brain. If this sounds like the stuff of science fiction to you, it’s probably because in the past it has been. Iain M. BanksCulture Series, Diaspora and others by Greg Egan, and most recently Avatar all deal with digital consciousness in some way.

Is this possible?

Whether or not you think mind uploading is a possibility relies heavily on your conception of the human mind. Neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis challenges the comparison between a human brain and technology in an article about the Singularity. “There are a lot of people selling the idea that you can mimic the brain with a computer,” he says, but “the brain is not computable and no engineering can reproduce it.” Basically, he attributes the human consciousness to “unpredictable, nonlinear interactions among billions of cells” that could not be synthesized in linear algorithms.

Others disagree. Computer processors run on information, the smallest measurement of which is a bite. Some theories hold that the human brain works similarly as an information processor. Each neuron contains one bite of information – on or off. It is a combination of neurons firing on or off that makes up what you and I know as the “self,” so who is to say that we cannot reproduce a neurological network in a machine? Moore’s Law tells us that size and speed will soon not be an issue, so it is mainly a concept of the “otherness” of the human mind that holds people back from embracing mind uploading. (That and the fear of malignant overlords.)

Transhumanists believe that not only will it be possible in the future to create sentient beings, but that the brain patterns that make up the “self” can be uploaded as code and downloaded into virtual realities so we can live forever, obtain eternal happiness, and be omniscient.

What is Consciousness?

Defining consciousness is difficult, but in a world of ever-advancing artificial intelligence, it is important to define that which essentially makes us human, separating us from other animals or machines. Most people know when they are consciousness (I think, therefore I am) but it is hard to articulate what consciousness is. Introspective consciousness, or self-awareness, is the brain thinking about the brain. It is a disassociation of the self from the body, and consciously thinking about consciousness is a pretty trippy thing.

In this video, VSauce Michael considers the consciousness, and what makes a self, a self. In one thought experiment, he proposes that a surgeon begins to exchange the cells between himself and the viewer. “At what point,” he asks, “would I officially have become you?”

For our purposes, at what point does our consciousness become digital?  Would a digitized conscious feel like us?

Where is My Mind?

To give credit to the Transhumanists, it has been argued that we already partake in this digitizing of our consciousness. Most people have a digitized self, whether they use a character on Second Life or a Facebook page. There is a fine line between consciousness and identity. At what point does the “you” online stop resembling you and start embodying a part of your consciousness? When you use these media, you become less aware of your bodily functions in the physical world the more deeply you interact with the virtual world. Your consciousness, already disassociated from your body, is digitized. Similarly, when we rely on online encyclopedias and search engines to house information, outsourcing our higher order faculties like memory to computers, we participate in a global digital consciousness.

As the Turing Test was intended to measure the intelligence of the artificial mind compared to the human mind, N. Katherine Hayles suggests that the next logical step in artificial intelligence and robotics research is “to show that machines can become the repository of human consciousness,” to test whether they can embody the human mind. So far, the processes of the mind that have proven most hard to replicate are not our higher order faculties like abstract thought, but our basic processes like motor function and sensory perception.

The End Goal

Unlike in the Matrix, a virtual world of uploaded minds would not depend on the physical bodies of humans. That is, once a mind is uploaded, the person no longer needs an organic brain.  Many goals of Transhumanism, like eternal happiness and immortality, are contingent upon not having a physical body in the physical world. This is where the philosophy takes on a spiritual element. A consciousness transcending the physical body to live on indefinitely in a world of health and happiness sounds a lot like heaven, to me at least. In a review of Dr. Robert M. Geraci‘s book Apocalyptic AI, Transhumanism is compared to Judaism and Christianity: “The believer is trapped in a dualistic universe and expects a resolution in which he or she will be translated to a transcendent new world and live forever in a glorified new body.”

Let us consider for a moment that this kind of transcendent consciousness is possible, that whole brain emulation is realized.  Would you partake?  What would your perfect virtual world look like?

For an interesting and brief back-and-forth on the science vs. the philosophy of digital consciousness, start listening 10:40 in to this Radiolab podcast – #7 “If I Only Had a Brain” – about death and immortality.


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