Sunday, September 21, 2003

I started Greg Egan's "Permutation City," a novel about uploading minds into computer simulations. It's not unthinkable that mind-uploading will be available in the next 50-100 years; I think we need to seriously consider the existential and political ramifications of such technology now. Should an uploaded human have rights? (Yes.) Would uploads be self-aware in the sense that carbon-based human brains presumably are? That's certainly cause for debate -- much of it semantic. The uncomfortable truth is that I can't even "prove" that my next-door neighbor is self-aware (a generally accepted prerequisite for "humanity"), but this doesn't justify my killing her on opaque philosophical grounds. What sort of political entity gets to decide if uploads (or "Copies," as Egan calls them) get to live or die? How does one justify digital genocide?

If mind-uploading actually happens (probably as an outgrowth of medical scanning technology and advances in computer storage capacity) the first Copies are likely to find themselves marginalized. Whether or not they interface with normal reality will depend on the processing speed of their computer hosts. In "Permutation City," for example, Copies' thought processes run seventeen times slower than meat-based thoughts, resulting in a communications lag with the outside world. For this reason, Copies inhabit virtual environments in the hope that increased processor speed will allow them to return to the "real" world in animatronic bodies (or, farther in the future, organic clones).

It's just possible that aliens, if they are visiting us, are a machine-based intelligence, as postulated by historian Richard Dolan. They might upload/download themselves into a variety of specialized mechanisms and bodies as casually as we change clothes or trade in old cars. Whitley Strieber's testimony certainly suggests something like this. When apparent aliens speak of "souls," are they necessarily alluding to something metaphysical or "spiritual"?

Maybe the "technology of consciousness" I mentioned a few posts back is closer to actuality than religious interpretations would have us believe. I suppose it might be demeaning for some to discover that awareness is something that can be plotted within the guts of some future diagnostic imaging machine, but I'll take it.

"Permutation City" refers obliquely to the hubris and failure of cryonic suspension. Apparently in Egan's imagined future it never panned out, and it's entirely possible that it won't. But I remain hopeful; as a prospective cryonics patient, I suppose I have to be. Cryonics just might flourish before mind-uploading, or maybe both technologies will enjoy a mutual coming of age.

Ultimately, it's a matter of dealing with a single, mind-stretching question: Given the opportunity to become virtually immortal, will we take it? Do we dare overrule the tyranny of our DNA or are we hardwired for death?

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