Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Getting rid of the meat. Jettisoning obsolete human baggage. When to say "when"? Is there a critical threshold where the route to transhuman ascendancy takes an abrupt downward fork?

It's conceivable humans will eventually have the technology to edit their own memories, rearranging their mental furniture as casually as dragging icons across a computer desktop. Can we trust ourselves with such ability? What will we decide to delete?

Click and drag . . . Click and drag . . .

Are you sure you want to delete the contents of the Recycle Bin?

Assuming you click "yes," the you that ponders the outcome is a new and different you. Maybe not a substantially different you -- but then again, how will you ever know?

Some hobbyist technophiles buy ancient computers so they can pore over the contents of their hard drives, upon which all sorts of esoteric (and sometimes useful) data can be found languishing. I can imagine neuro-hackers 50 years from now lopping the heads off fresh corpses and purging their brains of recoverable memories. Recycling them. Sifting through the sensory debris of subjective centuries. Blood from a stone.

Maybe this has already happened. Maybe I'm already dead and someone is simply rummaging through the contents of my brain. Looking for something, perhaps. Or maybe simply for the vicarious hacker thrill: What did this guy think about? Talk about voyeurism; it doesn't get any more intimate than that.

More disturbing is the prospect that probing a nonliving mind can actually trick the dead person's synapses into a spurious sense of autonomy -- the tragic misconception that this is real when in fact reality bears no resemblance to the images and sensations triggered by the scanning process. And what is consciousness, really, but a sensation?

Dead frogs can be made to jump by jolts of electricity applied to the right muscles in the proper sequence. In a strictly biomechanical sense, the frog is tugged back in time, restored to a clumsy semblance of functionality. A dormant human brain may not be as sacrosanct as we assume. "Dead" brains may even be a valuable commodity for a near-future information economy.

So what do we call this technologically assisted parody of thought? Can the brain being hacked be made to experience new stimuli or is it read-only-memory? Perhaps more pertinently, is there a qualitative difference between the thoughts of a living brain and the synaptic acrobatics of a dead brain commanded to believe it's actually alive?

If not, then the definition of "alive" begs redefinition. As proponents of cryonic suspension are justly fond of pointing out, it certainly wouldn't be the first time in medical history that we've been forced to revise our criteria for death.

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