Considering Cybernetic Immortality

If the 2045 initiative continues onwards as the founder intends, we're all going to be hearing more about what here is called "cybernetic immortality" - copying the data of the mind to run in machinery that is much more robust and longer-lasting than its biological equivalent. I consider the popularity of this goal (as put forward by Ray Kurzweil, for example) something of an existential threat, insofar as it may drain enthusiasm and allies from work on rejuvenation biotechnology now, and in future decades it may become cheaper to build mind-copies than to finalize the means to reverse and prevent aging in our biological bodies. You don't need to fully understand the brain to copy it given powerful enough computers and scanning tools, and you don't need to understand aging much better than we do today to create rejuvenation biotechnology.

There are more than enough people in the world who consider a copy of themselves a suitable continuation to support this sort of technology in preference over medicine for rejuvenation. Today a person can choose to support programs like SENS research on the rejuvenation side or the 2045 group on the mind copying side - it's not just talk, it's a rather important choice between aiming for continued survival of the self or aiming for death while a copy of you survives.

Cybernetic immortality - fantasy or scientific problem? I can answer that right away. It is a scientific problem - of approximately the same type as the problem of people going into outer space, which was proposed by Tsiolkovsky at the turn of the 20th century. Why, despite the support of important scientists (such as V. Turchin, C. Joslyn, R. Kurzweil, A. Bolonkin, B. Bainbridge and others), is this idea rejected by many, or at best treated with skepticism?

There are many reasons for this. Firstly: the scale of this super-project, which really does verge on fantasy, is too "overwhelming", for the "average" scientific mindset, which is mundane and cautious, and too dependent on the opinion of the scientific management. Anything is proposed nowadays if financing can be secured for it. I'm not even talking about the colossal growth of false science - charlatans, mages, "miracle-workers". All of this throws a shadow on the idea of cybernetic immortality.

Furthermore, we are now only at the approach stage of a solution to this problem, specific steps for its development are in many ways only at discussion level, and creative solutions are required. The eternal idea of immortality has been expressed in myths, legends and religious beliefs. Hence the prejudice that it is not compatible with science.

What is the basis for the conviction that the problem of cybernetic immortality is a real scientific problem? It does not contradict the principles of science. In fact, it finds a theoretical basis in them - above all, in the fundamental principle of the iso-functionalism of systems, which essentially heralded the beginning of the computer era. The idea of this principle is that the same complex of functions may be reproduced on substrates with different physical properties. Hence the fundamental possibility to reproduce the functions of a living system and the brain on non-biological substrates, which also fully applies to mental functions.



I'm definitely a skeptic. I think fundamentally we don't have a grip on subjective experience and conscious experience to say confidently that mind uploading will work and preserve conscious experience. It needs to be established that the biology and metabolism of our cells are not prerequisites for subjective experience. I think its monumental folly to put money into it over anti-aging therapies.

Posted by: Louis at January 25th, 2013 9:52 AM

I'm all for concentrating on rejuvenation biotechnology as an urgent priority. But from my perspective, "cybernetics" as presented above has its place, and one that I think follows naturally from a biologically-mediated indefinite lifespan, to one that provides a wide range of other benefits.

But I'm curious, Reason and others: do you see any distinction between creating a "gradual copy" of you brain e.g. replacing in some fashion each biological neuron with an artificial neuron over some period of time, OR creating a "whole copy" via the whole-brain at once scan and boot-up in some computational substrate?

Posted by: Mark Bruce at January 25th, 2013 5:35 PM

@Mark Bruce: Yes, I'm more or less fine with gradual neural replacement for some definition of gradual. Continuity of the pattern is the important thing here, and gradual neural replacement isn't any worse than what's happening already with the biological version. I'm familiar with the grey area arguments you can apply here with speed of replacement and mode of replacement, but clearly at one end there is killing yourself by removing half the mind at once and dropping in a replacement and at the other end there is a slightly sped version of a process that is already happening.

There is also a big difference between a mind of artificial neuron machinery, each sitting there doing the same thing as a neuron with physical data storage, and a simulated mind, as the latter is probably running on hardware that doesn't have a strong connection between process and physical structure - hence pattern is not continuous. See:

Posted by: Reason at January 25th, 2013 6:20 PM

Mark, you asked what I was going to ask, and, Reason, I do think gradualism is key in order for me to feel comfortable that whatever the end result was was still "me". On that note though, I think it is essential to consider that our very sense of self is likely to change in fundamental ways as this transition unfolds. I think we'll see some sort(s) of corporate personhood evolve, as various parts of what constitute our "selves" are networked together with other people and machines. Already, I feel the pull of this machine in my hands compelling me to write this message! ;-)

Posted by: Hugh Bristic at January 26th, 2013 9:01 AM

I see now that you discuss some of the issues I raised in the linked page.

Fundamentally, self is what you're comfortable with calling your self. Some people so identify with their family, tribe, race, or nation that they are willing to die so that it is preserved. In some sense, they feel what is important about themselves survives.

I would think there is also selection pressure in favor of more corporate personhood. Even if you wanted to stay, in some sense, a flesh and blood being, or at least a gradually transitioned and relatively static individual artificial being, would you not be outcompeted for resources? Would you not, at some point, have to join the club to survive?

By the way, I have to say I have been reading your stuff for a very long time and think you are a great writer with a keen mind. You do a real service for humanity in writing this stuff day after day; it must be difficult to keep it up. Thank you!

Posted by: Hugh Bristic at January 26th, 2013 9:27 AM

Cybernetic immortality is a chimera sapping time, effort and money that should be going towards defeating ageing. There are 2 show-stoppers: 1) the theory is false and 2) even if it were true, the project fails.

1) Mind-uploading theory assumes that the brain is essentially a digital computer, that the mind is a program. If this were true then of course you could download the program from the brain and run it on a computer: cybernetic immortality. The trouble is that all the evidence points to the brain being very different from a digital computer: IMO the theory is false.

2) Cybernetic immortality fans miss the point that duplication does not preserve identity. This does not matter when you're manufacturing furniture or computers but it is crucial to the mind's survival. Consider cloning: even a perfect duplicate of you is just an identical twin.

Posted by: Richard Wilson at January 30th, 2013 4:00 AM

According to my opinion, Cybernetic Immortality is a false theory as there is no substantial blueprint about how they are going to pursue what they refer to as "transfering the personalities from the human to the cyborg or the avatar." Also, the most fundamental aspect that is found to be missing here is the perspective of this theory from a sane man's vision, i.e., the subtler feelings like the love of a mother towards her child, gratitude, sense of belonging, devotion to the Almighty and so on. These subtler traits are something that cannot be, in any way a product of biochemical combination. So there is no question of even talking about the cons assuming the fact that this theory works. But the straight and simple fact is, as Hugh rightly points out that duplication doesnt preserves identity. The avatar thus will be just an ambiguous network of digital signals and not a complete human being with diverse personality traits able to live in harmony with nature.

Posted by: sourabh soni at September 1st, 2014 10:15 PM
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