Thoughts on Maintaining the Self While Upgrading the Brain to Machinery

It would be a good thing to have a brain that is a robust collection of artificial machinery when such a thing becomes possible, as the present evolved biological human brain is short-lived and frail in comparison to what could be achieved with a mature nanorobotics industry, capable of producing robust nanomachines that replicate cell functions. But how do you move from a biological to a machine brain without destroying or merely copying yourself? All of the obvious, easily envisaged methodologies are variations on the theme of destructive copying, in which you die and a copy of you continues.

This continuity of the self through an upgrade of the physical structure hosting your mind is a popular topic in the longevity advocacy community. Pretty much everyone has written on the subject at some point in time, despite the fact that it's definitely not the next thing up on deck in the march of technology - the first order of business is to develop the means to repair aging in our biology, to give us enough time to live into a future in which things like brain upgrades are possible.

Later in the piece quoted below the half-brain methodology is discussed. This is one of the earliest attempts to produce a physically realistic method of progressive brain replacement that is at least one step less fatal than all-in-one-go destructive copying. But I think that it is still undesirable: hauling out and replacing large chunks of the brain at a time is still functionally destructive to the self if the chunks are large enough. The safest approach is to scale down the replacement to the level of individual cells, proceeding at a pace similar to the natural processes of cell replacement in the brain.

I love life. And so the prospect of indefinite life extension is very attractive, IMO. Then again, seeing as how I wish to live much longer than my biologically-fixed clock dictates, to simply make a copy of myself to live forever, but not actually myself, just doesn't cut it. I would never destroy my brain and let someone else be me for me. If I'm to achieve indefinite life extension, then I want to do so with both my physical and functional continuity still in complete operation. Without one, the other is completely irrelevant.

What is physical and functional continuity? Functional continuity is basically the stream of consciousness which makes you...well...you. "Destroying" functional continuity wouldn't necessarily do anything to you, nor would it remain destroyed, per se. When we're going through REM sleep every night, our functional continuity fluctuates on and off, only to be completely restored the next morning. Yes, your consciousness before sleep was different from the consciousness you now acquire after sleep, but you remain yourself - you're still self-aware.

So what about physical continuity? Physical continuity is very important - much more important than functional continuity. Physical continuity - using as simple an understanding as possible - is essentially the brain and all of its synaptic operations. To destroy physical continuity would be to destroy the brain. Thus destroying everything, including the functional continuity which comes along with it. You can destroy your functional continuity and still have the chance to regain it so long physical continuity remains intact. The contrary, however, would be the end of yourself in its entirety.

Thus bringing us to our current dilemma of mind uploading. How are we to achieve mind uploading without destroying physical continuity in the process? To simply "download" everything within your brain and upload it into an artificial brain, while functional continuity is being streamed, physical continuity is being replicated, not maintained. Essentially you'd be partaking in a really cool process of cloning. That's it.

Link: http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/murphy20130710

Comments

Most discussions on this topic that I've seen in the longevity community have been focused on determining whether personal identity is preserved in foreseeable cases of mind uploading. Few seem to be troubled by a question which logically ought to precede the question of personal identity: will a computer simulation of my brain be conscious in the way that I am conscious? Kurzweil glosses over this in his book my appealing to the philosopher David Chalmers, who believes that the structure of the brain is what engenders the kind of consciousnesses that we have (so a computer simulation that is functionally isomorphic to my brain would have the same conscious mental life as me). But for all we know the philosopher John Searle is right, and the physical composition of the brain rather than merely its functional structure is important in determining the character of our mental lives. After all, as Searle says a simulation of a tornado is not a tornado, so why should a simulation of a brain (which after all is just a mushy wet organ) really be a brain? Maybe there are good reasons to favor Chalmers' view over Searle's, and Chalmers and Kurzweil think they have good arguments for that view, but it is not completely obvious that Chalmers is right and Searle is wrong. So this issue also ought to be one that the longevity community is interested in.

Posted by: gheme at July 11th, 2013 10:35 AM

At times, I simply cannot believe that there is still this absurd question regarding personal identity and continuity, that these questions regarding conciousness and 'the real me' are still being bandied about.

If someone creates a copy of you, is it you? Yes. What about the original you? It's also you. It's like asking which mp3's in my archive are the originals, when they've changed substrates no less than a dozen times. It's like asking if a file is still the real file when you move it from a hard drive platter to a flash drive. It's like asking if a person is still the same person if you move them from hardware biotech to simulated biotech.

It doesn't make any sense at all to distinguish, regardless of the semantic confusion. It is what it is. If it looks like a duck and waddles like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck. If it looks like you and thinks like you and acts like you, it's probably you.

Posted by: Dennis Towne at July 11th, 2013 4:26 PM

Dennis : That's fine, assuming that the only thing you're interested in is the psychological satisfaction of knowing that "another you" will survive your own death. But most people don't give a monkey's about that sort of satisfaction. The majority of people who have children know already that their genes will survive their own death, so it's hard to see how the ability to create a perfect replica of yourself is really much of a step forward.

Posted by: James Kelly at July 11th, 2013 5:10 PM

Technology that could copy the informational content of a person's brain would expand our linear concept of "a life" to include branching topologies. When confronting the unprecedented, we shouldn't allow our thinking to be cabined in by limitations of vocabulary. There is no logical reason why there could not be two people that were once one person.

Saying that copying all relevant attributes of a person is no better than cloning or even having children is intentionally obtuse and not at all an intelligent perspective.

In the case of destructive copying, it can be thought of as a fork point creating a branching topology in the individual's life, but one path from the fork is degenerate, never acquiring any separate individual characteristics that would distinguish it as having value. For this reason, I don't think there is any real concern from the abstract philosophical perspective.

Dwelling on these issues is not very productive. SENS is the most useful thing to talk about for the future of longevity, but if we want variety in our discussion there are many plausible next step approaches beyond SENS that are worthy of more discussion than they get relative to uploading. Uploading can be thought of as the endpoint of a technological development path of neural interfaces with increasing sophistication. Each milestone on that path of development has interesting consequences that are glossed over in favour of dwelling on more distant prospects.

Posted by: José at July 11th, 2013 8:30 PM

Dennis: Maybe I'm wrong, but I believe you are conflating numerical and qualitative identity.

Jose: certainly thinking about whether a person survives upload or not is unimportant with regard to developing upload technology. But it is just as obvious that considering this issue is relevant to whether we ought to implement that technology or not. You are probably right that when we develop and use radical new technology we also develop new concepts to think about that technology, and eventually maybe we will even develop new concepts of the self such as the 'branching topology' view you mention (I assume this is roughly analogous to what is more commonly called four dimensionalism). But even if we have new concepts it seems very likely that most people will have notions of individuation and persistence (i.e. survival), and that they will be interested in using new technology to live longer (rather than commit suicide, as would be the case if the original is destroyed and the upload does not share the identity of the original).

Also, there is a well known logical reason why there could not be two people that were once one person. Given a plausible interpretation of the case, it violates transitivity. Assuming the two people at time T2, called person B and person C, are not identical to each other (B=\=C), and that each of the persons at time two are continuations of person A at time T1 (A=B and A=C), then there is a contradiction. See: A=B and A=C, so it ought to be that B=C (because of transitivity). But B=\=C. You could get out of this if you say that B=C, or that there is no such thing as personal identity. Unfortunately the first claim is silly to the point of stupidity (mostly because they can go on to lead completely separate lives, kill each other, etc.). And the second claim is not consistent with our ideas about individuation and persistence (which you might think is fine, but most people will not be happy to give up these concepts).

Posted by: gheme at July 11th, 2013 9:30 PM

gheme: Considering the issue may be relevant to whether or not we should implement upload technology, but it's not relevant to whether or not we should improve brain/machine interface technologies. Therefore, it's relevant to decisions that will be made in the future and about which we will have a more informed opinion at that time. It is not relevant to any decisions we can make today, even with regard to our speculation and strategic planning for which technologies should be pursued.

As for your discussion of transitivity, it seems obvious to me that a person at a given time does not "equal" that person at a later time in any mathematically rigorous sense that would lead us to attribute properties such as transitivity. People gain experiences and change over time, so identity is a heritage of experiences and a baseline condition from the past onto which changes are progressively accreted. I don't have to "equal" myself ten years ago to feel connected to my past self through experiences shared in common and a common point of origin. Other ideas of "individuation and persistence" seem to me superfluous.

Posted by: José at July 11th, 2013 10:20 PM

There is one possibility to keep a biological, conscious individual living for an indefinite period of time. Simply having some kind of connection to a computer storage device that can receive a signal from an individual that is connected to the device. If the individual passes away, the device will receive the signal from the internal device of the individual that will possibly enact an artificial reproducing process (or cloning, respectively) that will recreate the new biological body with the contents of the individuals "self" recreated into the consciousness of the newly created being. Of course, to ensure that signals will be received and guaranteed of reincarnation, there must be several "stations" that must be located at several differentiating spots in our galaxy, potentially different locations in our our universe.

Given our current technological prowess in terms of wireless communication, such a signal would take many years to travel to far away stations that are awaiting in a docile nature (as well as location, for that matter) for my "consciousness transmission," so remedies for this paradigm must be concocted. Otherwise, I must be willing to waiting thousands, possibly millions of years between my biological lives to start my new biological existence.

So, creation of a system such as this may or may not require technology such as mind uploading, but, obviously we must be in that timeline of technological innovation to proceed in endeavors such as this.

Posted by: Donald at July 11th, 2013 10:41 PM

There is one possibility to keep a biological, conscious individual living for an indefinite period of time. Simply having some kind of connection to a computer storage device that can receive a signal from an individual that is connected to the device. If the individual passes away, the device will receive the signal from the internal device of the individual that will possibly enact an artificial reproducing process (or cloning, respectively) that will recreate the new biological body with the contents of the individuals "self" recreated into the consciousness of the newly created being. Of course, to ensure that signals will be received and guaranteed of reincarnation, there must be several "stations" that must be located at several differentiating spots in our galaxy, potentially different locations in our our universe.

Given our current technological prowess in terms of wireless communication, such a signal would take many years to travel to far away stations that are awaiting in a docile nature (as well as location, for that matter) for my "consciousness transmission," so remedies for this paradigm must be concocted. Otherwise, I must be willing to waiting thousands, possibly millions of years between my biological lives to start my new biological existence.

So, creation of a system such as this may or may not require technology such as mind uploading, but, obviously we must be in that timeline of technological innovation to proceed in endeavors such as this.

Posted by: Donald at July 11th, 2013 10:42 PM

Also, to add to the previous post, the real difficulty is not the transfer of consciousness. What will be the issue is extracting the consciousness from the expiring individual, more so than installing it into the new biological one. Installing your consciousness into the new individual is simply like backing up your data from one hard drive to another one that is completely empty.

Posted by: Donald at July 11th, 2013 11:00 PM

Jose: You are probably right to be skeptical about the use of the identity symbol in the text about transitivity that I posted. I may personally have too much theoretical baggage, but I believe that most people mean something analogous to genuine mathematical identity when they say such things as 'I'm the same person I was a year ago.' Clearly the person has changed many important bodily and psychological (and other) properties, but most people believe that there is something that makes them who they are from day to day and year to year. You probably have problems with these folk intuitions, maybe rightly, but this is getting somewhat far off topic. I just wanted to point out a well known source of discussion in the philosophical literature on this topic (originally in David Lewis, who a philosopher you may find sympathy with) that is in tension with your claim concerning branching person cases.

About persistence and individuation: if you do not believe that these concepts hold any water, then why are you interested in uploading at all? Like another poster said, if you do not believe in persistence of the self then why not just have a kid and train them well?

Posted by: gheme at July 11th, 2013 11:18 PM

To add again, to think that the previous post concept is justified, is simply accept it as a complete "truth." It doesn't matter that our species is int a technological innovative state of growth. We may be eventually get it, but simply speculating over matters such as consciousness transfer, ect. would be similar to your canine speculating on what his or her master wants from him. The best bet for your survival is to support SENS or other like applied anti-aging organizations, as well as organizations such that develop nanotechnology based technology that will keep you ridden of disease. (As well as your future self disease-ridden.)

Posted by: Donald at July 11th, 2013 11:20 PM

"Saying that copying all relevant attributes of a person is no better than cloning or even having children is intentionally obtuse and not at all an intelligent perspective."

If nothing else I can assure you of one thing, José - what I said about having children wasn't "intentionally" obtuse. I'll freely concede that I don't fully understand what you're getting at in the earlier part of your comment, but whatever it is it's clearly considerably less broad than Dennis' suggestion that absolutely any accurate copy of yourself - irrespective of continuity - is "you".

Posted by: James Kelly at July 12th, 2013 6:51 AM

People really need to get away from this whole uploading thing. The human brain is extremely complex, and even if it could be recreated in a completely different substrate (which is unlikely), there's still no reason to believe you could be transferred to it while still being you. (And that doesn't change no matter how fast or small microchips get) If you're truly interested in survival all focus should be on efforts that rebuild brain tissue and keeps our biological mind intact and working. This Sci-fi Kurzweil uploading stuff is just a red herring that wastes time and resources.

Posted by: Kim at July 18th, 2013 9:19 PM

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