People are terrified of dementia, by the loss of the self that results from the final stages of the accumulation of age-related damage in the brain. Whether this is loss of data or merely loss of access to data, that data being encoded in the structures of neurons and their connecting synapses, depends upon the details along the way. Either option amounts to the same thing for someone in the midst of the condition when there is only faint prospect of therapies arriving soon enough to matter. But if dementia is an asymptotic approach to 100% loss of data, what to make of the fact that we are, on a day to day basis, largely accepting of our normal relationship with the data of the mind, in which we lose 98% of everything that we experience within a few weeks of the event? A week from now you will not remember reading this, nor will there be any trace of what took place in the surrounding minutes before and after. You will have to guess at how you spent your time, what you were thinking, who you were at that moment. We are, every one of us, thin and translucent ghosts of our own history, mere summaries of a rich set of data that is now gone.
Yet we get by. Normal is normal, but that doesn't mean it is good, or that it should go unexamined. To put this another way, there was a person who lived a few decades ago in the UK, and got by. Later, there was another person who came to the US and spent time here, as people do. I know about as much about those individuals as I do about friends of long standing, perhaps just a little more. Yet both of them were me. All of that remains of them, of their richness of data, are the echoes I carry with me now. I have the memories burned in by adrenaline or, to a lesser extent, by sheer boring repetition, but those are just signposts in the mist by this point. Ask me who I was back then, and the answer will be largely extrapolation. Are those individuals dead? Am I so different that such a question makes sense to ask? To what extent is the self burning away and vanishing because we have a poor capacity for remembrance? To what extent is change death, in other words? Here of course I do little more than wave my hands at questions that have been debated at great length in the philosophy community.
Those of us who are generally opposed to the idea of being scanned, uploaded, and copied have the view that a copy of the self is not the self. It is its own separate individual. Individuality stems from the combination of pattern of information and the matter that the pattern is bound to. It isn't clear that, for example, an emulation running in an abstraction layer over computing hardware can be considered a continuous entity, rather than a unending series of nanosecond individuals assembled and then destroyed. In the continuity view of identity, a Ship of Theseus sort of a viewpoint, you are still you even if all your component parts are slowly replaced over time. There is a sizable grey area at the border between small parts and slow replacement, which is fine, and large parts and rapid replacement, which is the same as death. If someone removes half of your brain in one go and replaces it with a hypothetical machine that accepts exactly the same inputs and produces exactly the same outputs where it connects to the remaining brain tissue, I would say that this means that you just died, even though an entity that thinks in the same way as you did continues onward. Conversely, replacing neurons one by one with machines that perform the same functions, and allowing time for each neuron to reach equilibrium with its neighbors, seems acceptable.
Continuity comes attached at the hip to change of the self over time. Life is change, and we celebrate it. But we lose so very much in the course of that change that it seems matters really could be better managed. The figure for 98% loss of memory over weeks arises from self-experiments carried out by a determined fellow in the late 1800s, and which have been repeated every so often by the research community ever since. A replication paper was published just last year, for example. This enormous loss is the way things work for normal humans, and coupled with the adrenaline mechanism for selective additional memory of events that matter, one can see how this sort of a system might have evolved. A prehistoric lifespan is the same few tasks with very minor variations repeated over and again until death or disability, interspersed with a much smaller number of painful and terrifying learning experiences, with each new generation running the same rat wheel as the previous.
There are claims of people with extraordinary memory, or even eidetic or photographic memory, but the scientific community is far from settled on the question of the degree to which these claims result from (a) misinterpreting the top end of the curve for normal variation in memory capacity, versus (b) narrowly specialized memory training, versus (c) some form of genuinely unusual and exceptional ability based on neurobiological differences yet to be described. The mechanisms of memory are being deciphered in the laboratory, however, and there are various demonstrations of a modest degree of enhanced memory in animal studies. The question of whether greatly enhanced memory can be induced through near future medicine remains open: it will certainly happen eventually, but when will it start in earnest, and when will it go beyond adding only few more percentage points to the fraction of events we recall from our lives? It seems to me that this is a goal that should be given a far greater priority than is the case today. Consider that if we had perfect memory, what would we think of someone who forget near everything he or she did? We would call it a medical condition and offer support, in the same way that the medical community seeks to treat and aid people suffering age-related cognitive decline or amnesia today. If there were a great many of those people, there would be an enormous investment in the search for a cure, just as we do today for Alzheimer's disease. But because our disability is normal and shared, there is no such effort.