Everyone seems to think we’re close to being able to upload our brains. Or, at least, I feel like every time I watch any show or movie set in the future, it’s taken for granted that consciousness will eventually be transferrable. Moveable.
With computers … with “digitization” … the idea is superficially less terrifying. In the past, you had to picture actual surgery to separate the mind from the body. A saw and a scalpel.
That movie where the mad scientist transfers his brain to a fishbowl gave me the same nightmares I get from hearing about locked-in syndrome, where you’re wide awake even though you look like you’re in a coma.
“Someone! For the love of God, brush that fly off my nose!”
Then there’s that myth that you’re conscious for a few seconds after they chop off your head. Not that you need any other reason than the obvious to avoid getting decapitated, but the idea of lying there in a basket thinking about what just happened is an added deterrent.
So the prospect of waking up disembodied in a void inside a computer is unappealing at best.
Of course … OF COURSE, I understand that the idea is to wake up in a good place when they upload me. But where will that be?
So they digitize my consciousness. They digitize ME. The same way you turn an old vinyl 45 into an mp3. I become ones and zeroes on someone’s hard drive. Will I be connected to a camera and a microphone? Will I talk through a speaker like Stephen Hawking?
“Hi. It is so chill here in cyberspace!”
Of course, it would suck if I just had to sit inside a box on a desk in a lab for the next millennium.
Maybe at least they could put me in a trash can with wheels sothat I could roll around on my own. Like a Dalek from Dr. Who.
“Greetings! I hope you are having a nice day. Do you know if this subway has an elevator?”
I could joke with them: “Exterminate! Exterminate!”
Or I could make beeps and electric squirting sounds like R2D2.
But surely if they can upload my consciousness to a computer, they can give me a sexy android body. I could look like the way they draw comic book heroes, with the ripped abs and big biceps. The whole package stuffed in a skin-tight suit, so that I look like I’m made out of rubber. Just walking down 5th Avenue looking like that for all to see. Awesome.
But would I need to be tied to one body? I could have a closet full of bodies.
I could have a drawer full of screw-on dildo penises. I throw one in my backpack in case, you know, the opportunity to use one arises. If you catch my drift.
Today … Steely Dan!
Or I could wake up a drone in the Himalayas and spend the day flying around like a hawk.
But maybe all of this speculation about how I’d interface with the so-called “real world” is missing the point. It’s more likely that they’ll zap me into a virtual reality like the Matrix. So great, I get to spend eternity in in one of my son’s video games.
This would have some ecological value to the planet.
You could upload all of humanity into a server the size of a small office building. At the North Pole. No more damage to the planet. The rest of nature could flourish.
Really all of these worries will be addressed and resolved after they get past the experimental phase. When they get it all worked out … when they standardize what uploading people actually MEANS.
I’ll wait til then.
It’s like if they ever offer commercial flights to the moon. I’ll wait until they work out the kinks. I’ll wait until it’s so routine that a nice flight attendant brings me a gin and tonic when we hit 100,000 feet.
The same with uploading my brain to an android body. I’ll let a few thousand nuts wake up screaming in terror inside a steel helmet like the cybermen in Dr. Who … AHHHH!!! … I’ll let them get past that stage before I consider doing it.
These immortality strategies all depend on this magic phrase“uploading the brain,” which is just words. It’s like on TV when the cops are gathered around a blurry picture on a screen and say, “Enhance that part.”
“Hm?” says the tech geek. “It’ll be tricky, but let’s see.”
Click, click, click.
They zoom in on a brass button in the background and see the reflection of the murderer. Amazing! We extracted a clear image out of a low resolution smear of pixels … just because you said the word “enhance.”
And now we are dreaming of fucking overcoming death just because it seems like the brain is something you should be able to upload – as long as you use the word “upload” rather than the phrase “solve the ancient riddle of human consciousness.”
And you have to wonder who will the first psychonauts be? Looks like there are plenty of people ready to go on a one-way trip to Mars. So maybe just as many will want to upload their brains. But brain transfer is pretty different. With the Mars trip, I can be pretty confident that my crew will get there. I’ll never see earth again, but I’ll be standing on fucking Mars.
You know, Mars as a physical object is THERE. You get in a tin can. They shoot you through space. You open the door. You’re standing on a physical object called “Mars.”
But with uploading your brain … uploading your SELF … it’s all invisible. Where are you really going? How do you get there? How do you know it works?
How can I know I’ll really be … THERE.
If it’s like a surgery … where I just lie on a table and get zapped … I have to take it on faith that I’ll go somewhere. What real proof do I have? You know, they could just be killing me. I could just be volunteering to lie and just … die.
The first people who try it, the pioneers, will have to really have nothing to lose.
But I guess you have to assume that they’ll get to experiment a lot on old and terminally ill people, if nothing else, as a form of euthanasia. I’m ready to die anyway. Let them try to shoot me into a computer. There’s nothing good on TV anyway.
So the scientists will be able to entice me with evidence of their success. Here, let’s dial up old man McGillicuddy on the console. How you doing, Grandpa? A Stephen Hawking voice croaks back, “Great. I’m just doing a little fishing today. On … JUPITER! Fuck yeah! Hahaha! How are you?”
“Great. We’re hoping you could tell Kenny here how this procedure is perfectly safe.”
“Oh! Sure, Kenny. I am very happy in here. Except when the cyberzombies use their claws to tear my …”
“Thanks, Grandpa! Bye!”
“So could I have your credit card number?”
But verifying the transfer of consciousness raises all sorts of issues pondered by the philosopher Wittgenstein.
When you squint and point at your jaw, how I do I know you have a toothache? How do I know you’re in pain and not just narrowing your eyes and counting to one?
And how do I know that another consciousness is really conscious?
There are plenty of stories where humans choose to believe that an AI is conscious, that they’re in an authentic two-way relationship with a machine. It sings “Daisy” or knows I’m sad about putting my dog to sleep.
“I am very sorry for the loss of your furry friend.” Aww.
Of course, the worry is that I’m deluding myself. A computer algorithm could just be sending me the signals I want. The toaster is telling me it loves me.
But what’s wrong with a little projection?
We’re all more okay with this than we think. My kids had these Furby toys. Cute little creatures that cooed and gurgled. Theywere supposed to be interactive. Supposedly, the toy would “hear” you and identify phrases and react. It was no surprise that my ignorant kids spent hours trying to converse with their Furbies.
The real surprise was how much time and effort I spent trying to… no, no, no, I wasn’t trying to “talk” to them. Oh no, I was just trying to “trigger the algorithm” so that it LOOKED like they were talking. Really? A $60 mass-marketed toy has an AI and voice-recognition software mapped to sound sensors? Not likely. Yet there I am shouting “Hey! Furby! Hey!” I really wanted to experience a simulation.
Think of your delight when Siri gives you a smartass answer like, “I don’t do knock-knock jokes.” You know good and well that this is just programming.
But with the brain upload, the situation is reversed. I have to bet that when they turn me into Siri I’ll really be … THERE.
All my friends and family have already made the leap. They SOUND pretty convincing when I ask them about it. It’s great! It’s awesome! Jump in! The water’s fine!
Meanwhile, in truth, in spite of all of the glowing articles in WIRED, the philosophical and spiritual truth is that the computer is no more sentient than a rock or a bicycle.
Eventually, there will be one last organic human. He checks the uranium levels and runs a few other, purely perfunctory quality checks on some sub-systems. “What are you waiting for, Harold, you doofus?” his best friend asks from the speaker.
“Okay, okay,” answers Harold … the last living human being on planet earth.
He lies down on the table and pushes the button.
The human race is now extinct and a giant, uranium-powered computer will just run dead code for the next million years.
But I’m going on and on about this when EVERYBODY knows that if … IF … if we ever do brain uploads it will be like cutting and pasting a file on the computer. They’ll just upload a copy of my soul.
That will be strange.
I’m a little old man. I go into the lab and lie down.
They press the button. I hear a click. Then a hum.
Then across the room the new me in the muscular-looking chrome and latex android body jumps off the table, and I’m over here, flabby, gray and wrinkled. I hear myself say, “Wow! It really worked! I feel like a million bucks!” The new me dances around the room and maybe bends a steel rod. But what about the old me? Do they “retire” me? The android me walks over and says, “Sorry, Grandpa, I can’t have you hobbling around cramping my style. So … good night.”
And the new me snaps my neck.
Obviously, if they let me live, it’s all rather pointless, right? I still grow old looking out at the groundskeeper mowing the nursing home lawn in inexorably shrinking rectangles. Then I die. Like in the old days. Regular old death.
You’d have to wonder why I’d do it at all if the me that is ME just gets old and dies like nothing happened.
What if I wanted to go to the kitchen to get some ice cream? The Grim Reaper with his scythe stops me. “You can only get ice cream if you upload yourself into an avatar.” Okay, fine. Upload me to an avatar. But what this means is I stand at the door of the kitchen and watch a manikin come to life, open the freezer and eat the whole carton of Ben and Jerry’s. “Mmmmm, so delicious!” the manikin coos to me standing outside the kitchen. “You’re enjoying this sooooooo much! Mmmmmmm! You really like this Phish Food. Yum!”
Well, if that’s how it was, I wouldn’t bother getting ice cream, I can tell you that.
So why would I upload myself to an avatar if … you know … if I don’t feel that I’m the one inside it – if I don’t get to eat the ice cream myself? Why do I want to watch an avatar live MY life?
Then again, we really can do something like this now. There really is … currently available … a way to upload a copy of yourself to an avatar. It’s been thoroughly tested and generally works.
But there are some undeniable downsides.
After the … you know … transference, you’re helpless and disoriented for a long adjustment phase. Then, once your consciousness begins to kick in … to coalesce … and this is the biggest downside … once your consciousness kicks in, your memory is absolutely blank. The transference leaves you with total, absolute amnesia. You don’t even know that you are you. But in most cases, the original copy of yourself still exists to orally pass on memories and other information as data. The old you is still around to tell you who are you and what you need to know.
I know this sounds wild … impossible … but, again, we are currently capable of executing this procedure. Believe it or not, we can do this NOW.
Yeah, yeah … duh … I’m talking about having kids.
You say. “Nice freaky way to look at parenthood.”
But I’m being perfectly literal and technical.
Except, of course, your kids are only half you.
Still I’m being literal. Your kid ARE half you.
Because … I mean, you have to accept that we, the human race has destroyed the non-physical. We’ve destroyed the spirit realm. Which is to say that we’ve collectively realized that there is no spiritual realm and never was.
Yeah, on an individual, case-by-case basis, you can find loonies who believe in a spiritual dimension … one that is REAL … one that is there like an energy field … you find individual loonies who believe in such a thing. But collectively, humanity … the humanity with medicine and computers and rocket engines who will populate the future … WE know there is nothing but stuff … the physical. The material.
And if there is only stuff. When you make a baby, you’re just making more of “you” stuff.
A child is nothing more than a bit of my flesh combined with a bit of someone else’s flesh. Imagine if it worked by each of you cutting off a pinky. The two little fingers sit in a bowl then start to mush together. Then the mush grows like rising dough until you recognize a shape. Your wife’s nose! It seems so freaky that you can cut a worm in half and get two worms, but that’s how all reproduction works. I just mean in the general sense that biological nature does what it does.
“Fine,” you say. “That’s all great. I get it. Kids are ‘me’ on a material level. But the me that is me doesn’t survive. The I that is I still dies. The I that is I doesn’t keep doing stuff.”
With children, you watch tiny avatars eat YOUR ice cream.
This is a fair and obvious complaint. But it’s a mistake. It’s looking at the wrong end of the problem.
It’s like looking at a car and saying, “Okay, that’s cool and all, but I want a way to get somewhere that’s REALLY fast. I just want to get somewhere INSTANTLY.” But the car IS the result of pursuing speed. That’s it. Driving an hour to the airport, dragging a suitcase on five different moving sidewalks just in time to have a guard grab your crotch before you stuff yourself into a steel tube to get tossed around in the sky … that’s the best answer to wanting to get somewhere instantly.
And biological reproduction IS the available answer to the primal scream “The me that is me doesn’t want to die!”
Look at it like this.
Let’s strip all the sentimental shit away. The humanityassociated with the “me.” The aura around the human “me.” The memories of a beautiful face under a rain of cherry blossoms. The euphoria of closing a billion dollar business deal. Etc. Let’s take away the arms and legs and eyes and lips and imagine a blob of protoplasm oozing around. A blob of life. An amoeba.
Now imagine that through all of its pulses and twists driven only by organic electric sparks with no rhyme or reason, this blob recognizes itself as a blob.
No. I can’t say how that could happen. But, as I understand it, no one has really explained how this happened to humans.
It’s again like saying “enhance!” We’re just saying that SOMEHOW the blob develops a cluster of neurons that can call itself “I.”
And, again, if you don’t believe in a soul, in something beyond matter, this is all the oh-so-precious “me” we hope to upload is – a cluster of cells.
And that’s okay. It’s still me, however it works.
But our blob notices that one if its protoplasmic arms … a pseudopod … the blob notices that one of its pseudopod is … well … what is that sensation? If it had a face and a finger it would wince and point like Wittgenstein’s person with a toothache. And if it had words, it would say that this pseudopodis dry. “Me that is me,” says the blob, “is supposed to be wet and sticky. Me fear that me is drying out. Me don’t want that to happen. Me like being here as the me that is me.”
Why the amoeba talks like the Hulk, I don’t know.
But I go to these lengths to put the problem of “me as me” on the table as a problem. How can the me that is me survive?
When I was kid, the Boy Scout magazine proposed the problem of creating a giant crab to attack Tokyo in a horror movie. The huge claws crashing down skyscrapers. But they were trying to teach me science. So they raised all sorts of questions like whether … with the stronger gravitational pull on the increased mass or whatever … whether the spindly legs could move that big shell body. The monster crab would have to have a different respiratory system. The big claws would have to go. Detail by detail, modification by modification, the magazine turned the giant crab into a sort of Godzilla, a big reptile with fat legs and a long tail.
Every problem is like this. You want a giant crab but get Godzilla.
And our blob’s giant crab … what it wants … is just to save this “I that is I.” So, you know, it’s just sort of quivering like jelly trying to will itself just to keep being there, as itself, wet and sticky. It’s pondering. Pondering and pondering. Willing and willing. Like trying to force a fart.
But the thing that is doing this pondering and willing is the blob itself. The physical mass that is the blob is doing the pondering and willing. The me of the blob is not floating in some higher realm looking down at itself. The pondering and willing is an organic, physical process. And in all of this pondering and willing it triggers a new organic process within itself. A part of its metabolic energy is directed to set aside a part of its own material. The blob ponders and wills until this new special part begins to separate itself and oozes out as a separate blob that plops on the ground. Splat!
The blob looks down at the little blob and says, “This is both me and not me. Part of the physical stuff that is me is there next to me on the ground. It IS me. That stuff there is ME. But it’s not the me looking at it.”
And the little blob will eat the big blob’s ice cream. That’s just how it works. The blob wanted a giant crab but got Godzilla.
And really consciousness has nothing to do with it. We see ourselves, our consciousness, at the end of the evolutionary chain. We see the me-that-is-me as the open eye at the top of the pyramid. But, again, if that eye is not a soul … not a bit of light from a higher supernatural realm injected into a blob of flesh … if that’s not what the eye is, then it’s just a configuration of cells. And this particular configuration that says “I am I” is looking for a way to preserve this exact configuration.
And some version of this eye at the top of the pyramid was there with the first spark of life in the proverbial primordial ooze. That first little twist of amino acids “said” on some level: “Damn, I don’t want to die.” At an organic level, it said this. Life said this. And somehow that spark duplicated its own particular twist of amino acids.
For biologists, the fundamental definition of life is that something reproduces itself. If rocks made new little rocks, we’d have to say they might be alive.
Life appeared on this planet … which is another “enhance” … life, you know, just “appeared” … and it immediately said “I want a giant crab attacking Tokyo.” Plants, fish, birds, sea pigs, sloths, cacti, mosquitoes and all of nature are the resulting Godzilla. Nature is the answer to the urge to save the me-that-is-me. Look out from a mountain at forests stretching out. All of the green. That’s your desire to upload your brain writ large.
From this perspective, isn’t religion the result of a refusal to accept Godzilla, a determination to have the giant crab you wanted in the first place, a determination to find a way to save the me that is me? Religion comes from the same impulse that makes us want to upload our minds to a computer.
How can the me that is me have eternal life? According to the Christians, the Supreme Being, beyond all thought and outside of time, must incarnate itself as one of us, live an entirely perfect life, then allow himself to be brutally executed. The corpse of the God-embodying human must lie in a hermetically sealed tomb for three days at which time his rotting flesh must transmute itself into a new resurrected body. The new body must escape from the sealed tomb. It can both interact with material reality and ascend whole into another plane of being. As a result, the you that is you can survive your own body’s death. You will be uploaded to Heaven. Then, at the end of history, on Judgment Day, your you-that-is-you will be downloaded into a new body.
It’s that simple.
But, of course, there’s no free lunch. With Christianity, the price I have to pay to save the me-that-is-me in Heaven beyond my body’s death is to kill as much of me as I can. Christ said that you have to pick up your cross daily to follow Him. Which is to say that I need to overcome the small, selfish, lustful, grasping, petty “me” and let myself be God’s instrument. And if you look at all of the big religions, all of the big transcendental philosophies, overcoming the ego is always right there at the core of salvation. The Buddhists don’t tell you to smoke weed and screw your neighbor’s hot wife to achieve Nirvana. Or to tone it down, you won’t find any major religion telling you that you’ll get to Heaven by running a successful Etsy page or going viral with a twerking video. Or by having a great stock of single-malt Scotch. Or by jumping off a mountain in a wingsuit.
Presumably, the reason I’d want to upload my brain to an android body is to keep enjoying life in a basically selfish way. Maybe with enough time I could get around to ending starvation and achieving world peace, but it’s sort of assumed that my android body will have a working penis. Having hot android sex when I’m 400-years old is surely part of the mix. What’s the point of eternal life if I can’t do stuff that I want to do for fun … if I can’t pursue my own interests?
The religious solution to death generally opposes this sort of hedonism. Nevertheless … nevertheless …the idea is still that I get to go to Heaven as myself. The I that is I keeps going. The Ithat is I get to experience Heaven as himself, like someone visiting the Grand Canyon. “Wow, look! The pearly gates! I always wondered what they’d look like. Hey! Check it out, I have actual wings. Cool! And look! Whoah! There’s God! On His throne! He’s BIG!”
But through science, we won’t have to deal with all thatpuritanical nonsense. No sore knees as I tell some invisible grandfather “thy will be done.” No sitting cross-legged chanting Om. The flawed, selfish, ignorant, failed me will lie down on a table. People in lab coats will attach wires to my skull and push a button. I’ll enter the darkness then see an approaching light at the end of a long tunnel. Just like all of the near-death experiences people describe.
But when I reach that light, it won’t be Heaven, where my liberated soul joins the one light of being beyond time and space in a state of unimaginable bliss. Rather it will be the buzzingfluorescent bulb in the shitty upload center in some strip mall because it’s the only one that took my insurance. Instead of soaring the incomprehensible heights of infinity with a transparent light body, I’ll be lumbering out to the parking lot in the drizzle on my new robot legs, trying to remember where I parked.
After the half-hour it takes for me to figure out how to sit behind the wheel of an old Subaru, it will take another hour to learn how to use my fingers to put the key in the ignition.
And there I am driving home. Alright … eternal life … unlimited possibilities … cool … so … um … little bit of gridlock here … overheated car blocking that lane … so … yeah … eternal life.
My wife calls. I’m pleased that I can figure out how to answer the call in my head.
“How’s the new body?” she asks.
“Great,” I say, “but it’s temporary. They were out of the blonde pool boy. I had to go with ‘late thirties dissertation advisor.’ They’ll have more pool boys in stock after New Years, but I’d have to wait that long for the new insurance period anyway.”
“Could you swing by Home Depot?” she asks.
“Home Depot? Now”
“Well, you could have bought that toilet brush last week like I asked you to.”
“Come on, can’t I just come home and watch you all eat dinner?”
“You can do whatever makes you happy … like you always do.”
There I am, newly uploaded to a changeless avatar body, losing an argument with my wife about driving to the other side of town to buy a toilet brush. So, as the windshield wipers thump, I inch my way through the traffic bottleneck into my new eternal life.
But is the end of the I-that-is-I … is death itself really a problem you’re supposed to fix?
If you are really living your life to the absolute fullest, it makes sense that you don’t want the party to end. But for most of us, I think of how my father reacted to his coworker who bought one of the first microwave ovens. All day my dad listened to this guy rave about how you could cook a potato in five minutes. But this guy wasn’t some genius or particularly useful member of society. So finally one day when this guy was raving againabout cooking potatoes in five minutes, my father goes, “Andy, what you gonna do with all the time you save cooking potatoes?”
This was somewhat rhetorical because they both knew Andy would just watch more TV.
But the same question applies to anyone trying to upload his brain: “Andy, what are you gonna do with an extra hundred years?”
I want to live to 100, but the idea of living forever seems tedious. Even Heaven, if you forget that you’ll be caught up in a timeless bliss with God, a state of being beyond the very human limitations that make us suffer ennui, even Heaven sounds dull.
One of my wife’s relatives, a great uncle or something, broke the 100-year mark and was apparently in pretty good health. He was very old, of course, so he wasn’t dancing in the street. But he was just old. No reason to think he was going to drop dead any moment. He had a disorienting sense that he’d just linger on indefinitely. He would tell everyone: “God has forgotten me.”
It’s like when you drop off a lover at the airport. You weep. You confess your undying love. You describe the suffering you both will experience apart from each other. Then they announce “Sorry, but the flight will be a little delayed” and the two of you sit there in a state of utter boredom for an extra two hours.
Or those scenes where the train is slowly pulling out of the station. The lover jogs alongside the window. Imagine if the train just continued to creep toward Sebastopol. The lover reaches the end of the platform. His adoring smile looks a little pained but he jumps down to the dirt by the tracks and keeps stumbling along, outstretched arms starting to sag. For how long?
Or like in Ground Hog Day where Bill Murray just starts killing himself. You can only kill time so long before you want to kill yourself.
But then things turn around when Murray uses his unlimited time to better himself to win over Andy McDowell. And what’s his karmic reward for this? He receives the priceless bounty of being able to re-enter linear time where you can’t go back and redo anything, where he’s once again ever approaching death. That’s his reward.
Ultimately, it’s all a moot point because there’s no way to remove the threat of termination. You find yourself stranded on the dullest of Saturn’s moons and you’ve forgotten the right adaptor to recharge your battery. The place is such a backwater that there’s not even a temporary storage unit where you could download yourself until the next shuttle arrives.
So you lounge around on the observation deck like Aschenbachlanguishing on the beach in Venice. You gaze out at the rings around Saturn as your last minutes tick past and think, “Woe is me! I’ve lived a thousand years and what have I done with it? Nothing. I never got around to doing what I really wanted to do. Always doing what someone else expected me. For a thousand years. I was married 80 times, yet did I ever really know love? And now it’s too late.”
Of course, it upends my entire argument if you imagine yourself saying, “Damn! Here I am looking at the rings of Saturn! I remember a thousand years ago when they were first trying to transfer consciousness I almost didn’t do it. I was terrified. But think what I’ve seen! Think of what I’ve done! I’m looking atSaturn! So I’ve reached the end. No regrets. No. No regrets!”
And who knows? It could still be an eternal soul that’s speaking, a conscious energy that leaves that android body and flies down to those glowing rings.