I’ll say this for Michael Graziano’s recent article “Endless Fun”: it sure took my mind off the horror of a possible Trump presidency. Mr. Graziano, writing at Aeon, is a neuroscientist who has seen the future of human existence: the future is virtual, he says, and it is frightening.
Unlike Graziano, I’ll spare you the scientific details, which take up perhaps half of his essay and which I only half-understood at best. Notwithstanding, Graziano claims that, within fifty to a hundred years, science will enable us “to upload someone’s mind to a computer,” a development which he says “will utterly transform humanity, probably in ways that are more disturbing than helpful.”
His initial description of such a future, however, seems to belie such pessimism:
Imagine a future in which your mind never dies. When your body begins to fail, a machine scans your brain in enough detail to capture its unique wiring. A computer system uses that data to simulate your brain. It won’t need to replicate every last detail. Like the phonograph, it will strip away the irrelevant physical structures, leaving only the essence of the patterns. And then there is a second you, with your memories, your emotions, your way of thinking and making decisions, translated onto computer hardware as easily as we copy a text file these days.
That second version of you could live in a simulated world and hardly know the difference. You could walk around a simulated city street, feel a cool breeze, eat at a café, talk to other simulated people, play games, watch movies, enjoy yourself. Pain and disease would be programmed out of existence. If you’re still interested in the world outside your simulated playground, you could Skype yourself into board meetings or family Christmas dinners.
So far, so intriguing, but Graziano goes on to suggest complications and unintended consequences of such simulated immortality:
Such a technology would change the definition of what it means to be an individual and what it means to be alive. For starters, it seems inevitable that we will tend to treat human life and death much more casually. People will be more willing to put themselves and others in danger. Perhaps they will view the sanctity of life in the same contemptuous way that the modern e-reader crowd views old fogeys who talk about the sanctity of a cloth-bound, hardcover book. Then again, how will we view the sanctity of digital life? Will simulated people, living in an artificial world, have the same human rights as the rest of us? Would it be a crime to pull the plug on a simulated person? Is it ethical to experiment on simulated consciousness? Can a scientist take a try at reproducing Jim, make a bad copy, casually delete the hapless first iteration, and then try again until he gets a satisfactory version? This is just the tip of a nasty philosophical iceberg we seem to be sailing towards.
In many religions, a happy afterlife is a reward. In an artificial one, due to inevitable constraints on information processing, spots are likely to be competitive. Who decides who gets in? Do the rich get served first? Is it merit-based? Can the promise of resurrection be dangled as a bribe to control and coerce people? Will it be withheld as a punishment? Will a special torture version of the afterlife be constructed for severe punishment? Imagine how controlling a religion would become if it could preach about an actual, objectively provable heaven and hell.
Then there are the issues that will arise if people deliberately run multiple copies of themselves at the same time, one in the real world and others in simulations. The nature of individuality, and individual responsibility, becomes rather fuzzy when you can literally meet yourself coming the other way. What, for instance, is the social expectation for married couples in a simulated afterlife? Do you stay together? Do some versions of you stay together and other versions separate?
For better or for worse, the messiness of human emotions might well be engineered away:
If your brain has been replaced by a few billion lines of code, perhaps eventually we will understand how to edit any destructive emotions right out of it. Or perhaps we should imagine an emotional system that is standard-issue, tuned and mainstreamed, such that the rest of your simulated mind can be grafted onto it. You lose the battle-scarred, broken emotional wiring you had as a biological agent and get a box-fresh set instead. This is not entirely far-fetched; indeed, it might make sense on economic rather than therapeutic grounds. The brain is roughly divisible into a cortex and a brainstem. Attaching a standard-issue brainstem to a person’s individualised, simulated cortex might turn out to be the most cost-effective way to get them up and running.
Graziano saves the most disturbing part for last:
If simulated minds can be run in a simulated world, then the most transformative change, the deepest shift in human experience, would be the loss of individuality itself — the integration of knowledge into a single intelligence, smarter and more capable than anything that could exist in the natural world…
In an artificial afterlife, given a few centuries and few tweaks to the technology, what is to stop people from merging into überpeople who are combinations of wisdom, experience, and memory beyond anything possible in biology? Two minds, three minds, 10, pretty soon everyone is linked mind-to-mind. The concept of separate identity is lost. The need for simulated bodies walking in a simulated world is lost. The need for simulated food and simulated landscapes and simulated voices disappears. Instead, a single platform of thought, knowledge, and constant realisation emerges. What starts out as an artificial way to preserve minds after death gradually takes on an emphasis of its own. Real life, our life, shrinks in importance until it becomes a kind of larval phase.
“I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’”
Christianity has always taught, though not in quite these words, that our mortal existence is but a “larval phase”: our true and everlasting life as uberpeople awaits us beyond the grave. St. Paul might not have included much in the way of virtual details, and he couldn’t have anticipated either the neuroscience or the technology that would make immortality possible, but somehow he knew where we were headed.
But while Paul was ecstatic at the prospect, Michael Graziano is considerably less so:
To me, this prospect is three parts intriguing and seven parts horrifying. I am genuinely glad I won’t be around. This will be a new phase of human existence that is just as messy and difficult as any other phase has been, one as alien to us now as the internet age would have been to a Roman citizen 2,000 years ago; as alien as Roman society would have been to a Natufian hunter-gatherer 10,000 years before that. Such is progress. We always manage to live more-or-less comfortably in a world that would have frightened and offended the previous generations.
I’m with Michael Graziano in being mostly horrified, and also in reluctantly accepting that “such is progress”. I’m with him as well in being glad I won’t be around to experience virtual immortality (or any other kind); this mortal lifespan with all its limitations and complications is more than enough for me. But I suspect Graziano is right: millions of humans will leap at the opportunity to live on and on and on, and perhaps eventually they will merge into a new, super-intelligent, “single platform” entity beyond anything we can currently imagine.
And I guarantee that such a super-intelligent entity will look back at us from the distant future and wonder, “WTF? They elected Donald Trump as president?”