I just spent a very enjoyable two days feeding my inner geek. The London Futurists conference on Anticipating 2025 was everything I expected it to be: a bit whacky, stuffed full of tech possibilities (not predictions), mindful of social issues behind technology changes and generally thought provoking.
I didn’t know a lot about the movement called “transhumanism”. If you don’t either, there’s a very good video about it produced by the British Institute of Posthuman Studies (who knew there was such a thing?).
Many people who look at our evolution are taking very seriously the possibility that we will be able to transfer ourselves into other bodies or upload our consciousness into different storage mechanisms than the gloopy wet stuff inside the cranium. This “backing-up” of the brain makes it a real possibility that your consciousness could outlive your body, perhaps indefinitely. You might become immortal.
Which raises the question: would you want to? I asked exactly that question of Calum Chace. His answer, that “death doesn’t give meaning to his life,” didn’t quite answer my question, although it was popular with many in the room. Actually, I don’t think death gives much meaning to my life either – although it does give it some impetus. After all, why get out of bed today if there’s always tomorrow? Even if you have things to do, why do them now? Immortality offers the perfect salve to the procrastinator: the petty pace really can creep in tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow – but without end, and probably without much accomplishment.
But that’s actually not what I meant either. My question was about value of life in a world where your consciousness can be preserved forever. Death, or at least the limit of life, does seem to confer value because, in simple economic terms, it restricts supply. So the value of a life goes up because it’s not replaceable. An endless life, however brilliant in parts, would shine rather less brightly over the course of an infinite lifetime. That’s just the law of averages.
There’s another more creepy aspect to this technology. If I can backup my mind once, presumably I – or someone else – can do it again. In other words, there could be multiple copies of me. I’d like to think that my uniqueness confers some value – but if you can just download me (or a copy of me) on demand from the cloud, my individual unit value will start to fall. Indefinitely.
And then again, what if you don’t like the latest copy of me? Perhaps you can revert to an earlier lovelier version of myself. Or make some modifications in the wiring so that the next version is finally the version of me that you were looking for. Perhaps I wasn’t compliant enough in my original incarnation – well, let’s fix that in the copy process. Maybe I want to do that myself – but if I can do it, so can somebody else.
Finally, is everyone going to have access to this technology? Will we deny immortality to some people: the evil, the depraved, the poor? Perhaps we’ll have a finite amount of storage for these consciousnesses. You might have to delete me to make room for somebody worthier and more deserving.
I’m not denying that the possibility of extending my life is enticing. And perhaps transferring consciousness to alternative storage mechanisms than old-fashioned, decaying materials like brains is a way in which humans will eventually explore the stars.
But I think I’d like to make some demands on the technology that enables all this if I’m going to give it a go:
- It’s my consciousness – leave it alone and no, you can’t copy it.
- When you download me again, I want a better body. I’m not interested in growing much older in this one. Perhaps you can iron it while I’m out of it.
- I want some friends and family to keep me company – I don’t want to wake up as Johnny no-mates infinite numbers of times.
- You have to promise me that there’ll be things worth doing, worth finding out, people worth meeting and forms in which to do all of this which allow me to enjoy my existence.
- I think that means that I’ll need to be corporeal; my mind’s not ready to join a vast undifferentiated universe intermingling with everyone else’s bits and bytes. I’m not very Zen.
- I really don’t want to be bored.
If you can’t guarantee me that, then I think you’re just offering me the world of Tennyson’s Lotos Eaters:
In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon.
Lazy afternoons are fine – but only once in a while.