Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


16.3.3  Enter the Robot? (aka. Uploading)

What about the possibility of totally bionic brains? Might extraterrestrial biotechnologists be able to transfer personality and consciousness into virtually indestructible and immortal bionic bodies? In theory, there are no technical objections to "total prosthesis," as it is sometimes called. Using advanced atomic or molecular electronics, fully synthetic brains which function as well as or better than the originals can easily be imagined. However, one major difficulty is frequently overlooked.

In most schemes, the subject’s brain contents are somehow "read out" and recorded using sophisticated high-capacity computer data storage devices. This data is later played back and imprinted upon the tabula rasa bionic brain. The mortal flesh-and-blood organ is then replaced by the immortal synthetic one in the cyborg body. Upon awakening, it is discovered that the words, thoughts, and behavior of the new entity are indistinguishable from those of the original in every way.

But it is not the original! The cyborg is only a copy. A duplicate person has been created and the original (presumably) destroyed -- its sentience, its self-awareness, its personal consciousness. The new bionic brain, perhaps graced with a blissful continuity of memory, may not be aware of the change at all. But the original self is dead nevertheless. (The author, for one, would hesitate to accept such immortality by proxy.)

This fundamental problem is difficult, but by no means impossible, to resolve. It may turn out to be relatively easy to transfer from a biological to a synthetic brain without any loss of self or interruption of consciousness in the original. Dr. Jonathan Boswell, a nuclear physicist at the University of Virginia, recently gave me one simple example of such a process:

I visualize the process of consciousness transfer as taking many years. First, biocybernetic electrodes would be implanted permanently in the brain of the aging patient. Many of them, so that the data pathways are wide. As the body decays -- let us suppose it first goes blind -- the consciousness inside finds that it can "see" through the cameras of the machine it's connected to. Later, it could hear, touch.... Placed in direct contact with the bionic brain, the two minds would begin to share the thinking function. Ultimately, when the old hulk of the body finally shrivels up and dies, the shared mind lives on without interruption in the synthetic brain.2665

Artificial intelligence expert Hans Moravec has come up with a somewhat more elaborate scheme:

You are in an operating theater, and a brain surgeon (probably a machine) is in attendance. On a table next to yours is a potentially human equivalent computer, dormant now for lack of a program to run. Your skull, but not your brain, is under the influence of a local anaesthetic. You are fully conscious. Your brain case is opened, and the surgeon peers inside. Its attention is directed at a small clump of about 100 neurons somewhere near the surface. It examines, nondestructively, the three dimensional structure and chemical makeup of that clump with neutron tomography, phased array radio encephalography, etc., and derives all the relevant parameters. It then writes a program which can simulate the behavior of the clump as a whole, and starts it running on a small portion of the computer next to you. It then carefully runs very fine wires from the computer to the edges of the neuron assembly, to provide the simulation with the same inputs the neurons are getting. You and it check out the accuracy of the simulation. After you are satisfied, it carefully inserts tiny relays between the edges of the clump and the rest of the brain, and runs another set of wires from the relays to the computer. Initially these simply transmit the clump’s signals through to the brain, but on command they can connect the simulation instead. A button which activates the relays when pressed is placed in your hand. You press it, release it and press it again. There should be no difference. As soon as you are satisfied, the simulation connection is established firmly, and the now unconnected clump of neurons is removed.

The process is repeated over and over for adjoining clumps, until the entire brain has been dealt with. Occasionally several clump simulations are combined into a single equivalent but more efficient pro gram. Though you have not lost consciousness, or even your train of thought, your mind has been removed from the brain and transferred to the machine. A final step is the disconnection of your old sensory and motor system, to be replaced by higher quality ones in your new home. This last part is no different than the installation of functioning artificial arms, legs, pacemakers, kidneys, ears and hearts and eyes being done or contemplated now.3233

Moravec then goes on to point out the many advantages that would become apparent as soon as the process was complete:

Somewhere in your machine is a control labeled "speed." It was initially set to "slow," to enable the simulations to remain synchronized with the rest of your old brain, but now the setting is changed to "fast." You can communicate, react and think at a thousand times your former rate.

Major possibilities stem from the fact that the machine has a port which enables the changing program that is you to be read out, nondestructively, and also permits new portions of the program to be read in. This allows you to conveniently examine, modify, improve and extend yourself in ways currently completely out of the question. Or, your entire program can be copied into a similar machine, resulting in two thinking, feeling versions of you. Or a thousand, if you want. And your mind can be moved to computers better suited for given environments, or simply technologically improved, far more conveniently than the difficult first transfer. The program can also be copied to a dormant information storage medium, such as magnetic tape. In case the machine you inhabit is fatally clobbered, a copy of this kind can be read into an unprogrammed computer, resulting in another you, minus the memories accumulated since the copy was made. By making frequent copies, the concept of personal death could be made virtually meaningless. Another plus is that since the essence of you is an information packet, it can be sent over information channels. Your program can be read out, radioed to the moon, say, and infused there into a waiting computer. This is travel at the speed of light. The copy that is left behind could be shut down until the trip is over, at which time the program representing you with lunar experiences is radioed back, and transferred into the old body. But what if the original were not shut down during the trip? There would then be two separate versions of you, with different memories for the trip interval.

When the organization of the programs making up humans is adequately understood, it should become possible to merge two sets of memories. To avoid confusion, they would be carefully labeled as to which had happened where, just as our current memories are usually labeled with the time of the events they record. This technique opens another vast realm of possibilities. Merging should be possible not only between two versions of the same individual but also between different persons. And there is no particular reason why mergings cannot be selective, involving some of the other person’s memories, and not others. This is a very superior form of communication, in which memories, skills, attitudes and personalities can be rapidly and effectively shared.3233


Last updated on 6 December 2008