Often times after raising my Transhumanist views I get labelled as a freak who wants to have one’s consciousness in the cloud.
In what is perhaps the most absurd attack on transhumanism to date, Mike Adams of NaturalNews.com equates this broad philosophy and movement with “the entire idea that you can ‘upload your mind to a computer’” and further posits that the only kind of possible mind uploading is the destructive kind, where the original, biological organism ceases to exist. Adams goes so far as calling transhumanism a “death cult much like the infamous Heaven’s Gate cult led by Marshal Applewhite.”
I will not devote this essay to refuting any of Adams’s arguments against destructive mind uploading, because no serious transhumanist thinker of whom I am aware endorses the kind of procedure Adams is referring to. For anyone who wishes to continue existing as an individual, uploading the contents of the mind to a computer and then killing the body is perhaps the most bizarrely counterproductive possible activity, short of old-fashioned suicide. Instead, Adams’s article as well as many people’s equation of Transhumanism with Digital Escapism offers the opportunity to make important distinctions of value to transhumanists.
First, having a positive view of mind uploading is neither necessary nor sufficient for being a transhumanist. Mind uploading is simply one of many routes toward indefinite human life extension. Other routes include the periodic repair of the existing biological organism (as outlined in Aubrey de Grey’s SENS project or as entailed in the concept of nanomedicine) and the augmentation of the biological organism with non-biological components (Ray Kurzweil’s take on it).
Transhumanism, as a philosophy and a movement, embraces the lifting of the present limitations upon the human condition – limitations that arise out of the failures of human biology and unaltered physical nature.
Max More, in “Transhumanism: Towards a Futurist Philosophy”, writes that “Transhumanism differs from humanism in recognizing and anticipating the radical alterations in the nature and possibilities of our lives resulting from various sciences and technologies such as neuroscience and neuropharmacology, life extension, nanotechnology, artificial ultra intelligence, and space habitation, combined with a rational philosophy and value system.” The fact that someone takes this immensity of interrelated concepts, techniques, and aspirations and equate it to destructive mind uploading is, plainly put, mind-boggling. There is ample room in transhumanism for a variety of approaches toward lifting the limitations of the human condition. Some of these approaches will be more successful than others, and no one approach is obligatory for those wishing to consider themselves transhumanists.
Moreover, people equating Transhumanism with mind upload misunderstand the motivations of those transhumanists who do support mind uploading. For most such transhumanists, a digital existence is not seen as superior to their current biological existences, but as rather a necessary recourse if or when it becomes impossible to continue maintaining a biological existence.
Dmitry Itskov’s 2045 Initiative is perhaps the most prominent example of the pursuit of mind uploading today. The aim of the initiative is to achieve cybernetic immortality in a stepwise fashion, through the creation of a sequence of avatars that gives the biological human an increasing amount of control over non-biological components.
Avatar A would involve a human brain controlling an artificial body. If successful, this avatar would prolong the existence of the biological brain when other components of the biological body have become too irreversibly damaged to support it.
Avatar B, planned for circa 2030-2035, would involve the transfer of a human mind from a biological to a cybernetic brain, after the biological brain is no longer able to support life processes.
There is no destruction intended in the 2045 Avatar Project Milestones, only preservation of some manner of intelligent functioning of a person whom the status quo would instead relegate to becoming food for worms. The choice between decomposition and any kind of avatar looks like a no-brainer to me.
The biggest hurdle for mind uploading to overcome is the preservation of the individual’s unique and irreplaceable vantage point upon the world – his or her direct sense of being that person and no other. People refer to it as being “cut and paste” rather than “copy paste” or “mind cloning”. I term this direct vantage point an individual’s “I-ness”.
Could the project of mind uploading ever preserve the “I-ness” of the biological person? Might be possible, but only if the resulting cybernetic mind is structurally analogous to the biological mind.
Indeed, transhumanists have thought quite a bit about the philosophical questions involved in mind uploading. Many think that you simply “copy the brain and paste it somewhere else” and hope that “somehow magically that other thing becomes ‘you.’” Again, no serious proponent of mind uploading – and, more generally, no serious thinker who has considered the subject – would hold this misconception.
While a pure copy of one’s mind or its contents would not transfer one’s “I-ness” to a digital substrate and would not enable one to continue experiencing existence after a fatal illness or accident, it could definitely help an individual regain his memories in the event of brain damage or amnesia. Furthermore, if the biological individual were to irreversibly perish, such a copy would at least preserve vital information about the biological individual for the benefit of others. Furthermore, it could enable the biological individual’s influence upon the world to be more powerfully actualized by a copy that considers itself to have the biological individual’s memories, background, knowledge, and personality.
If we had with us today copies of the minds of Archimedes, Benjamin Franklin, and Nikola Tesla, we would certainly all benefit greatly from continued outpourings of technological and philosophical innovation. The original geniuses would not know or care about this, since they would still be dead, but we, in our interactions with minds very much like theirs, would be immensely better off than we are with only their writings and past inventions at our disposal.
Yes, destructive digital copying of a mind would be a bafflingly absurd and morally troubling undertaking – but recognition of this is neither a criticism of transhumanism nor of any genuinely promising projects of mind uploading. Instead, important highlights of both fields give much more reason to treat various disciplines and adherents with distinction and common sense.