Transhumanism: "Transhumanism is an international intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of science and technology to improve human mental and physical characteristics and capacities."
It is not a philosophy, as it may sound like some reaction to Humanism. Its beliefs range from using advanced medicine to cure diseases to the extreme of uploading human consciousness into computers and living entirely digital lives. At its heart, transhumanism acknowledges a belief that technology has essentially replaced humankind's natural evolution. (Of course, it may be argued that technological evolution is an extension of natural evolution, but that's a whole different debate, which is pretty philosophical.)
The issue that I would like to discuss is the idea of full uploading. I am not endorsing any of this, just trying to imagine what different possibilities might arise in the future, and discuss ethical consequences of them all.
Let's assume 3 things:
1. We would have technology scan a human brain with 100% fidelity.
2. We would also have sufficient technology to transfer this brain scan to a new destination. This destination could be a computer simulation, or a custom-grown human body with a brain tailored to host the source brain's data.
3. That the destination would have a consciousness, and would beat absolutely any test that could be thrown at it to try and disprove identity of the person.
And let's save the whole religious question for another time. "Is that a person? Would that have a soul? Would there be a transference of a soul?" etc. These religious questions are a matter of belief and faith and are difficult to come to any objective agreement, due to the speculative and personal nature of the topic. They make for an interesting discussion, but a very different topic.
The question I am most centrally interested in: "Is that me or is that a copy of me?"
We can assume one of two conditions to answer this question:
1. That the human source and the destination could exist at the same time.
2. That the human source cannot survive the transference procedure.
If the first condition is assumed, then there should be little doubt that the destination is "a copy of me". Of course, from the copy's perspective they absolutely are the same person. The copy would have all the memories up to the moment of transference and it would seem that they have just moved physical location. (or digital, in the case of a computer simulation)
The second condition being assumed makes the question a little more tricky. As with the first case, the destination would have every reason to believe and assert that they are the same individual. Is an individual's consciousness and/or soul something that can be transferred as well? (An argument that one might make against the third of my original assumptions.)
Here we simply must turn to our imagination to supply possible answers.
Answer #1: We are more than our memories.
as seen in the film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
(Technically, spoiler alert, though the film does pretty much lay out its conclusions at the very beginning, so not much of a spoiler.)
In the film, two lovers have a bad falling out. The impulsive of the two has her memories of the other erased with a new technology, and the other - facing the possibility that he can never get her back, has the same procedure done to himself to erase her. The movies opens with them meeting seemingly for the first time, hitting it off, and then it becomes clear that this is the end of the story, and the rest of the movie is a flashback explaining what happened. Maybe their memories didn't totally erase and the technology doesn't work. Or perhaps, as I think is the movie's message, is that there is a transcendental nature of love, human relationships, and human beings themselves. While the movie is not religious at all, there is a pretty strong indication that we are not merely the sum of our memories.
This comes down to the fundamental philosophical debate of mind / body and mind / spirit duality. Where does the human body end and the human being as an individual begin?
Answer #2: Transporters and Seat Belts!
as seen in the TV series and films of Star Trek
Throughout the Star Trek series, creator and writer Gene Roddenbury included a pretty common space science-fiction technology: point-to-point transporters. Star Trek was the first science fiction, to my knowledge, to not only use this technology regularly, but explain and analyze it. As the technology is presented in Star Trek, a person's matter is scanned, transformed into energy, beamed to the location, and reassembled into matter. The reason I wrote "Seat belts!" is because there are so many regularly occurring technical contradictions and oversights throughout the Star Trek series. If I get too wrapped up in one of them, I remind myself of how many lives could have been saved if starships had seatbelts. (It's even joked about in the first episode of Star Trek: Enterprise by the character Captain Archer.) In other words, sci-fi pieces like Star Trek are meant to discuss philosophical and contemporary issues rather than the technology itself. (This should be apparent in the fact that Roddenberry put a black woman, a Russian, and a half-alien on the bridge of the Enterprise; this was during a time when Americans was still fighting for race and gender equality, was at Cold War with the Soviet Union, and had lots of space-movies where aliens are scary take-over-the-world types.)
There are two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation where philosophical issues of transporting humans comes up. The first entitled, "Realm of Fear", where a character Lt. Barclay overcomes his fear of transporters. There's a great exchange between himself and the ship's mental health counselor (Deanna Troi), after he balks on being "beamed down" on a mission to the surface via transporter.
"BARCLAY: I usually manage to avoid it somehow. You wouldn't believe how many hours I've logged on shuttlecrafts... (shudders) The thought of being deconstructed molecule by molecule. It's more than I can stand...
Barclay sits down, dejected.
BARCLAY: Ever since I was a child, I've been scared to death that if I ever dematerialized... I wouldn't come back whole again. (beat) I know it sounds crazy.
Troi is reassuring.
TROI: There's nothing crazy about it, Reg -- you are being taken apart molecule by molecule. You're not the first person to have anxiety about transporting."
Unfortunately, this is just a scratch at the philosophical debate - hinting, really, rather than directly discussing it. Barclay's fear is clearly not simply about whether or not the machine will function properly. This would be similar a person fearing air travel because they are afraid of a crash, despite air safety being far better than automobile travel. No, instead clearly he's afraid of the process itself - being deconstructed molecule by molecule. His concern is his own mortality in the deconstructing itself. Will he still be alive? Will it be a copy of him that pops out at the other end? The important thing to understand is that neither the transporter copy, nor any observer, would have any way of telling at all that they were not the original.
I only wish this episode specifically addressed these ideas, but it is clear that Roddenberry's take on transporters was that it was the same person. This leads us to the other episode of Next Gen.
The episode, "Second Chances", occurs later in the same season. The main plot deals with two of the main character reconsidering their long set-aside relationship. It does so in a novel way. The character Commander Ryker finds his double, who has been stranded on a planet for eight years after a unique transporter accident. Eight years prior to the episode's present, Ryker was just a Lieutenant and serving on another starship. (I wonder if that rank makes one more accident-prone on transporters?) While they share the same past up to the accident, the time lapse and separation allows the characters to act very differently.
What is great about this episode is that all of the other characters do not question that this double has every right to the identity of Ryker, and be treated as an officer in Starfleet. This is backed by the doctor on board doing extensive scans reinforcing that there is no discernable difference in their DNA and brain structure - formed from behavior. (As opposed to a clone, who would have developed differently.) Additionally, it is also very clear that it is expected that this person be an individual, be treated like one, and make their own choices. By the end, Ryker-double choose to rename his first name, and departs for a new assignment, continuing his career as a Lieutenant.
But is this double really the copy, or the original? Or, are they both copies? Again, by Roddenberry's rules, at least one of them has to be the original. However, the way they are treated in the show makes it seem like they are *both* originals. If both are equal, then I believe there really is no distinction between calling both of the copies. And that's where I differ from Roddenberry's view - I share Barclay's fear that I would cease to exist, and a copy of me live out my life.
Answer #3: Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Life is but a dream
as seen in the film, Groundhog Day and any other time-travel movie where changing events in your past does not effect your memory.
When we sleep, our brains take our consciousnesses away from our surrounding world. When we wake up, our consciousnesses are returned to this world. There is a disconnect - and there is, strictly speaking, no way for sure for us to know that we are the same consciousness as we were before we went asleep. Like the transporter scenario, we have the same memories and our bodies are identical. It is only through third-person observation that we can look at brain functions and show a continuously operating brain shifting between sleep cycles and into waking consciousness. I suppose it all boils down to "I think, therefore I am".
Walt Disney and other folks who have undergone cryogenic freezing, hope to literally wake up in the future. I say, "Hey, if you got the money, you have nothing to lose if you're wrong." Well, unless there's some odd situation where a human soul doesn't leave a cryogenically frozen body - but that is yet another whole different discussion. There are plenty of examples of plant seeds and primitive animals that have been put on ice and then revived. There's even cases where humans seem to be brain-dead and have come back to life. (Not to be confused with the Terry Shaivo case - where her brain wasn't dormant; unfortunately it was physically deteriorated.) The possibility is there, and perhaps in our lifetime we shall even know for certain the truth.
There is a more general question, as well. Is consciousness itself just an illusion? Humans experience time linearly, but not everything in the universe does. Tachyons, for example, are particles that can travel backwards through time. Or so the scientists who study really-really-complicated-physics claim. Most religions will assert that God or gods exist at all times at once, or, at the very least, can experience all times simultaneously. A recent article I read indicated that studies are showing that your mind literally controls how you experience time.
On one hand, time seems to be pretty relative. On the other hand, you will fail if you try and find one example of someone successfully stopping time or reversing it altogether. Most time travel stories involve someone swapping from one universe into a parallel one. Which I think is horribly silly and a consequence of the romanticism of quantum theory. But what #$*! the do I know?
Groundhog Day is a movie where Bill Murray plays a man trapped living the same day over and over. He instantly transported back in time at the same time each day - when he woke up the previous morning, wearing the same clothes, his body the same age and state as before. (Which is more odd even as he kills dies on more than one day.) The only difference is that he retains his memories and is conscious all the way through the ordeal, which potentially lasts decades.
Is sleep like this? Or, for that matter, does this occur at every moment we experience? Are we souls traveling from one universe to the next so quickly that we don't even notice? Is there an immutability to our consciousness that even if we're traveling through time and changing events, we still retain our own identity? Does our identity change constantly and we don't even realize it, because we now possess memories of the new identity?
This all hurts my brain, and, frankly, I doubt it. But it can be fun to think about.
The "Me vs Copy of Me?" question has ethical consequences derived on each answer. The dilemma varies in complexity depending on what theory with which you subscribe.
Ideal, Full Transfer
The ideal situation is the easiest to imagine, but perhaps the most difficult to explain. This is if a person somehow could transfer their consciousness / soul / whatever into another vessel, be it a new human body, or a computer program, or a reincarnation of another life form. Gone with the old, in with the new. That individual is the same person, has all the rights as the same person, and should be treated as a person who has had to replace parts of their body. It's a super-dualist idea - that our soul is completely separate from our bodies. But it makes ethics easy.
Less Ideal, "Legacy" Transfer
The next possibility is that such a brain scan and transference only makes a copy of you, and that the source person cannot survive the procedure. People who undergo the procedure would know that this is the end of their life, but that their legacy will live on and continue to grow as if it were them. Alas, we cannot cheat death, but this is the next best thing to immortality.
Clearly, there's no issue of "who's the real me?", but there is a matter of whether this copy of you should be treated the same way as the original you. If we are talking a computer simulating you, then the debate largely centers around whether Artificial Intelligence will be considered a life form with rights. And there is plenty of debate on the Internet out there for you to seek that out, and it is hardly definitive either way. However, let's assume that stem-cell research lets us grow a younger version of ourselves, but just an empty body with no consciousness. Brain cells are somehow created and placed dormant into the body, and somehow we are able to do it in such a way that it is an exact replica of the original person. (Some might argue that even a body without consciousness has a soul. Like I did with the Terry Shaivo case, I have to disagree. I cannot imagine any God who would create souls that are independent from the human body just to hang around when it is incapable of any consciousness or brain activity.)
So this new person wakes up and everything about them feels like they are literally just waking up after a night of sleep, forgetting a short amount of time. They are as mortal as any human, contain no significant difference, and in fact, since they would require an adult body, the biggest barrier to entry into society would probably be physical therapy to train one's muscles. (though really, if we can duplicate the brain, then why not have the body ready-to-go?)
Should this person be considered the old person? With a version number? A new name? Maybe keep the first and last name, but get a new middle name? Would there be stigma in society to these people? Would the new person visit his original's grave? Would the original even have a grave? Would there be only be graves for people who did not continue on to a new body? (Would you keep a grave for someone resurrected?) Would the person be judged by actions of their past life? (I would think so since they remember them and are basically the same person.) Would they have all the same financial obligations? Would married people become unmarried, and have to choose to continue? Would the process of getting a new body be so expensive than we would essentially have a class of citizens who can live forever (and get richer and richer as they continue to accumulate wealth) or would having your body copied become an inalienable right?
I have far more questions than answers than I can hope to supply.
The Bizarre Scenario: Both Original And Copy Co-exist
So here is where things get really dizzying when contemplated. Take all the same questions posed in my last paragraph, where we assume the original died and the copy continues on. Let's assume we could create copies of ourselves and continue to live. Would we own them? Probably not, if we consider them humans. Would they owe us money or some other obligation for creating them? Would we get the right to name them, would there be a standard renaming system, or would they rename themselves?
Then there's the price issue. Copying one's body and brain to a new human seems like it would be prohibitively expensive. But to preserve someone's life - there are plenty of medical treatments that are far too expensive for someone to normally afford on their own that we do with our insurance system. However, if it wasn't a life-saving procedure, would that mean the rich would be able to afford copies while the poor do not? Would there be legislation and restrictions on the number and frequency of copies?
On the other hand, if we don't have the body-option, and we go digital, it comes back to the issue of Artificial Intelligence. Would the digital copies of you be second class citizens? Or would their ability to expand at the rate of Moore's Law make normal humans the lower strata of society? Would we even recognize their existence as individuals, and if not, would they be property of the original?
Charles Stross imagined this scenario in his book Accelerando, where a digital copy was referred to as a "delta-me". He imagined humans with such sophisticated brain implants that one could spin off delta-yous, have them go do something, and then integrate them back into your own consciousness. And assuming Moore's Law holds up, at some point they will be able to experience time and do things much faster than your human brain could. Imagine spawning off delta-yous to live out hypothetical other lives, and then have them report back to you. Or even doing that as a way to "try everything". Whoa.
It remains to be seen what will happen. And when it does, we may not even know for certain if a copy is a copy or the original. And it may not matter. Looking at these possibilities from our way of life is so foreign to us. It is as if you ask a simple farmer from several thousand years ago what pieces of hardware they want in a new computer. The possibilities of transhumanism are so vastly past our current lives, that its difficult enough to think of the questions we will need to answer, let alone come up with any solutions.
Transhumanism: "Transhumanism is an international intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of science and technology to improve human mental and physical characteristics and capacities."
Things seem more authoritative when written down. Why are people drawn to biographical stories, even in common TV and movies and other media? Personal blogs? Etc? The written word has a magical property.
I am in the middle of a long blog post that I've been working on about 9/11, technology, god, philosophy, and transhumanism. (It will probably become a series of blog posts; it's already really long.) In it, I share some personal experiences I had on and after 9/11/2001. It is odd reading about my life in the third person, as I read and re-read, editing and improving my drafts.
There's some kind of ... "truth duality" when a person writes non-fiction prose. What I mean is that accounts of real events both have literal non-fiction truth as well as fictional existence. Both are "true", in different senses, and inherently pollute each other - such is the nature of communication.
Non-fiction is, in the simple sense, "truth". It's true, because it happened. It is, of course, also simply a perspective (or set of perspectives) of a real-life happening. It is an observation, however objective, but still only just part of the truth. Even if the part of the truth is strictly independently verified facts, the choice of what is written, what order they are presented, juxtapositions, and other factors all are new - they are additional to the real event.
For that matter, the real event itself is lived through via a variety of perspectives. Human lives are, if nothing else, a series of relationships with other beings. How you view and judge a person can only be seen through their interaction with others. Alone, a human is incapable of any good or bad actions. If a human has no one else to care for, to be considerate of, etc - it is just a mind game with physical ramifications only to that person. Where are ethics and morals involved there? The only "sin" would be to give up and kill oneself rather than survive and experience life.
Therefore, even "real events" take on an air of fiction - of perspective - let alone the result of observation subsequently documenting "real events". Thus, any written story of a real event is both non-fiction and fiction. And the fictional parts are true - in the sense of any work of art (in this case, writing) is "true", or "real".
So when I read about myself, even from my own account, I realize that it is a biased telling of a story. It is incomplete in correlation to real events, and yet complete as a creative work.
It's weird. It makes me think about the rest of my life. If one's life is written down, and that writing down process inherently making it more interesting, than can we just imagine our lives being told as a story, and thus think of our lives as more meaningful and interesting? I think I just put words into something I have felt for a while.
My life is an adventure, albeit a common one. An educated Westerner, socially-awkward teen grows up, takes an interest in technology and programming. Tries the corporate world. Strives to be an entrepreneur. Makes art. Makes technology. Meets really interesting people on the Internet and real life. Hopes he is heard by them. Hopes he hears back.
So, last month I went to Second Life Community Convention 5, held this year in San Francisco. There were about 350ish attendees, a mix of professionals developers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and various other Second Life users. Along with the superbly talented and friendly Hydra Shaftoe, I co-ran the Business Track; I was very pleased with the fact that the Business Track rooms was almost always full or nearly full, and we had strong speakers who engaged the audience. I did not have *too* much time to experience much of the other tracks personally (except music, which had a lot of artists and was well-executed), but I've heard positive feedback about the content of the other tracks.
There were some very high points at SLCC this year, and there were some areas that definitely need improvement. After talking with a number of the track leaders, organizers, and attendees, I've come to some conclusions about where SLCC needs to go from this year forward.
The most troublesome aspect of SLCC was the fact that planning always gets started late. Some background - I co-founded SLCC back in 2005 with 4 enthusiastic individuals and strong support from Linden Lab and New York Law School (via Beth Noveck, a technology saint). While I was only active the first year and part of the second year in planning, I'd watched as every single year the convention planning get on late.
Normally, planning doesn't get underway at least until February, when you'll see the first blog posts about possible locations, some polls for where it should take will inevitably wind up on some message boards. This needs to happen, oh, 4 to 5 months earlier in October. The same goes for selecting track leaders, getting themes and visual design done.
By November, sponsor packages should be complete, advertising and outreach should be planned, and a location narrowed down to a few choices. Track leaders should be reaching out to the community to feel out what topics and speakers that people would like to have.
By January, the first few sponsors should have already paid money, so that deposit can be put on the hotel, and there's money to advertise, hire web designers if needed, etc. Track leaders should have curriculum set up with overview of the types of topics.
By March, speakers should be starting to be booked. Conference tickets should be on sale. The press should be in full swing talking about the convention.
... by comparison, this past year, none of that started *until* March.
The convention is not well advertised. Here are a variety of suggestions:
- Don't just reach out to Second Life related blogs. Hit up all of the virtual world blogs, as well as gaming blogs.
- Once there's some buzz, reaching out to more established tech blogs should be relatively straightforward.
- There's a few dozen major tech and gaming conferences that happen in first quarter and early second quarter of each year. SLCC should have a presence at many of them, even if it's just paying for an insert into grab bags, or paying someone to go to the convention and hand out fliers. There's no reason SLCC shouldn't be advertising at SxSW, E3, GDC, MacWorld,
Virtual Worlds Engage (or whatever it's going to be called this year), and other cons.
- Blog early, blog often, feed it everywhere. Info should be spreading via Twitter, Facebook, Digg, Reddit, e-mail lists, and in-world Second Life groups.
This needs a dedicated staff member just for this. During Year 1 this wound up being a significant revenue stream from sponsors, and we did events throughout the week leading up to SLCC. It has atrophied since I've stopped personally doing it. Not everyone can make it to SLCC in-person. This needs to be beefed up and run properly with mixed-reality streams, content that's only available in-world, giveaways, user-generated infrastructure and themes, etc. Think more like SL's annual birthday party. Think reaching out to different metaverse and Second Life meetup groups around the world to have local tie-ins.
Dedicated Organizer Roles
Probably the messiest thing at SLCC this year was the fact that the organizers were running around doing a million different things. The organizers all put tremendous energy into the convention, and it's clear that they're both understaffed and needing specialists. But realize, none of the organizers were any of the original leaders - these are all volunteers who have had to join mid-stream and deal with leftovers of a system that was a bit micro-managed and designed for a smaller set of attendees and content.
In short: it's time to grow.
What came out of discussions with organizers and track leaders is that roles need to be specified and organizers should choose what they're best at, and find more people to fill extra slots. We had great success with the track leaders this year, and a great variety of content was provided to attendees; that's because each track leader knew their role and had freedom to do it. The same philosophy applies to organizers. The roles I can identify:
- Convention Organizer: Should be experienced with running conventions, and will focus on creating the overall schedule and making sure everyone is making their deadlines. That's *all*.
- Hotel coordinator: Books the hotel, deals with all hotel things through the convention
- Treasurer / Accountant
- Volunteer Organizer
- Content Manager: Supervises all Track Leaders
- Technical Supervisor: In charge of in-person tech, bandwidth, website and social media running
- Advertising / Marketing Specialist: In charge of making sure a solid theme is created and everything in the convention adheres, including blog posts, logos, t-shirts, ID badges, advertisements, websites, in-world convention, etc.
- Sponsorship getter
- Social Event Planner: In charge of all parties, etc.
- Linden Lab Liason: Deals with Linden Lab and takes their input for the convention.
- Track Leaders
This really just goes along with the advertising plan. Share what's going on as it happens. SLCC got this pretty well right this year, though there were complaints early on (some less grounded than others) about the choosing of the convention.
Choose a Good Location
Firstly, it should be clear that while polls are one source of input as to the location, it's not the end-all be-all. There were some very vocal few this year crying out for Vegas as the location. Seriously? Vegas is a horrible place for a convention that: (a) Wants to attract more than just social attendees (b) It's ridiculously hot in August / September when SLCC usually occures. That doesn't mean that San Francisco was necessarily the best choice for last year - but the vocal minority wanted the public to think it was either Vegas or San Francisco or nothing. There were other cities more affordable than San Francisco that weren't Vegas, certainly. There's also a few considerations, first and foremost that Linden Lab basically foot a significant portion of sponsorship.
Some considerations for location:
1. People other than Americans and Canadians might actually want to attend. A city on the West Coast allows easier access from Asia, a city on the East Coast allows easier access from Europe.
2. Having the convention at a city with a Linden Lab office does help secure sponsorship and speakers.
3. The location is supposed to change every year. Where has it been? Where hasn't it?
4. The city needs to be tech-friendly. Houston: Bad Idea. Austin: Better Idea.
5. Price is a factor, though what's more important is finding a hotel that can provide a good deal on rooms. If I'm saving $50 a room for three or four nights, that adds up fast.
6. Hotel needs to have good, free wifi. Period.
7. There need to be interesting places to eat nearby. Lots and lots of networking and birds-of-feather type things go on each year. Tampa was a pain, for this reason.
8. Locality to developers, educators, and sponsors.
Some of my suggestions for next year: Boston, Philly, Seattle, Denver, Austin.
I'm not talking about the attendees; I'm talking about communities: education, healthcare, developers, artists, musicians, etc. Track leaders have a big role to play - to reach out to community leaders and to do so *early*. This year, education was nearly a disaster because of some pretty blatant in-fighting between factions in the Second Life educators. Some of them got vocally scared because of some comments on SLUniverse.com's forum that they took as some sort of community outreach. There was no good track leader - at the time - to say basically, "No, seriously. It's a rants-and-raves forum, it represents a small percentage of voices." Instead, it snowballed out of control, and by the time the new education track leader stepped it, it was all clean-up work.
On the other hand, the music track leader had (even before being officially tapped as the leader), reached out to the musician community. Consequently, there was a ton of live music and mixed-reality music at the convention and that went off smoothly.
Next Year Will Be Great
This thought I don't doubt. This year's SLCC had great content for attendees, though the convention was somewhat disorganized. I've heard from a lot of folks interested in helping SLCC. Really, it comes down to getting an early start and getting people into appropriate roles. Everything else should flow from that. The organizers already have been taking feedback about this year, planning, reorganizing, trying to continue the momentum from this year's convention. I have every reason to believe that difficulties experienced this year will be addressed, and there's a lot of good people putting in a lot of work and money into SLCC.
Addendum: If you're interested in volunteering at any level, and/or you have expertise you'd like to share with the organizers, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact me privately and I'll route you to the organizers personally.