Since as far back as recorded human history goes, human beings have been obsessed with the concept of death. The answer to the question of ‘what happens after one’s body dies’ remains as elusive today as it did when the first human died over 70,000 years ago. Over the millenia, however, philosophy, science, and most notably, theology, have contributed a number of theories regarding our origins and ultimate destinations. Regardless, death seems to be the single most inevitable aspect of all life, human or otherwise.
Fear of the oblivion and the ever-increasing desire to improve life has driven humans to undertake pioneering ventures in medical science, expanding the average lifespan of human beings with great success over each passing generation. Whether this process will continue forever has prompted some to ask questions regarding our very mortality, a subject which until now was confined to the genres of science fiction and fantasy, but now slowly finds itself becoming a realistic possibility in the not so distant future.
Historically, attempts at increasing human lifespans have, in general, concerned themselves with replacing old and worn out parts of the body with synthetic substitutes, or in some cases merely using the available technology to aid in their functioning. Prosthetics can be considered a prime example of the former, and old remains of prosthetic limbs have been found at excavation sites of ancient civilisations, indicating that human beings have had a long history with artificial appendages.
A more technologically advanced example of the latter would be the pacemaker, which is effectively a post-industrial machine implanted in a human chest to aid the heart. Massive leaps and bounds in the field of software engineering during the recent past have, however, set those attempting human enhancement on a completely new course, approach wise. Scientists are now concerning themselves more with the metaphysical aspect of life than the physical one. The subjects of scrutiny being discussed here are, of course, the ideas of consciousness and sentience.
For some, the idea that their very identity (or soul, for that matter) is nothing but an electrical spark which runs between neurons in the brain might be a little disconcerting. The human mind is, to put it in scientific terms, quite simply the greatest and most complex supercomputer ever seen by man – so complex, in fact, that modern day AIs (artificial intelligence softwares) are being modeled after it. While it will undoubtedly lead to huge improvements in the field of AI, this confluence of neurolgy and software engineering will (and has already started to) open the doors to innumerable possibilities.
The primary concept that scientists are starting to dabble with today is that of the uploading of the mind. If the brain is essentially a computer, and our individual identities are essentially unique and complex programs, the idea uploading it should theoretically be possible. The ‘self’ is essentially a metaphysical concept, and is not tied down to anything physical, and hence one could theoretically live forever in digital form. This is an idea which has been much discussed not only in the formal scientific community but also to a great deal in literature and cinema.
The 1956 short story ‘The Last Question’ by Isaac Asimov and the 2014 film ‘Transcendence’ directed by Wally Pfister and starring Johnny Depp are two such works (out of dozens) which deal with the concept of mind uploading, and the challenges and moral dilemmas it poses. The problem, of course, is that actually uploading ourselves through a sort of ‘transfer’ is impossible. What would be uploaded would be essentially be a copy. The resulting ‘person’ living on in the computer (presumably after our own death) would be a highly complex AI which would have to be fed our memories and experiences and would then approximate our future behaviour to the extent possible.
This presents an existential dilemma for those seeking ‘true immortality’. The arguments against mind uploading are very similar to those brought up against the idea of cloning. Presuming that all the data regarding your past was actually available, and the supercomputer did a perfect job of simulating your responses to different scenarios, it still wouldn’t be ‘you’ – just a very good copy. The idea of mind uploading may actually hold the answers to a very different question though- that of the Fermi paradox, which points out the apparent contradiction between the immense size of the universe and the lack of evidence of any such alien life.
Simply put, it states that in a universe as large as ours, the chances of alien life and extremely large, but we are yet to come across a single shred of evidence which supports the existence of such life. Specialists theorise that any alien civilization advanced enough to attempt intergalactic space travel would rather utilise their resources to upload all their consciousnesses into a large supercomputer which would simulate a virtual reality of unlimited pleasurable experiences – a heaven of sorts.
As appealing as the idea of colonisation of the universe may seem, one can easily argue that eternal bliss would be far more desirable. Today, the question for us is not of whether uploading consciousness will be a possibility, but of when this possibility will be realised; and more importantly, how the human race decides to utilise it.
-Contributed by Prithviraj
Picture Credits: wired.com