Welcome back, Geeks! I missed you. And I missed talking about the implications of our advancing technology when it comes to copying, uploading, or transferring our human consciousness into alternate receptacles.
(No idea what I’m talking about? Well, then you shouldn’t show up at the last article in a 4-part series without reading The Introduction, Variation One, and Variation Two first. Go ahead and go check those out. We’ll wait.)
Back? Good. Now, for those of you who haven’t been sleeping through class up until this point, we’re onto the final variation of Alternate Consciousness. The same rules as the previous articles apply: there are no spoilers about Altered Carbon in the article itself, but the comments are fair game. We might not even really reference Altered Carbon in this article because we covered that technology in Variation Two. Instead, we’re moving on to Variation Three. My favorite, and quite possibly the darkest of the variations in science fiction to date….
Variation Three is the idea that a human consciousness can be saved, programmed, or stored — and then uploaded into literally any hard drive with enough processing power.
Isn’t that just delicious with implications and potential? A human mind being able to upload itself into anything? Your favorite MMO? Boom. Live action and even more real than VR. You want to learn to fly a plane? Bam. You’re the plane now, baby. Who needs flesh and bones? I want to be a tank. Like, a literal tank.
No robot is going to take away my job when I can just BE THE ROBOT.
Obviously, this idea has been covered before, but in my experience most examples are likely to fall into Variations One and Two, because the receptacles are still partially human, or at least human-like enough not to stretch the imagination beyond recommended parameters. But every now and again you come across a film or game that decides to take it further. Neuromancer, Tron, and Transcendence are pretty good examples of this, though in Neuromancer the character still has a flesh-and-blood body alive, and it’s only implied that he could survive in the digital world without that. The Matrix could count, too, but that technology and universe is such a different, bigger kettle of fish that I think we better save for another article. Or you can read one of the millions of articles that have already been written on it. Your choice.
However, out of all the looks at Variation Three currently available, I think that SOMA by Frictional Games is the best example in modern media.
Without going into any spoilers, I’m going to tell you that SOMA is literally one of my favorite games of all time and probably the first one that made me question what it is to be human. It’s available right now, and whatever they’re charging for it is probably worth it. Give it a shot.
Now, any time I’ve ever tried to talk about Variation Three to someone, I’m inevitably stopped and asked, “What’s the difference between a human mind in a computer body and straight-up artificial intelligence?” And the answer is — you tell me. Does being born into a flesh-and-blood body make your mind or reasoning any different than a fully-aware AI without a physical form? Especially if there’s a very real possibility that your ever-evolving mind was transferred into a mechanical body as soon as your squishy little head survived the “One Year” mark and started threatening to topple down stairs?
Is that really the only thing that separates humanity from artificial intelligence? The idea that, at one point, humanity was tied to blood? Is that humanity still applicable after the original body dies and you stop using organic material? Hell, why would ANYONE use organic material for their bodies after the first one? It would be a lot easier to design and manufacture bodies that are innately better at certain tasks. (Note: we discussed most of this in Variation Two, so I’m not going to repeat all of those details here. Let’s move on to new potentials and implications).
Besides the other things that we already discussed in Variations One and Two (teleportation, immortality, upgrades and parts customization, the concept of a soul) the biggest thing that makes Variation Three different from any of those that come before it is that, when your mind can be uploaded to anything, which includes the web and the entire digital universe therein, and does not need a link to any sort of physical hardware. If that’s the case, there’s really not a lot of reason to be in the real world anymore, is there? We’ve already started playing with virtual reality in real life, and the minute our ability to transfer our consciousness into VR becomes available, that technology is going to skyrocket with what we can do and explore when inside various programs. And if you’re telling me that people wouldn’t spend that much time inside virtual worlds and games, then I’m going to point out that your parents and grandparents said the exact same thing about computers (and later smart phones) when they first showed up.
If we have the technology to put our minds anywhere that can even be thought of, we’re going to do it as often as we possibly can. It’s just how we work.
And why wouldn’t we develop in that manner? If you can be immortal in a perfected virtual reality of your making, why would you ever want to upload your consciousness into a flesh or metal suit that can go walk around outside? If you can meet and discuss anything with anyone by way of the internet, what is the point of holding tea parties? Actually, if your consciousness can be placed in anything at any time, why would you even still have physical bodies at all? Food, sustenance, sleep. These things would become obsolete. Your mind would have infinitely more time to explore, create, become, learn, develop, and so much more—and still the whole of its knowledge and its creations could fit onto a microchip. Even now we have the capabilities to create entire worlds and universes in digital form, and we can put all of that onto a USB. So imagine that you can put yourself onto that USB, too.
Explore every facet of that reality you’ve created. Then hook it up to the internet and explore trillions of other realities and worlds without ever leaving your… home? Would we still have homes and houses in this existence? Why would you need to buy anything other than a server connection? Are you really going to use that dining room table? Two bed, two bath? Seems excessive since you have a mansion in your VR. In the real world, you’d really only an outlet, right?
I’m serious. After we reach this level of technology, I don’t see a lot of reason why people would spend any of their time in the real world. Even if the world outside your VR (would it still be considered virtual reality if it’s exactly as virtual as your own consciousness is?) had a mechanical body to move around in, why would you need to move around? You wouldn’t need to eat anymore. Breathable air is no longer a prerequisite for your habitat. Physical necessities are no longer a problem. Why would you want to walk around in the real world when a perfect replica of it (and then infinite worlds beyond that) would be available somewhere on the internet? Possibly improved with less bugs or softer sunlight? Why would you go to Rome in the real world when you can see an exact-replica of the current ruins and then blink your eyes and watch a digital version of the original colosseum rebuild itself in all its glory?
I suppose you might have to use the mechanical body to access and install hardware upgrades for whatever processor your virtual mind is in, but if the world you’ve installed for yourself is a self-contained existence, even that wouldn’t require much from the outside world.
Maybe I’m not giving enough credit to humanity when I think about what we’d do with this level of consciousness transference. I mean, of course there would still be people who’d want to experience the real world in ways we haven’t already. There are going to be people that would put their own consciousness into a rocket ship to see first-hand what lies beyond the stars or into a submarine to find out what else is hiding in the depths. There would still be explorers and entrepreneurs — people who want to see what no one else has seen first-hand, instead of creating something no one else has created in a digital format.
Even these real-world tasks, though, would make more sense using mechanical bodies specialized for the job instead of human flesh-and-blood bodies. Even those people that were not in the virtual reality world we would inevitably create for ourselves would still not be completely human.
Which brings us back to the original question: What is humanity? If a mind is born in a human body, is it a human mind for the rest of its existence? When do we stop being human and start being AI?
A mind born into a human body. Born. That’s another big question. In a world where we can transfer our consciousness to anything, even if we choose to stay away from the enormously tempting idea of living in virtual reality for most of our existence, I assume that, for liability purposes alone, most jobs would require people to be in mechanical (read: repairable) bodies all the time (if it’s not a job that can be done purely through the server and thus not have to have a physical workplace at all). Why would anyone still have a flesh-and-blood body after they turn eighteen? Or even eight? How many years of this before there are no flesh-and-blood bodies left at all? And then, how would we procreate? Would we even still want or need to procreate if we’re immortal ourselves? Or would the technology adapt further so that a fetus can be grown inside a mechanical body? Or just cloned in a lab? If we consider lab-cloned babies real babies, can we then say that artificially-created offspring in the virtual world are also as real as the virtual-mind parents that formed them?
What’s the difference between AI and human consciousness?
The bottom line for all variations of transferable or alternate consciousness remains the same:
What makes us human?
See, everyone? I told you that would be fun. And I’m super grateful to the other ambassadors here at The Geek Embassy for trusting me with such an ambitious series of articles for my first run. I don’t think anyone expected me to go that far off the deep-end with my first article series ever. If they decide to keep me around going forward, then I think we’ll have a less heavy (but no less important) look at geekdom next time. If you’ve got something specific you want to talk about, let me know in the comments below.
Make sure you also go to the comments to tell me what you thought about my first series and what I can do to better serve your needs here at the Embassy. Also tell me what you think I got wrong, what I missed completely, or what you think I hit right on the nose. If you’ve got anything else you want to talk about, throw that out too.
Until next time! 😉
Tahani Nelson is a “Geek of All Trades.” She’s dabbled in pretty much everything, but holds a special place in her heart (and schedule) for video and tabletop games. Other interests include attending Renaissance Faires and Cons in full dress, practicing calligraphy, writing fantasy novels, discussing comparative philosophy and morality, and apparently listening with a blank smile on her face anytime someone tries to convince her that Magic: The Gathering is as much fun as D&D.