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Homepage / Food For Thought / Death By Instalments

Quote from Star Trek, the Next Generation:
Graves: "I'll tell you a little secret, sonny. I don't really believe I will be dying. I believe I've learned how to transfer my great intellect into the machine, thus cheating the Grim Reaper of his greatest prize."
- The Schizoid Man, Stardate 42

Peter Cochrane
The journey had been uneventful as we drove the family down from Nottingham towards Ipswich on the great north road. I turned to my wife and said......

"Let's play a mind experiment. Suppose, I was dying of an incurable disease and all my mental faculties were complete, and you had the opportunity of transferring all of my mental awareness and capability into a computer. Would you do it?"

"Oh no," was the response. "It would not be you, it wouldn't be real and it would be artificial, I wouldn't like that at all."

"Oh! Well, suppose the transfer of me was into an android, a human like machine that had all the ambulatory and tactile qualities of me the real person, how would that do?"

"Oh no that would still not be you, that still wouldn't be real and I wouldn't like it at all, what a horrible thought!"

"OK, suppose in 10 minutes we have an accident and I lose my leg and have to have a tin leg fitted, could you get used to me with a tin leg?"

"Oh yes that would be OK."

"And if in a few years I was to lose an arm, you could live with me with a tin leg and a tin arm?"

"Yes that would be all right."

"Even if that leg and arm were more that just a piece of tin, suppose technology had reached the point where it felt and looked like real skin and it was fully functional?"

"Oh that would be even better!"

"Interesting. Then if I was to have a pace maker you would be happy with that?"

"Yes."

"Plus an artificial kidney?"

"Yes."

"How about an artificial pancreas, after all they are now experimenting with prototypes and it won't be too long before we will be able to afford one?"

"Well I suppose that would be OK too."

"Now at the University of Sheffield there is Professor working on artificial eyes, these are totally electronic. Who knows, one day they might be implantable, so as my eyes fail if I have to have my eyes repaired with electronic replacements would that be OK?"

"Well, I suppose so."

"I noticed the other day that Jack Ashley the MP had an electronic inner ear fitted to restore his hearing after many years of being deaf, so I suppose if my ears fail you will be quite happy to see me with an electronic ear?"

"Well yes."

"Suppose my liver fails and I have to replace this too?"

"Well OK."

"My stomach and my spleen and ...... "

"Just a minute, I am not having you dying by instalments!"

"Well at what point are you going to say it is not me inhabiting this amalgam of flesh, blood, metal and electronics, at what point is it not me? Is it when we make the final step of transferring my biologically developed brain to an electronically developed brain? Is that the break point when it isn't me?"

"I don't know, but I don't like it and if I had the choice I wouldn't do it!"

"So lets just scroll this experiment back a little, at what point would I be acceptable to you? You have already said that you would accept me with a prosthetic arm and leg and pancreas and heart, etc."

"It is not something I want to think about any more!"

This discussion was a re run of an earlier mind experiment I had tried with my mother some years after my father had died. I had suggested to her that we might have been able, in the future, to have lifted his very consciousness from his frail and dying body, that was just able to support a still fully functional and very active brain into some super computer. Similarly, she objected quite vehemently at the very thought of transferring a loved one into a machine form. Interestingly my reaction to the proposal was that I would have done anything to have maintained contact with that intellect, that being, that person who had first initiated my life. That entity that had nurtured, taught and loved me from the moment I was born until we finally said good-bye. His physical manifestation mattered less to me than his very great loss. I would have done anything to have maintained contact with him in whatever form. Unfortunately I never had the courage to ask of him in his dying years the same question and which decision would he have made. I suppose as I age this question will be a re-occurring one and who knows it might even become pertinent to me. If not pertinent for me, then it will certainly be pertinent for my son or my son's son or whoever. At some point in the development of our technology it is almost certainly going to be the case that we will be able to transfer human minds, and beings, into some machine form. At our present rate of progress less than 20 years will see super computers with an equivalent processing and storage capability to the human brain. Granted they will be physically larger and probably have no ambulatory capability, but this is just a start. Within 30 years the development of such machines should have reached our desk top or even pocket. Whether such machines will be capable of supporting new life forms, or imbibing existing ones, remains to be seem. Probably the key challenge is the understanding and access to the human mind itself. We do not understand how the human brain works as we have not yet unravelled its unbelievable complexity. Perversely, with the assistance of super computers, it might be possible for us to create sufficiently good models to achieve a full understanding.

What kind of world will it be where no one ever has to die, or for that matter suffer unbearable sickness and failure of health? A world where we can live inside a static machine, communications network or inhabit some android or robotic form? The answer of course is totally different to what we have experienced so far. Probably the only inkling we are able to gain of what might be possible, is currently available through the use of virtual reality. Experiments with the incredibly shrinking scientist, able to wander around atomic structures and feel the forces combining the nucleus and electron by merely putting out their hand at one extreme and at the other, our ability to wander throughout the galaxies and tamper with the influence of black holes in a virtual cosmos. Being able to go anywhere and do anything at any time and any place will soon be with us through the magic of telepresence, VR and tremendously increased computing powers and an ability to communicate over vast distances at virtually zero cost. The next logical step is the transfer of mind itself into machines away from all the limitations imposed on us by our present biological form and that of our currently limited electronics. A billion fold increase in computer power, coupled with a similar increase in communications ability and information storage, looks likely to be realised in 30 years. Perhaps our only chance of making full use of such technology is to become an integral part of that technology itself! The advantages are almost unthinkable.

Space and time travel would be conceivable over eons - vast distances and time - certainly into the future. However the reverse direction is still in doubt! Multiple branch point decisions, multiple lives, multiple experiences - duplicate copies of ourselves, back up copies at regular intervals pending any form of disaster - true time capsules, perhaps forever would all be possible. We could be everything, be everywhere, be everyone, experience everything! No disease in the conventional sense, but software bugs, viruses and parasites threatening our multiple lives perhaps! A computer storage and capacity shortage - instantaneous teleportation by radio and light beams. Beyond the moon in 2 second, the sun in 8 minutes, the galaxy in 100,000 years.......

Perhaps sex would take on a new form - the merging of our new entities, the coming together, not through the transient physical coupling of two nervous systems, but through the merging of two compete bodies of intelligence and experience. Ultimately. Perhaps even the merging of all human life forms into a single ethereal being supported by an organic hardware with both growing and developing like some cosmic jellyfish, Or perhaps as a wave of energy propagating throughout the universe looking for a host machine or entity - perhaps even seeking others of a similar nature. Could it be the very creation of the ultimate life force - a oneness throughout all of time and space? Let there be light, but the really super computer first!