October 14, 2011 § 1 Comment
Imagine a future in which people believe, as in so many cyberpunk stories, that they have discovered a way to transfer consciousness from an organic brain to an electronic “brain” — to a computer that performs the functions of the human brain. Such a process would be attractive for a number of reasons. Obviously, it would appear to increase the human lifespan by many orders of magnitude, stopping just short of true immortality (one must consider how such computers would be maintained over long periods of time, particularly as the Earth itself neared the end of its life). However, if consciousness could be uploaded to a computer, it could also presumably be transferred between computers as well; by embedding a computer in either an organic body or a mechanical body with an organic covering (a la The Terminator), it would be possible for people to essentially manufacture their ideal, custom-designed bodies and then transfer their consciousness to said bodies. People born without the ability to walk could transfer themselves into a body with that ability; people horribly disfigured in an accident could restore themselves to their previous state by creating a copy of their previous selves and transferring their consciousness into that copy; people unsatisfied with cosmetic aspects of their appearance could change them more or less at will. From plastic surgery to heart surgery, the field of altering the human body would be superseded by the field of manufacturing the human body.
And yet we could never know with certainty whether or not the “consciousness” produced by a computer was actual consciousness or merely a simulation of it, and even if it were true consciousness, that would not guarantee that the computer’s consciousness was actually that of the person who was scanned into it.
Suppose my mind were simply copied into a computer, leaving my consciousness in my body. Then, even if the computer were to reproduce “me” perfectly, to the point of carrying out conversations in a manner indistinguishable from the way I would carry them out, it would be obvious to me that my consciousness could not actually be in the computer; I would not have control over the computer’s responses in the way I have control over the movement of my fingers. If consciousness were actually transferable from brain to computer, then, it would have to leave the brain inactive; effectively, the body from which the consciousness was transferred would have to become brain-dead. And, because the behavior of a computer that actually contained my consciousness would be indistinguishable from that of a computer that merely acted as if it contained my consciousness (as in the case of the aforementioned computer into which my mind was merely copied), an observer could never be sure that the process actually worked. Supposing the computer did produce genuine consciousness, not even the consciousness it produced could be sure that it was the same as the consciousness transferred from my brain; if it had merely received a copy of my memories while being, in itself, an entirely new instance of consciousness, it would have exactly the same set of memories as it would if it were actually the instance of consciousness that constitutes “me.” The only instance of consciousness that could know for sure whether the process worked–the only instance of consciousness that could provide empirical evidence to support the theory behind the process–would be the very one that constitutes “me,” the one in my body before the transfer. And as soon as the transfer was completed, that instance of consciousness would either be the instance in computer, and thus unable to confirm the success of the process, or it would be obliterated, and thus unable to communicate knowledge of its failure.
It is this uncertainty, this inability to obtain empirical evidence for the success of a consciousness transference process, that constitutes my proposed premise for a science fiction story. In a world in which such a process was widely used, how could anyone be sure that the people around them were really themselves? How could anyone be certain that they weren’t entirely alone?