When you’re electronically immortal, will you still own your own mind?

Most of my blogs about immortality have been about the technology mechanism – adding external IT capability to your brain, improving your intelligence or memory or senses by using external IT connected seamlessly to your brain so that it feels exactly the same, until maybe, by around 2050, 99% of your mind is running on external IT rather than in the meat-ware in your head. At no point would you ‘upload’ your mind, avoiding needless debate about whether the uploaded copy is ‘you’. It isn’t uploaded, it simply grows into the new platform seamlessly and as far as you are concerned, it is very much still you. One day, your body dies and with it your brain stops, but no big problem, because 99% of your mind is still fine, running happily on IT, in the cloud. Assuming you saved enough and prepared well, you connect to an android to use as your body from now on, attend your funeral, and then carry on as before, still you, just with a younger, highly upgraded body. Some people may need to wait until 2060 or later until android price falls enough for them to afford one. In principle, you can swap bodies as often as you like, because your mind is resident elsewhere, the android is just a temporary front end, just transport for sensors. You’re sort of immortal, your mind still running just fine, for as long as the servers carry on running it. Not truly immortal, but at least you don’t cease to exist the moment your body stops working.

All very nice… but. There’s a catch.

The android you use would be bought or rented. It doesn’t really matter because it isn’t actually ‘you’, just a temporary container, a convenient front end and user interface. However, your mind runs on IT, and because of the most likely evolution of the technology and its likely deployment rollout, you probably won’t own that IT; it won’t be your own PC or server, it will probably be part of the cloud, maybe owned by AWS, Google, Facebook, Apple or some future equivalent. You’re probably already seeing the issue. The small print may give them some rights over replication, ownership, license to your idea, who knows what? So although future electronic immortality has the advantage of offering a pretty attractive version of immortality at first glance, closer reading of the 100 page T&Cs may well reveal some nasties. You may in fact no longer own your mind. Oh dear!

Suppose you are really creative, or really funny, or have a fantastic personality. Maybe the cloud company could replicate your mind and make variations to address a wide range of markets. Maybe they can use your mind as the UX on a new range of home-help robots. Each instance of you thinks they were once you, each thinks they are now enslaved to work for free for a tech company.

Maybe your continued existence is paid for as part of an extended company medical plan. Maybe you didn’t notice a small paragraph on page 93 that says your company can continue to use your mind after you’re dead. You are very productive and they make lots of profit from you. They can continue that by continuing to run your mind indefinitely. The main difference is that since you’re dead, and no longer officially on the payroll, they get you for free. You carry on, still thinking you’re you, still working, still doing what you do, but no longer being paid. You’ve become a slave. Again.

Maybe your kids paid to keep you alive because they don’t want to say goodbye. They still want their parent, so you carry on living just so they don’t feel alone. Doesn’t sound so bad maybe, but what package did they go for? The full deluxe super-expensive version that lets you do all sorts of expensive stuff and use up oodles of processing power and storage and android rental? Let’s face it, that’s what you’ve always though this electronic immortality meant. Or did they go for a cheaper one. After all, they know you know they have kids or grand-kids in school that need paid for, and homes don’t come cheap, and they really need that new kitchen. Sure, you left them lots of money in the will, but that is already spent. So now you’re on the economy package, bare existence in between them chatting to you, unable to do much on your own at all. All those dreams about living forever in cyber-heaven have come to nothing.

Meanwhile, some rich people paid for good advice and bought their own kit and maintenance agreements well ahead. They can carry on working, selling their services and continuing to pay for ongoing deluxe existence.  They own their own mind still, and better than that, are able to replicate instances of themselves as much as thy want, inhabiting many androids at the same time to have a ball of a time. Some of these other instances are connected, sort of part of a hive mind of you. Others, just for fun, have been cut loose and are now living totally independent existences of other yous. Not you any more once you set them free, but with the same personal history.

What I’m saying is you need to be careful when you plan  to live forever. Get it right, and you can live in deluxe cyber-heaven, hopping into the real world as much as you like and living in unimaginable bliss online. Have too many casual taster sessions, use too much fully integrated mind-sharing social media, sign up to employment arrangements or go on corporate jollies without fully studying the small print and you could stay immortal, unable to die, stuck forever as just a corporate asset, a mere slave. Be careful what you wish for, and check the details before you accept it. You don’t want to end up as just an unpaid personality behind a future helpful paperclip.

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48 responses to “When you’re electronically immortal, will you still own your own mind?

  1. Very refreshing ideas. Thank you!

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  3. Comment on behalf of Robin Helweg-Larsen One thought: the extension of the mind into external accessories will certainly help processing power, but will it be able to transfer all the accumulated memories that are the heart of our personality? If you lose the original body, how much of the memory (and therefore personality) will be lost? Indeed, where is memory stored? What if it isn’t just in the brain, but (for example) in all the “junk DNA” in every cell of the body?

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    • Way back in 1991, I had a good idea for stimulating memory recall while people are asleep, which actually requires similar tech to a full direct brain link. By stimulating each area of the brain electronically, it is possible to cause recall of the associated memory – that was done actually around then by a neuroscience researcher, electronically stimulating point 21 on the right temporal lobe if I recall correctly. . Doing that would cause that part of your memory to be copied into external kit, without creating an identity issues. So you could gradually make sure that your memories also exist on the external kit. I guess that would equate to an extremely slow download, but I don’t think trying to do the whole brain at once would work.

      As for the junk DNA, some work has been done on memory inheritance, but it seemed not to be very convincing. Instinct is presumably stored in DNA, but probably not memories you make during your life. Other molecules and proteins are able to transfer between generations too, so there is some scope there, but again I haven’t yet seen any convincing results. If I see anything in areas like that, I’d normally tweet it because I’d see its importance right away, but I haven’t.

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  21. That isn’t immortality. Electronics will never provide what biology does and to call the ideas “immortality” is a simplistic re-imaging of what immortality truly is. It would be nothing more than data with a mediocre-at-best emulation of personality. All in all, a pipe dream.

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    • What evidence is there that electronics can never do what biology does? Biology doesn’t use magic, it uses the same natural elements, physics & chemistry available to engineers to understand and work with, and in very many cases, engineers come up with solutions that work better than their natural inspirations. It is entirely feasible to create future platforms that can offer similar or superior functionality to the brain, and to expect them to exist by 2050. To assert that it would be ‘nothing more than …’ reflects only your own views of how it might be implemented, not mine or any other engineer’s. Even if it does turn out to be more difficult or there is really no other way to solve the problem than to use biological processes and materials, bio-engineering could still do that, just further in the future. Synthetic biology isn’t as mature as other engineering branches yet, but it will get there. Either way, it is feasible, and the only real question is timescale. I’ll stick with 2050 until new evidence suggests otherwise.

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    • That depends on whether or not the uploaded data develops self-awareness. If it does, that new entity might well be immortal, but there would be a break in the awareness between the original meat person, who presumably will die, and the “e-person” who carries on. The meat person will have a funeral, and the e-person might well attend, and be convinced that he or she (or it) will in fact be the continuation of the deceased. Or possibly it will never lose the feeling that it is a fake.

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      • It isn’t a copy or a download of your mind, it is a gradual extension of ‘brain space’ into the cloud that allows part of your mind to run there instead of in the brain. Over time, more and more is cloud-resident, and less and less dependent on your brain. Your death would mean only a small drop in total, like a minor stroke I guess. The structures and architecture in the cloud platform need of course to be compatible, but I think that is entirely feasible.

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  32. Is there any practical attempt on achieving and being immortal, or merely some (empty) theories and assumptions?

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    • The 2045 Project is the biggest effort I believe. Obviously they believe they can achieve something along these lines in 2045. Allowing for FDA approval etc, that adds at least another 5 years so they’d also go with 2050 for first commercial availability I guess. I wouldn’t be dismissive though. It’s easy and tempting to casually dismiss other engineer’s and scientist’s work as ’empty theories and assumptions’ without any evidence, (happens to me all the time) but usually if you take the time to talk to the people doing the work, you find they know a lot more than you assumed, and very often far more than you do yourself. Few engineers work on projects without a high degree of competence and usually aren’t attempting to do something in ways that can’t work, so it isn’t reasonable to assume they are idiots. In this field, there is a lot of well-founded work going on across a very diverse set of fields, aiming at very diverse goals, that will provide a wonderful toolkit and knowledge base for immortality researchers. I don’t work in the field except tracking and analysing potential developments and consequences, and have no interest in immortality for myself, but as a 35 years experience systems engineer looking at the IT & neuroscience progress and their co-acceleration, I think 2050 is quite achievable. It might be a few years later, but the exciting thing is that it is achievable at all. I don’t see any fundamental barriers.

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  42. This is interesting post, and immortality becomes real after being discovered by Allen Omton and Serge Dobrow

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