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The 2014 movie Transcendence explores a collection of Sci Phi ideas including the technological singularity, artificial intelligence, uploading a consciousness and immortality. We are going to look at the idea of uploading a mind and what theories of mind might be compatible with this idea. Specifically we look at Type Identity and Token Identity theories.
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What would it mean to be able to upload your mind and live on in a computer? We will look at that question on this episode of the Sci Phi Show
The 2014 movie Transcendence explores a collection of Sci Phi ideas including the technological singularity, artificial intelligence, uploading a consciousness and immortality. We are interested in the idea of uploading a mind in this episode but we will have to return to some of the other ideas in future episodes. The films main character, Dr Will Caster, played by Johnny Depp, is a scientist trying to create an artificial intelligence. He is opposed by the comicall named R.I.F.T, or “Revolutionary Independence From Technology” and surprisingly technologically adept neo-luddite group that assassinates Dr Caster with the aid of a polonium laced bullet in an effort to stop his A.I research. Dr Caster’s wife, Evelyn comes up with a radical plan to save her husband by uploading his consciousness to the quantum computer built for the A.I. project. This succeeds and he is given a new lease on life, re-instantiated on the computer. This leads to a massive expansion in his intelligence and a series of struggles and challenges as the new A.I. builds a technological Eden in the desert. Strangely, “magic man who can cure all that ails you” seems not to draw much of a crowd. Things spiral out of control and the government seeks to destroy the new techno-utopia and with the aid of R.I.F.T develops a computer virus capable of destroying the Caster A.I. This ends in a large if futile battle and the A.I sacrificing itself to save the world. It is a strange film and somewhat goofy in places but it does have good sci phi ideas.
So what would it mean if you could upload a consciousness the way Dr Caster does? This is one of those deep questions in philosophy that touches on the nature of mind and its relation to the body. There are a number of different schools of thought on the nature of the mind but the one that interests us here is known as type physicalism. The basic idea of type physcalism is that the mind and the brain are identical in some deep sense, that the function of the mind can be reduced to some sort of brain activity. For example, what a person experiences as pain will be reducible to the firing of C-fibers, a type of nerve. There are a number of different approaches within physicalism to this problem but we are just going to explore two today. These are type-identity theory, token-identity theory and functionalism. Each theory has some strengths and weaknesses, but they are distinct from other theories of mind because of their attempted reductionism and they are incompatible and an alternative to the various flavors of Dualism.
The first of these theories, type identity theory claims that a particular type of mental event will have an identity relationship with a particular type of brain event. For example when I have the experience of seeing the colour red, when I have that mental state, then that will correspond identically with some state of my brain, either a part of my brain or the whole thing. All conscious experience will be able to be categorized into different brain states. This idea runs into a couple of fairly serious problems and becomes difficult to maintain. The basic problem is one of neuro-plasticity. If I suffer a brain injury it is possible for my brain to rewire itself and use other areas of the brain to compensate for the injured area and restore some lost functionality. If type-identity theory is correct then this should be impossible. If my brain cannot get into a state due to damage then it should be impossible for me to experience that mental state again. This objection may not be fatal, after all, how do I know the states experiences are identical? It is possible I couldn’t tell the difference if they were close enough but subtly different. Still, it seems like this is a problem. There is a deeper problem. What does it mean for me to be in the brain state “I believe London is the Capital of England”? Are our brain states identical because the mental state would seem to be identical in some deep sense as the information is the same. This gets even more problematic if you were to consider other conscious forms of life. The theory either needs to become species specific, “Human mental state X is identical to human brain state Y” and “Venusian mental state X is identical to Venusian mental state Y”, but then you can reasonably ask why a person who is 10 would have identical brain states to a person who is 20 or 50, and even further, why should the same person at 10, 20 or 50 have identical brain states. This will also cause problems for Dr Caster because it seems difficult to say that Dr Caster running on a squishy chunk of meat can be identical to Dr Caster instantiated on a Quantum Computer. One of the concerns raised in the film is that that Will on the computer isn’t the Will that they knew and loved but something else entirely. On type-identity theory this seems to be a conclusion that is difficult to escape.
This brings us to token identity theory which would seem to solve this difficulty of Type-Identity theory by proposing that the token of a particular mental event is identical with a token of a brain state, but that particular mental events are multiply realizable. My brain state corresponds to a mental state but more than one brain state can be the same as a particular mental state, so even if the brain rewires itself over time, the tokens still match. By way of analogy, consider a hard drive on your computer. The same information can be stored in many different sections of the file system and can even be copied to different storage media that is nothing to do with rotating magnetic platters and yet still be the same information.
This difference between type and token theories of mind and identity seem to be at the heart of the concern that the film revolves around. Is Will Castor still Will Castor even if his mind had been instantiated on a quantum computer instead of a biological brain. It seems difficult to conclude that the type identity theorist could conclude that they are because there would seem to be no way that the type of brain state could keep its identity relationship after the transfer. The token identity theorist would still be open to the possibility. The film in the end comes down on the side of Will Castor still being Will Castor in some significant sense.
There are a number of objections to these two theories of mind but probably the most basic one is a phenomena known as qualia. Qualia are the “what it is like to experience something” aspect of a mental state. There is the experience of seeing red or the experience of seeing Beethoven that doesn’t seem to be reducible to the firing of neural hardware. The philosopher Frank Jackson proposed a thought experiment to make this idea clear. Imagine a woman, Mary, who lived her entire life in a black and white environment, she has the ability to perceive colour but the nature of her environment is such that she never actually does. Now imagine that Mary learns everything it is possible to learn about the function of vision, how it works in the brain, the function of the eyes, everything, in as much detail as it is possible to know this. There is nothing that Mary doesn’t understand about the biology, chemistry and physics of colour vision. Now, imagine someone shows Mary a red ball, the first experience of red in her entire life. Does she learn anything new? If the physicalist is right and all mental functions can be reduced to physical states the answer should be no, she already understands everything it is possible to understand. Yet this seems like a strange conclusion to draw and that experience of redness, that Quale, is something new she learns at that point. If she does learn something new then it isn’t possible to reduce mental events purely to physical processes, something is missing in such a description.
So would you upload your mind into a computer? Would you take a chance on this life extension process? It is a sort of immortality, but you will still be vulnerable to the heat death of the universe itself if nothing else, although I suppose it would give you time to work on the problem. There is the concerning thought that it would just be a copy of you on the computer, that you would remain behind in your body but perhaps that is unavoidable and a copy is all that can be made. Author David Hallquist wrote an interesting story exploring some of these possibilities in his short story The Quantum Process that appears in Issue #2 of Sci Phi Journal. Would you take this uploading process if it was offered to you or do you think it wouldn’t be you on the computer but someone or something else? Would you want too? I wonder what the experience of being instantiated on computer hardware like that would be like. The speeds you would be able to access information at, the possibilities for scaling your mind across multiple processing systems. The brain is already known to operate in parallell, who knows what possibilities there are for scaling this up with more hardware?
If you enjoyed this discussion and love Sci Phi, grab a copy of our new Magazine Sci Phi Journal. You can find it on Amazon, Smashwords and from Castallia and house and in this issue we have a discussion of Star Trek’s attitude to Utopias from David Kyle Johnson along with great stories and articles. You can find it at Sciphijournal.com or from the links in the show notes. As usual, you can find more information on the ideas contained in this episode in the show notes on sciphishow.com. I can be reached with comments via email@example.com and love getting mail, you can leave comment in the show notes at sciphishow.com and you can also leave comments on our Facebook page Facebook.com/sciphishow, you can also follow the show via thesciphishow on twitter. If you do enjoy the show please go over to our Facebook page and click like. If there is a topic you would like me to look into please don”t hesitate to ask. And don’t forget, it’s Phi with a P H.
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