Neuroscientist Works Toward Virtual Immortality ala Clarke

Dr. Randal Koene hopes to develop a means for replicating the human mind in code, making it possible to upload our minds to a computer. Previous efforts in this area can be seen in Will You Upload Your Mind Anytime Soon? and 'Mind Uploading' Issue Now Downloadable.


(Dr. Koene using current primitive body to gesture)

VICE: Hi, Randal. When did you first think: You know what? I'm going to try to upload my brain to a computer?

Randal Koene: When I was 13, I read Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars. Set in the far future, the citizens are immortal. There's a giant central computer that runs the city, which is able to construct and deconstruct people who are stored in memory banks. For me, this was a wonderful exploration of the idea that information is really what distinguishes us, our creations, and our thoughts from the gradual dissipation that is entropy in the universe.

The story was particularly relevant to me at the time because I was keenly interested in exploration and all manner of creative activity. The most frustrating thing was to run out of time. That was, of course, caused by my own limitations; the limited speed of thought and creation, and limited cognitive and physical abilities.

If we think of ourselves as processes interacting with information, this opens up the possibility to transcend those limitations. If you can improve yourself almost arbitrarily then you can push back all boundaries. It took quite a few years to work through those insights and desires enough times to lay bare the feasible approaches to achieving that goal. The thing that makes all of that possible is a "Substrate-Independent Mind."

What's that?

A SIM is not merely an artificial intelligence, but a re-instantiation of a specific human mind—a human mind downloaded to a computer. Neuroscientists are 99.9% percent convinced that the brain is a mechanism. It is something that computes, something that carries out functions. If you can figure out how it works, you can build a replacement for it. The idea that you can take a small piece of the brain and build a replica for it is very mainstream and well understood. Why not do that with the whole brain? And then why not upload that to a computer so that we can process more data and store it better, the way a computer does, organizing thoughts into folders that we can access whenever we choose?

Here's the essential bit from Arthur C. Clarke's 1956 novel The City and the Stars :

In the end our ancestors learned how to analyze and store the information which would define any specific human being - and to use that information to recreate the original, as you have just recreated that couch.

"I know that such things interest you, Alvin, but I cannot tell you exactly how it was done. The way in which information is stored is of no importance; all that matters is the information itself. It may be in the form of written words on paper, of varying magnetic fields, or patterns of electric charge. Men have used all these methods of storage, and many others. Suffice it to say that long ago they were able to store themselves - or, to be more precise, the disembodied patters from which they could be called back into existence.

"So much you already know. This is the way our ancestors gave us virtual immortality, yet avoided the problems raised by the abolition of death. A thousand years in one body is long enough for any man; at the end of that time, his mind is clogged with memories, and he only asks for rest - or a new beginning.

"In a little while, Alvin, I shall prepare to leave this life. I shall go back through my memories, editing them and canceling those I do not wish to keep. Then I shall walk into the Hall of Creation, but through a door you have never seen. This old body will cease to exist, and so will consciousness itself. Nothing will be left of Jeserac but a galaxy of electrons frozen in the heart of a crystal.

"I shall sleep, Alvin, and without dreams. Then one day, perhaps a hundred thousand years from now, I shall find myself in a new body, meeting those who have been chosen to be my guardians. They will look after me as Eriston and Etania have guided you, for at first I will know nothing of Diaspar and will have no memories of what I was before. Those memories will slowly return, at the end of my infancy, and I will build upon them as I move forward into my new cycle of existence.

"That is the pattern of our lives. We have all been here many, many times before... this present population will never repeat itself again...

...At any moment, Alvin, only a hundredth of the citizens of Diaspar live and walk in its streets. The vast majority sleep in the memory banks...
(Read about virtual immortality)

Read the rest of the interview at Vice.

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