A Transhuman Conundrum: Uploading Your Consciousness

By Erin Biba

This week we’re taking a look at the ethics of enhancing ourselves. We’ll present you with a series of ethical conundrums brought about by entirely possible future transhuman modifications and you can argue the ethics in the comments. We’ll have to face these questions eventually, might as well get started now. Are you pro or con superhumans?

The scenario: Well, the singularity is here. Computers have surpassed humans in terms of processing power and level of intelligence. But the machines aren’t totally evil. They’re open to letting humankind upload their minds into the collective consciousness and live on as digital beings. You’ll have to give up your body, though. Still, it’s a small price to pay. Your knee has never been right since you tweaked it playing football in high school anyway. Plus: immortality! What do you do?

Image credit: Final Moments of Karl Brant

How Realistic is This?

Ok, this one is a bit of a leap. We’re nowhere near uploading our entire minds into a computer, depending on who you ask. But there are definitely some folks working on figuring out how to do it. Earlier this year, famous futurist (and director of engineering at Google) Ray Kurzweil said a conservative estimate would have us uploading our brains into a computer by 2045. And, hey, if Google says it will happen there’s no reason to think it’s not possible. Though, in the same speech he also said the singularity would be upon us by 2100. So, grain of salt. Others argue uploading our brains may actually never be possible at all.

The Ethical Conundrum

You’re going to have to decide how much you like your body and want to hang on to it. Once you upload your consciousness there’s very likely no going back. You also have no idea what to expect from living inside a computer, which means you’ll have to accept the fact that your very idea of consciousness might change once you’ve become fully digital. If your friends and family aren’t uploading themselves you’ll also have to decide if you’re willing to give up your current way of interacting with them. Or accept the fact that you may never see them again. But if the singularity has already happened, then you’ll get the added benefit of being smarter, faster, and better than a human.

Photo credit: CBS Home Video

What the Ethicists Say

There isn’t a whole lot of legitimate writing on the ethics of uploading the brain. But those considering it often point to The Ship of Theseus, or Theseus’s Paradox, which goes something like this (excerpt from Logical Paradoxes):

Theseus is remembered in Greek mythology as the slayer of the Minotaur. For years, the Athenians had been sending sacrifices to be given to the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull beast who inhabited the labyrinth of Knossos. One year, Theseus braved the labyrinth, and killed the Minotaur.

The ship in which he returned was long preserved. As parts of the ship needed repair, it was rebuilt plank by plank. Suppose that, eventually, every plank was replaced; would it still have been the same ship? A strong case can be made for saying that it would have been: When the first plank was replaced, the ship would still have been Theseus’ ship. When the second was replaced, the ship would still have been Theseus’ ship. Changing a single plank can never turn one ship into another. Even when every plank had been replaced, then, and no part of the original ship remained, it would still have been Theseus’ ship.

Suppose, though, that each of the planks removed from Theseus’ ship was restored, and that these planks were then recombined to once again form a ship. Would this have been Theseus’ ship? Again, a strong case can be made for saying that it would have been: this ship would have had precisely the same parts as Theseus’ ship, arranged in precisely the same way.

If this happened, then it would seem that Theseus had returned from Knossos in two ships. First, there would have been Theseus’ ship that has had each of its parts replaced one by one. Second, there would have been Theseus’ ship that had been dismantled, restored, and then reassembled. Each of them would have been Theseus’ ship.

Theseus, though, sailed in only one ship. Which one?

In other words, if we upload our consciousness into a computer, removing our physical brain and body from the equation entirely, are we still human? At this point you have to ask, what makes us human? Another nearly impossible question to answer -- though some argue it’s our intelligence and creativity. According to The American Museum of Natural History, our brains play the biggest role:

All species on Earth, including humans, are unique. Yet our intelligence and creativity go well beyond those of any other animal. Humans have long communicated through language, created and appreciated art and music, and invented complex tools that have enabled our species to survive and thrive, though often at the expense of other species.

We owe our creative success to the human brain and its capacity to think symbolically. While some other species can solve problems and communicate with each other, only humans use symbols to re-create the world mentally and dream up endless new realities. Although humans have not lost their selfish motivations, symbolic thought has opened our minds to spirituality and a shared sense of empathy and morality.

Will we still be capable of these things once we’re inside the machine? And do we care? Maybe by the time we upload ourselves being human don't be so important anymore. It will be time to evolve beyond that.

So what say you? Should we leave our fragile bodies behind and embark on a brave new world of consciousness inside the computer? Or will uploading our minds make us lose everything that makes us human? Discuss!