26 October 2007

Life after death?

The idea I'm suggesting in this posting is pure speculation. I have no evidence for it, although as I will explain, I do think there are grounds for considering it somewhat plausible.

Based on our rapidly-advancing understanding of the brain, it's becoming increasingly clear that a human individual's thoughts, emotions, desires, consciousness, free will, and everything else that makes up what we call the "mind", is actually a set of highly-complex patterns of electrochemical activity performed by that individual's brain. These patterns "run" on the brain somewhat as programs run on a computer.

In theory, if an individual human brain could be scanned in enough detail and an exact simulation of that brain created in a sufficiently-powerful computer, the simulation could "run" the same mental patterns just as the organic brain did, so that that individual's mind would have been "uploaded" into the computer. When this is possible, humans will be able to become immortal for all practical purposes, since computer data can be protected from destruction or loss by several methods which are impossible with an organic brain. We would exist in virtual-reality worlds of our own design, potentially far richer in sensory experience than the physical world to which our organic selves are limited.  This concept, which I explain in more detail here, is already familiar to transhumanists and people with related interests.

Mind uploading is part of the group of technological innovations leading to the Singularity described by Ray Kurzweil and others -- the full integration of computer processing power into the human mind, after which human intelligence will reach levels trillions of times greater than what it is today. Kurzweil estimates that the Singularity will be achieved around the year 2045, but for the purposes of my discussion here, it doesn't matter how far in the future it happens.

Now here's the speculative part.

Humans have always longed to defeat death, not only because we fear our own deaths, but because we mourn the loss of others who are close to us. Anti-aging treatments will probably free us from the curse of a limited lifespan within a couple of decades, and later on, mind uploading will make us effectively immortal. But such technology will be of no benefit to people who have already died before it becomes available. Or will it?

What if it turns out to be possible to perform the kind of precision brain-scanning I mentioned above on brains which have already died and decomposed? This would require the ability to detect and record information which does not exist in the present, but did exist in the past. I can't suggest any method by which this might be done, nor give any evidence that it will ever even be possible. But the minds of post-Singularity humans will be to our minds as our minds are to those of insects. We today are simply in no position to declare any limits on what the post-Singularity civilization will be able to achieve. And the motivation will be there. The people of that time will mourn loved ones who died too soon just as much as people today do -- perhaps even more, given their intensified state of consciousness.

If such a thing can be accomplished in the future, then every human being who ever lived will indeed be offered the possibility of eternal life after death -- not in the insipid Heaven of religious fantasy, but in the trillionfold-richer infinity of Heavens which our own enhanced minds will create.

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8 Comments:

Blogger PhillyChief said...

It's a fascinating idea, one that pops up in Sci Fi a lot. I guess it would really kill the cremation business. ;)

11 November, 2007 08:57  
Blogger John Evo-Mid said...

Some interesting things to contemplate:

Would our entire "physical live" then be little more than an extended childhood, since the exponential advancement of intellect could only occur AFTER "death" of the body and transformation into an eternal consciousness?

Would it be more of a metamorphosis, given my question above? The "life" that would then continue on would, from that point forward, experience everything on an entirely different quality, not solely due to the increased intellectual capacity, but also because every PHYSICAL experience we have during this life would no longer (apparently) be possible. (The consciousness would continue, but how to smell a rose or give a hug?

How would those radically advanced intelligences feel about future physical generations? Would they have cause to stop or curtail the infiltration of their society by new beings? And if the mind goes on and becomes infinity more intelligent, what about the "evil ones"? What might they be able to inflict, based on the fact that we are utterly unable to contemplate what they may be able to do?

11 November, 2007 12:26  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Interesting questions.

Would our entire "physical live" then be little more than an extended childhood

Those of us who live part of our lives before the Singularity and part thereafter (remember, I fully expect to still be around for this myself) will certainly be aware of having existed at two radically-different levels of development. If my speculation is right and a person who lived and died in, say, the tenth century can be restored to existence in the post-Singularity world, then such a person would experience an even more dramatic discontinuity and also a great deal of shock, though of course he would have both time and vastly-enhanced mental capacity with which to adjust. Whether some or all people would experience this discontinuity as being similar to the contrast between adulthood and childhood is hard to say.

The "life" that would then continue on would, from that point forward, experience everything on an entirely different quality

Actually, not so. The technology needed to make virtual-reality interactions indistinguishable from real experience will arrive considerably before the ability to upload consciousness (because the grasp of nervous-system functioning required is far less sophisticated), so by the time I'm talking about, people will already be used to spending much of their time in virtual-reality environments. We will most certainly be able "to smell a rose or give a hug", or interact with each other as we wish or have whatever other kind of experience we wish, indistinguishable to the senses from experience in the physical world -- and virtual reality will also allow us to have experiences which are not possible in the physical world, if we choose.

How would those radically advanced intelligences feel about future physical generations?

I actually think that all, or almost all, human life will migrate into virtual reality fairly soon after the Singularity is achieved. This will eliminate the issue of overpopulation, since human beings regardless of numbers will not occupy any physical space or consume any resources other than computer processing power. Presumably some people will choose to create new minds (giving rise to "new generations"), while others will not.

And if the mind goes on and becomes infinity more intelligent, what about the "evil ones"?

This is obviously a concern, but I think the capabilities of the whole society which wants to survive will always stay ahead of the capabilities of individuals and small groups which want to destroy it. When a terrorist cell can do what Porton Down can do now, Porton Down's capabilities will have grown to a similar extent, enough to thwart the new abilities of the terrorists. The same will hold true after the Singularity. I also have some hope that enhanced mental capacity will cure nihilists and fanatics of their obsessions, just as rising levels of education and intelligence have already produced a decline in religious belief, but we would be foolish to count on that.

Thanks for reading.

11 November, 2007 15:45  
Blogger John Evo-Mid said...

I have to credit you with having done your homework and for putting some real thought into this.

"This is obviously a concern, but I think the capabilities of the whole society which wants to survive will always stay ahead of the capabilities of individuals and small groups which want to destroy it."

I don't know, I still worry. Look, it's just an historical fluke that got mankind out of the 20th century alive. It's always an endless "arms race" with good and evil. To expect it to be overcome by enhanced intellect sounds "iffy" at best to me. I guess, if you're even close to being right, WE WILL SEE!

13 November, 2007 12:16  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I have to credit you with having done your homework and for putting some real thought into this.

Thanks. I've been interested in these matters for a long time.

Look, it's just an historical fluke that got mankind out of the 20th century alive.

I would disagree. I think that there are built-in factors which improve the odds of survival, and that these factors grow in importance as advancing technology increases the premium on rationality.

Take the Cold War. We survived a half-century nuclear standoff largely because the Soviet regime, while evil, was basically rational -- nuclear deterrence works very well on atheists, who are not expecting an afterlife. If the Soviet regime had been less rational -- something like a martyrdom-obsessed Islamic regime, for example -- then it would have created a much greater threat of turning the nuclear standoff into a conflict which would have destroyed the world, but it would also probably have been unable to build up its nation into a major technological (and therefore nuclear) power in the first place.

Similarly, groups that want to destroy civilization are generally operating on the basis of non-rational belief systems. The more irrational they are, the more destructive their goals are likely to be; but also, the more irrational they are, the less likely they are to be able to master sophisticated technology or outwit civilization's defenses against them.

We must obviously take every sensible precaution and not simply ignore possible threats -- that's how we've survived this long in the first place, after all. But I think our prospects are good.

To expect it to be overcome by enhanced intellect sounds "iffy" at best to me.

Remember that a present-day human is only about three times as intelligent as a chimpanzee (measuring by the brain's information-processing power). I am not so foolish as to make dogmatic predictions about what will happen when human intelligence is increased by a factor of trillions. We can't know. But the course of human development so far, which is all we have to go on, makes me optimistic.

I guess, if you're even close to being right, WE WILL SEE!

Let's plan on getting in touch 100 years from now and comparing notes.

13 November, 2007 18:48  
Blogger John Evo said...

Infidel said: "nuclear deterrence works very well on atheists, who are not expecting an afterlife."

I understand fully what you are saying here. There is still a possibility, in a wartime situation (think Hitler) where it all goes out the window. Further, and more to my own thinking when I say that it was a historical fluke - there are endless scenarios where a nuclear war could have commenced basically "by mistake". Until we have that trillion X intelligence, this will continue to stalk us.

15 November, 2007 13:15  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I would argue that these examples actually illustrate my point.

There is still a possibility, in a wartime situation (think Hitler) where it all goes out the window.

If Hitler had possessed nuclear weapons, he would certainly have used them when he was losing the war -- perhaps even if the result would clearly have been Armageddon rather than his own victory. Yet the very irrationality which guaranteed this, and which led him to escalate the conflict until defeat was inevitable (plunging into all-out war with the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and the United States all at the same time -- talk about biting off more than you can chew!) also ensured that he could not develop nuclear weapons. The history of disruptive Nazi political interference in the German atom-bomb project is well known, and fascism's insane hatred of Jews drove such giants of physics as Einstein, Fermi, and Szilard to the United States, ensuring that it would be our country and not the fascists who built the bomb first.

The more rational Soviet regime succeeded in developing nuclear weapons, but that same rationality made it too cautious to gamble everything on an all-out war against all comers the way Hitler did, much less risk Armageddon. The USSR's bombs made it a superpower, but they were never used.

there are endless scenarios where a nuclear war could have commenced basically "by mistake".

This is a common opinion, but is it really true? If there were indeed endless such scenarios, yet no such mistake happened, then it seems that random chance must have been operating in our favor at every critical juncture. That's something I don't find plausible. Both the US and the USSR took elaborate precautions to avoid unauthorized or accidental use of nuclear weapons. It seems to me most reasonable to infer that random chance sometimes worked in our favor and sometimes against us, but that these rational precautions succeeded in preventing catastrophe in the latter cases. We survived not because we were lucky enough to avoid accidents (an unlikely run of luck indeed), but rather because we were smart enough to prevent them.

15 November, 2007 20:13  
Blogger John Evo said...

It's hard for me to argue my case because you are at a distinct advantage. You are arguing from the FACTS of what has transpired, while I argue from the SPECULATION of what 'could have been'.

So I'll bite my lip and say, "you win", but with stakes like these, you only get to be wrong once! I sincerely HOPE you are right.

16 November, 2007 19:43  

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