This was one of the topics that I had first wanted to write about when I started this blog. I had intended to do research, quote experts, and have references to concrete examples of the kinds of things I planned to write about. I didn’t end up doing that. I have put all of that off again and again. I finally realized that those things don’t matter much to me. The details of the development of this technology are interesting, but for me it’s not about the factual reality of when these things will occur. I have no doubt that they will occur eventually. And I am not in a position to affect their development. The real importance is in the questions that these topics bring up. Whether these things happen in 30 years or 300, these are things that will need to be considered. And the sooner we do that as a species and as individuals the better. Too often momentous, course-of-history changing technologies come about without any real public discussion of the consequences of those technologies. Progress and change are inevitable and pretending they aren’t won’t make them any less so. Maybe by considering these things as individuals we will all make enough minute aggregated changes to bring this reality about sooner than it would have come about otherwise.
I would like to live as long as it is existentially satisfying to do so. I would like my death not to be left to the vagaries of biology and time. I want my mental capabilities to maintain, if not increase, over time as my knowledge and experience grow. How? Simple, I just want to be a robot. When I say I want to be a robot I don’t necessarily mean a flexible-tubing-armed thing with flashing lights and steel pincers (although that might be an interesting weekend experience). What I really mean is a consciousness that is not tied to the biological body and processes I was born with. I have every intention of taking my body as far into the future as is practical or affords me an acceptable quality of life, but once my quality of life deteriorates beyond a certain level I hope to take advantage of technology to enhance my experiences. Whether that is in the form of an android body that looks like a human but is mechanical and electronic in composition, a consciousness uploaded to whatever the internet turns into in the decades to come, or some place in between those scenarios, I don’t know.
This all starts with my plan not to die. So far all that plan impractically consists of is this: don’t die. Not a very thorough or actionable plan I admit, but as of right now there isn’t much I can do to prevent it. I do, however, believe that unless something unexpected happens to cause my death in the next 60 years or so some form of transcendence will be possible by then. Although the process of dying seems unpleasant, my desire to become a robot isn’t about a fear of dying. No one knows what the undiscovered country consists of though all evidence points to non-existence. That’s not that scary. But if given another option I would prefer to continue to exist. Most days I tend to prefer consciousness to non-existence.
Assuming one lived through childhood humans have been limited to about 50 to 80 years of life. It’s been more or less a matter of chance at what point life ends. There is a somewhat cowardly comfort in that. You live as long as you live and there’s little you can do to extend that span. Such an enormous choice as to whether or not to continue existing has not really been an option for anyone. In the culture I exist in there is no choice of how one’s life ends. For the people forced to consider that choice due to physical or mental circumstances it has been made into a choice between enduring suffering and pain in this world or enduring eternal suffering and pain in the “next world.” It’s hopeful that the stranglehold religion has had on the necks of humanity is loosening a bit more with each successive generation. People are now finally able to begin contemplating whether the quality of their own life is worth continuing it. Choosing when to die is not something that we are culturally equipped to do yet. But it will be something that we will increasingly have to deal with as technology allows longer and longer lifespans. We won’t be able to simply leave it to chance to make that important decision for us. It’s something that will finally demand conscious contemplation by everyone, not just those in physical or mental pain. Is another century of life what I really want? That’s a decision that we will each have to make for ourselves when the technology to extend our lives is finally made available to the public.
This brings up the argument that an infinite lifespan will devalue life. An endless life equals a meaningless life. I don’t see any evidence for that case. It’s certainty based on speculation about a situation that no one has experienced. It’s the child who decides they don’t like broccoli before ever having tried it. I don’t see any cause for that idea other than fear of the unknown. It’s a dark corner of the world of knowledge that no one had any reason to access until now. The potential of it being a reality suddenly makes it scary. And I realize that all of my speculations are based on little evidence as well. But I’m open to seeing and exploring the possibilities as they arise rather than dismissing them before they even present themselves. A similar argument exists that there is a limit to experiences and that boredom will be the result of extending life. Look at most vampire fiction. Immortality equals boredom which leads to decadence. But in reality technology and time have only expanded the range of human experiences that are possible and there doesn’t seem to be any indication that trend will cease. How much of our potential experiences are limited only by the time we have left to live? The unimaginative person says, “I don’t know what I would do with eternal life.” Well that’s just fine for you. If you are so limited as to get tired of the nearly unlimited array of experiences available to you currently then I agree immortality is not for you. But if you would like the chance to revel in all of the potentialities that this current era has to offer as well as those of the eras to come then why not take that opportunity when it comes?
Our lives as they currently exist are extremely limited. We only get a few chances to make major life changes before it becomes too late. It’s hard to start on the course of something that may take a decade or two to master when we have only five or six decades of vibrancy to work with. There’s a reason you don’t see many 80 year old gymnasts or even 30 year old gymnasts for that matter. I would love to be a musician, but starting at the age I am now that is not very likely. The physical and mental investment is so much greater for me now that it would have been 25 years ago. I don’t think it’s impossible for me to master an instrument at my age, but doing so while maintaining a job and the other responsibilities of being an adult makes it a lot more daunting and less likely to happen. Now if physical and mental deterioration weren’t an issue (if I was a robot) it would be a completely different journey. Spending a few decades to master the cello or starting a career in science from scratch wouldn’t seem so daunting with an endless number of decades to work with. What would we be capable of accomplishing individually and as a species if our time was extended? Think of the scientist who has 1000 years to build on their work rather than 50 or 60.
Does moving our consciousness to some other form from the one we know somehow change who we are as humans? What exactly does it means to be a human being? We have biological origin as we evolved as animals and continue to be animals in many ways. All of our biological functions are analogous with animals. We spend our day to day lives doing mainly, though in a more convoluted way, what animals do: acquiring food, shelter, safety. But that’s where we have come from. It’s certainly not where we’re headed. Where we’re headed is governed by our unique (as far as we know) cognitive abilities. And in that same direction lies the ability to adapt or transfer those cognitive abilities (i.e. our consciousness) into a more durable form. It’s the consciousness that separates us from our animal relatives and makes who we are as humans.
I do wonder if the transition from a biological/chemical substrate to a mechanical/electronic substrate will affect who we are as individuals. The idea of a form not hindered by a body prone to irreversible deterioration and debilitating fluctuations of brain chemistry is extremely enticing to me (and I imagine many people). But will eliminating that fluctuating brain chemistry change our personalities? Will we still be the same people? I don’t know. But given research coming out about bacteria and viruses affecting our thought processes and preferences I don’t know if we ever have had or will have an accurate and objective idea of who we actually are. Am I the same person if I take a prescription painkiller because I broke my arm? Or what about an anti-depressant that affects my thought processes. Or how caffeine influences my mood and energy levels. Our potential artificial consciousness substrate will only be another of the options we add to the many things over the course of history we have used to alter our consciousness. So is the person sitting on their couch in a biological body absorbed by network TV and pharmaceutical commercials any more human than someone with an artificial body using it to explore and contemplate our world? The substrate of a human consciousness is unimportant compared to how one uses it. Our consciousness is the essence of what makes us human. It is the retention of our consciousness that will allow us to remain human even in an alternative physical (or non-physical) form.