Sergey Nivens/

Delusions of immortality

Although the Daily Mail is not a hotbed of deep thinking on the biology of aging and the potential of human immortality, the fact that it has produced a long feature on the digital uploading of brains is indicative of how the topics of human and artificial intelligence are becoming mainstream matters of interest. Typically, the article’s use of the terms “brain” and “mind” are pretty much interchangeable. There is no consideration of how any one person’s mind might be anything more than the animation of thoughts and feelings within the three pounds of blancmange that reside within our skulls.

Among the unchallenged and carelessly crafted assumptions driving this piece, the biggest is the absence of any reflection on the question of identity in considering the possibility of the immortality of the mind. In short, in what sense does Bill Bloke remain Bill Bloke when he is uploaded to the computer, or reconstituted through stem cell interventions on brains maintained on life support, or reanimated after some sort of cryonic limbo?

From all of these rapidly evolving technologies it is clear that something is going to emerge that is distinct from anything our world has to show now, even if marketing and wishful thinking will ensure that the early stages of this febrile new world are a grab bag of simulations, avatars, holograms, and downright hoaxes. But however many iterations of the real deal we evolve to throw in to that grab bag, nowhere in its darkness will we find good old Bill himself. Why is that?

One of our most significant cognitive biases is the apparently all-encompassing reality of the here and now: our brain perceives the world as a ticking and wholly immersive real thing from which our brains and our minds are separate phenomena. Except that they aren’t. Whatever the chances of the existence of parallel universes, the fact is that we are 7 billion people spinning along in this one, with a definite sense of July 2016ishness about this world we think we know. Geographic relocation or a short time in a coma can convey a sense of immense disorientation, but the times and places and people that collectively define us and shape our minds would all be absent from the new reality of the reconstituted Bill: awakened to a new place, a new time, and a new world of eternal bemusement.

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