This One Time, 92

This one time I was staring at the corpse of my future, hoping beyond hope that I had the capacity to bring it to life.

How does the old drill about the humanity of robots go? I think you start by removing a person’s hand. Replace that hand by something that performs the function well enough that there’s no serious impact to that person’s quality of life. Is that person any less of a person?

Then take the whole arm. Then a kidney. Part of the liver. The pancreas. A lung. Replace a chunk of the brain with a lump of solid-state circuitry that performs the exact same function. Replace both legs. Now lets stop and check.

If you’ve done a good enough job with your replacements, this guy might have different issues regarding maintenance and upkeep, maybe different sensations of weight or center of gravity, but is still more functional than some people who operate without a whole suite of parts, due to accident or congenital difficulties, who are still considered people.

Due to social stigma — and, I assert, no other reason — he might suffer some psychological difficulties about self-worth, about feeling human. But let’s say he can get past that. Now lets keep going. Let’s remove the head from the body and keep both parts functioning for a moment. Which piece is the person?

I don’t think it takes much thinking to decide it’s the part that remembers personal history, the part that speaks and imagines and makes decisions, that bears the bulk of the humanity. The body does a lot of expressing its state of being — body language, as it were — but only some of that is done without the direction of the brain. The body goes a long way to tell us how we feel, it turns out, and without that we really do feel a good deal less than human. But that’s just a warning to make sure any new body we’re using has those same mechanisms for reporting contact and position and danger of damage and health and status of any autonomic functions it’s performing.

So there’s a warning. Let’s make sure there is, in fact, a body — and that it chatters nonstop about where it is and what it’s doing. Even though there are people who are definitely people who are  paralyzed and physically unfeeling, who are in bodies that are essentially support systems for a brain trapped in a bone box. I don’t deny the humanity of those people at all, but I’m still shooting for an optimal, healthy case beyond the reach of pity. Provide a body, given the option.

Back to the head. We already replaced some of the brain with circuitry that performs the same purpose. Trust me when I say this isn’t beyond the capacity of current technology, seeing as a prosthesis for replacing the hippocampus has already undergone extensive testing and we’ve had for some time intracranial implants for helping to control seizures. If you think maybe that isn’t complex enough to mimic the more sophisticated capacity for memory storage and retrieval, for metaphor, for complex comparisons and contrasts, for decision heuristics — you’d be right. But for some of those we already have hardware and software that does the job in ways that do not mimic how meat does it, inefficiently and by accident of evolution. It really is just a matter of a few more years, not counting bureaucratic hoop-jumping. So lets replace the rest of it, taking care to read what’s already there, in terms of connections and stored memories and associations, and make sure the replacement has access to those as well.

And before you freak out about that too much, consider that people suffer accidents of trauma and stroke all the time that loses them huge chunks of their own personal histories, and yet we still consider them people. Hell, we throw most of our memories away as we go and don’t ever give it a second thought. So maybe we get all of the memories and tendencies, maybe we just get the Reader’s Digest edition that covers all the high points, but for the sake of argument, lets say we get enough to be able to remember and recount shared experiences with at least the same level of accuracy as we do now, with the capacity to recall and handle emotional response, and continue on.

Assuming we get as close as we can get, and it’s closer than we get sometimes after serious injury or illness … Is the thing on the slab a person, and is it me?

Every evening, or at least most evenings, I lose consciousness. After some period of time, something gets up, wearing my pajamas, with a reasonably good grasp of my personal history, but not exactly 100% error-free, and capable of a good simulation of how I typically respond in typical situations and certainly capable of winging it in ways I’d hardly expect in new situations, and with access to all of my bank accounts and online identities and friends and family and colleagues. That thing is me, or only acceptably, incrementally different from the me that went to sleep, and everyone gives it a bye.

If I go to sleep and the thing on the slab gets up to greet the sunrise the way I would, under the circumstances of the trauma of translation, that are, for the sake of argument, less destructive than the traumas of injury or illness, have I made the transition?

I really, really hope so. Otherwise, someday I may die.


April 2, 2011 · by xalieri · Posted in This One Time  


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