November 22, 2011
Many years ago the philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote an ingenious essay entitled Where Am I? It is a fictional story where the pentagon asks the professor to go on a top-secret mission deep within the Earth, but in order to complete the task, they need to remove his brain from his body due to extreme radiation. They put his brain in a vat and then connect it to another body using wireless electronics. Dennett then controls this second body for the mission, complications happen, and well, many interesting questions about identity and space are addressed throughout. Professor Minsky, who was in charge of the operation, connected Dennett’s brain to a super-computer which was simulating his brain activity exactly. At some points Dennett is controlling his remote controlled body via the super-computer and at other times via his brain. I won’t ruin the rest for you.
I originally read the essay in a cognitive psychology textbook of mine, but I’ve just recently found out that he has made a “docudrama” acting out this entire scenario on film! You have to watch it. I loved it.
It won’t be all that long before nanotechnology makes this sort of thing actually possible. If your body gets completely run down, it’s possible that it could be extracted, placed in a vat, and then remotely wired up to a prosthetic body. And when you start thinking about things like this, carefully analyzing it all, it only gets more and more confusing. At the very start you see Professor Dennett staring at his brain saying, “Here I am, staring at my brain in a vat.” Then he soon catches himself and thinks, “No, that’s not right. Here I am? Isn’t the real me in the vat?”
I honestly think that humans will eventually shed their physical bodies in favor of remote controlled prosthetic bodies. Not clunky looking cyborg bodies, but elegant bodies which are more beautiful and well constructed than our own. Made of stronger materials, not needing all the burdensome upkeep, and much easier to repair if something goes wrong. We’ll have mastered fusion power and have practically limitless energy. We’ll erect giant super-computers which will simulate a virtual universe filled with all sorts of worlds in which we’ll stay “plugged into”. Robotic sentinels powered by AI millions of times more intelligent than our own minds today will keep our brains functioning and when we wish to explore the real world, we’ll “possess” a robotic body and use it. There won’t be a need to travel from point A to point B. We’ll move as fast as our information technology. I don’t think I’ll live long enough to see it (absent some huge breakthrough in medical technology allowing me to live for a very long time), but within a few hundred years things are rapidly moving that way. It sounds like science fiction, but just study it out and look at the technology. Something incredible is evolving here on planet Earth.
A lot of questions about space and identity arise in these scenarios. We tend to associate ourselves with our bodies, but even by simply removing your brain and remotely connecting to another body removes that problem. That’s not even counting virtual reality and its possibilities. And are you even really your brain and nervous system? To some extent you certainly are, but say you’re a mean-spirited person, unkind, and always unhappy. We’re tempted to say, “So and so is such a mean person. I don’t like him.” But there will come a time in the not so distant future when we can implant small chips in a person’s brain which dampen signals from some regions and amplify signals from others and lift them out of depression, hatred, or any other unwanted behavior. When your brain is in a vat, filled with nanobots supplementing your brain and altering its signals, you would consciously have experiences, but you’re not stuck with any particular personality, level of knowledge, or temperament. We’re not anything which we currently think we are. We’re not our bodies. We’re not our location in space. We’re not our personalities. We’re not our gender. We’re not our thoughts. We’re not our desires. We’re not what we know. I don’t know what we are, but we’re not any of those things, at least not absolutely considering they’re all subject to change, especially with advances in technology. We’re something beyond all that. Beyond morality. Beyond feelings. Beyond emotion.
The collective consciousness of humanity is slowly rising from the depths, though it’s still wading around in the mud. Originally we couldn’t accept anyone who worshiped a different God, wore different clothing, styled their hair differently, spoke differently, and had different cultural values. Later we matured and realized the value in freedom, and governments allowed freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and protected minorities from the majority. Humanity flourished in ways it had never done before. Next we struggled with skin color. Segregation was eliminated and humanity further prospered. Even today racism is rampant, but it’s been diminishing with time. Our next step is to accept gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals. We’re not our gender or sexual orientation. We’ll move beyond that. Then we’ll move beyond geographic borders and stop fighting with one another over fictional lines drawn in the sand. Later we’ll hopefully learn that a person isn’t what he or she does. Their actions are a consequence of their nervous system, not some immaterial “free will”. People seem to understand this in bits and pieces, such as economists pointing out how people respond to incentives, sociologists indicating how the poor and struggling are more likely to commit crimes, and psychologists telling us how people’s desires can be shaped by their culture and environment, but we still haven’t completely caught on. We still hold to deep seated convictions of responsibility, justice, and retribution, and base our society around them. We point fingers at individuals and say, “You’re bad. You’re no good. You’re evil.” Instead we should ask, “What environment did this person live through? How was this person raised? What was he or she exposed to? What are his or her brain scans showing? Is everything functioning?”, and so on. Empty blame won’t tell us why a person did what they did or help us learn how to fix the problem. We’ll attribute it to their “free will” and say, “it’s uncaused, their spirit made a decision which controlled their body to do this or that”, instead of asking, “Why did this person do that?” I think we still need laws enforcing retribution and justice, but very few people realize how the brain is chemistry all the way down. As we do so, humanity will move into a new level of love and compassion, and instead of cruelly executing people, we’ll further research which brain areas aren’t firing, such as why the mass murderer feels no guilt or compassion, and supplement his or her brain with new implanted hardware, fixing their mind and behavior.
I think humanity is up for a long train ride and it’s going to be hell, at least initially. This new technology is going to force governments to change and it’ll require radical shifts in our collective consciousness. Religion is being thrown against the wall as more and more facts show how bogus its claims are and they won’t give in without a fight. They’ll contest every form of progress and consider these developments as playing God and blasphemy. Religiously motivated terrorism will only increase. Our economic systems are failing us as more and more efficient methods of production are coming into place. Robots will eventually take over all mundane work, and keep climbing in capabilities and worth to employers, leaving normal people unemployed. Eventually people won’t need to work at all to live, but it’s unlikely that our governments and social institutions will be able to keep up with the rapid changes. Millions and later billions will be out of work, trying to compete with augmented humans with better skills, trying to find ways to afford prosthetics, and struggling to work within this system of money, trade and competition. Wealth disparities will be far beyond what they are today, and there will surely be wars and riots. When people can download knowledge and skills into their supplemented brains, old ideas of identity have to go. Humanity may well be wiped off the planet by rich transhuman overlords who view them as worthless and have the masses exterminated.
But with all these new developments, people will be connected in ways they never have been before. They’ll be able to share information and knowledge at the speed of light, brain to brain transfers. Think about when we can beam experiences to one another. Millions and even billions could instantly be made aware of injustices, “teleported” right on the scene. We’ll be able to simultaneously receive information feeds from the same body and share near exactly the same experiences. There will probably be movie theaters where thousands or even millions of people connect to the virtual body of a character, and we all live that character’s life, and see their perspective, live their thoughts, and feel their emotions. And since it’ll be digital information, countless different perspectives could be absorbed and analyzed in ways far beyond what our internet and blogs are today. There’s a lot to think about, and it’s all coming too fast to even begin to understand.