Excerpt: 'Brain Cuttings' by Carl Zimmer



Let’s say you transfer your mind into a computer—not all at once but gradually, having electrodes inserted into your brain and then wirelessly outsourcing your faculties. Someone reroutes your vision through cameras. Some one stores your memories on a net of microprocessors. Step by step your metamorphosis continues until at last the transfer is complete. As engineers get to work boosting the performance of your electronic mind so you can now think as a god, a nurse heaves your fleshy brain into a bag of medical waste. As you—for now let’s just call it “you”—start a new chapter of existence exclusively within a machine, an existence that will last as long as there are server farms and hard-disk space and the solar power to run them, are “you” still actually you?

This question was being considered carefully and thoroughly by a 43-year-old man standing on a giant stage backed by high black curtains. He had the bedraggled hair and beard of a Reagan-era metalhead. He wore a black leather coat and an orange-and-red T-shirt covered in stretched-out figures from a Stone Age cave painting.

He was not, in fact, insane.

The man was David Chalmers, one of the world’s leading philosophers of the mind. He has written some of the most influential papers on the nature of consciousness. He is director of the Centre for Consciousness at Australian National University and is also a visiting professor at New York University. In other words, he has his wits about him.

Chalmers was speaking midway through a conference in New York called Singularity Summit, where computer scientists, neuroscientists and other researchers were offering their visions of the future of intelligence. Some ideas were tentative, while others careened into what seemed like science fiction. At their most extreme the speakers foresaw a time when we would understand the human brain in its fine details, be able to build machines not just with artificial intelligence but with superintelligence and be able to merge our own minds with those machines.

“This raises all kinds of questions for a philosopher,” Chalmers said. “Question one: Will an uploaded system be conscious? Uploading is going to suck if, once you upload yourself, you’re a zombie.”

Chalmers didn’t see why an uploaded brain couldn’t be conscious. “There’s no difference in principle between neurons and silicon,” he said. But that led him to question number two: “Will an uploaded system be me? It’s not a whole lot better to be conscious as someone else entirely. Good for them, not so good for me.”

To try to answer that question Chalmers asked what it takes to be “me.” It doesn’t take a particular set of atoms, since our neurons break down their molecules and rebuild them every day. Chalmers pondered the best way to guarantee the survival of your identity: “Gradual uploading is the way to go, neuron by neuron, staying conscious throughout.”

But perhaps that won’t be an option. Perhaps you will have died by the time you are uploaded. Chalmers didn’t think this possibility was anything to be scared of. “Let’s call it the Buddhist view,” he said. Every day, we lose consciousness as we fall asleep and then regain it the next morning.

“Each waking is really like a new dawn that’s a bit like the commencement of a new person,” Chalmers said. “That’s good enough. That’s what ordinary survival is. We’ve lived there a long time. And if that’s so, then reconstructive uploading will also be good enough.”

• • • • • • • • • • • •

If the term “singularity” rings a bell, that may be because you’ve read the 2005 bestseller The Singularity Is Near. Its author, computer scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, confidently predicts intelligence will soon cross a profound threshold. The human brain will be dramatically enhanced with engineering. Artificial intelligence will take on a life of its own. If all goes well, Kurzweil predicts, we will ultimately fuse our minds with this machine superintelligence and find a cybernetic immortality. What’s more, the Singularity is coming soon. Many of us alive today will be a part of it.

The Singularity is more than just hypothetic milestone in history. It’s also a peculiar movement today. Along with spaceflight tycoon Peter Diamandis, Kurzweil has launched Singularity University, which brought in its first batch of students in the summer of 2009. Kurzweil is also director of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, which held its first annual summit in 2006. The summits are a mix of talks by Kurzweil and other Singularity advocates, along with scientists working on everything from robot cars to gene therapy. For its first three years the Singularity Summit took place around the Bay Area, but in 2009 the institute decided to decamp from its utopian environs and head for the more cynical streets of New York.

I was one of the curious skeptics who heeded the call and came to the 92nd Street Y. Writing about the brain and other scientific subjects had given me a strong immune defense against hype. The Singularity, with all its promises of a technorapture, seems tailor-made to bring out the worst in people like me. The writer John Horgan wrote a devastating essay about the Singularity in 2009 called “Science Cult.”

Horgan acknowledged part of him enjoys pondering the Singularity’s visions, such as boosting your IQ to 1,000. “But another part of me—the grown-up, responsible part—worries that so many people, smart people, are taking Kurzweil’s sci-fi fantasies seriously,” he wrote. “The last thing humanity needs right now is an apocalyptic cult masquerading as science.”

I decided to check out the Singularity for myself. Between the talks, as I mingled among people wearing S lapel pins and eagerly discussing their personal theories of consciousness, I found myself tempted to reject the whole smorgasbord as half-baked science fiction. But in the end I didn’t.

After the meeting I decided to visit to researchers working on the type of technology that people such as Kurzweil consider the steppingstones to the Singularity. Not one of them takes Kurzweil’s own vision of the future seriously. We will not have some sort of cybernetic immortality in the next few decades. The human brain is far too mysterious and computers far too crude for such a union anytime soon, if ever. In fact some scientists regard all this talk of the Singularity as a reckless promise of false hope to the afflicted.

But when I asked these skeptics about the future, even their most conservative visions were unsettling: a future in which people boost their brains with enhancing drugs, for example, or have sophisticated computers implanted in their skulls for life. While we may never be able to upload our minds into a computer, we may still be able to build computers based on the layout of the human brain. I can report I have not drunk the Singularity Kool-Aid, but I have taken a sip….

Piece posted with the kind permission of Carl Zimmer