What are you, exactly?


An answer? Zeroes and Ones.

There’s a short list of books which rank among my very favorite reads. Among these are Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, and recently The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham. Something these works have in common is the concept of eternal, or at least extended, life through digital storage. Of course, they propose different mechanisms for this to happen, but the underlying thought is the same.

One of the intriguing, exciting, thoughts that both books explore is the effect that this digitization would have on society as humanity expands to the stars. Both authors delve into the negatives of such societies, as well as the upsides. This is amazing stuff.

So imagine my excitement when the Wall Street Journal released an essay by Michael S.A. Graziano this weekend entitled “Will Your Uploaded Mind Still Be You?” Right up front I must mention that Dr. Graziano is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton, and the essay is derived from a book he has coming out called “Rethinking Consciousness: A Scientific Theory of Subjective Experience.” I’ll include a link to the article, but it’s of limited value to those who are not subscribers. For obvious reasons I can’t cut and paste the article here, but there’s nothing stopping me from discussing it.

The essay is amazing, and it’s timely arrival is quite a coincidence as it dovetails with my recent deep-dive into The Cruel Stars. Dr. Graziano states that replication of the mind and memory will eventually be possible, if two conditions are met. First, a simulated mind structure must be built. Second, one would need a complete brain scan, a map of all the neurons in the brain and how they interact with one another. This scan would then be overlaid onto the artificial brain.

The good doctor states in his piece that the first condition is nearly feasible with current technology and engineering (a definite surprise to me), but the second condition is decades or possibly centuries away. He cites the fact that a complete map of a roundworm’s brain with 300 neurons was recently completed by a team at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. It took ten years to complete.

The human brain has 86 billion neurons.

However, Dr. Graziano is confident that the technology to do “life transfers” will absolutely exist one day, and we should think about the ethics now.

If I was having a conversation with the Doctor, I would mention that the conversation has already started with Altered Carbon and The Cruel Stars. After all, how much of what we currently use on a routine basis started out as pie in the sky sci-fi stuff? An excellent example would be the humble smart phone. My eighteen dollar Chinese piece of junk can build an atomic bomb, given the correct inputs. Fantasy has a tendency to become reality.

And here I return to another subject that Dr. Graziano touches upon in his essay, how a human expansion into space may only be possible with a digitization of the mind. After all, we don’t do well with tedium or cosmic radiation. He proposes that “people” on the long, slow journey possible with current technology would be uploaded into an onboard cloud, free to do whatever, speak to whomever during the decades long journey.

Subjectively, they could be at Bondi Beach down in Australia while their electronic minds  travel via the slow boat to Alpha Centauri or something. When the ship arrives, they can imprint into a robot or a clone, the possibilities are endless.

The impression I got from the article was that this stuff is going to happen.

The implications are endless. Haves and have nots. Religion. Culture. Schooling. Military service.

Digital immortality?

Dr. Graziano is right. We need to think this over, because it is coming.

Morgan and Birmingham have started the conversation.


4 thoughts on “What are you, exactly?

  1. I know it’s an idea bordering on religion but this concept has no room for the human soul. The idea that we are just electrical impulses and data storage scares me a little. Even more if it is true.
    I believe there is something more in us. The thing that makes us stand up for our principles when it makes more sense to sit down and do nothing. The simple idea that this one girl is the one girl who is perfect for me. These are not electrical impulses this is my soul speaking. Or maybe my spirit. And i don’t know if they can replicate that just yet.


    • No, your mind cannot be replicated at this point. At least not that I’m aware. As for spirit and the soul? It’s been addressed in both Altered Carbon and TCS. In Altered Carbon a plot device was the Neo-Catholics who legally and irrevocably refused to re-life when they experienced biological death, even though their minds were backed up in an implanted “stack.” TCS went further. Only the wealthy had the resources to back up to a cloud type storage. Also, there was a religious sect called the “Source Coders” who believed the code was the soul, while the Sturm believed that everyone who used any form of augmentation or back-up was guilty of heresy and were by definition traitors to the “pure genome.” So yeah, darn straight this has religious and social implications.


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