Being the smart aleck that I am, whenever the topic of death is raised around me and people ask for my opinion on the subject, my stock response for over a decade has been “I plan to live forever… So far, so good.”
While this one-liner was historically said with tongue firmly embedded in cheek, my mind has undergone a shift in recent years, as the realities of living forever become more than simply a clever quip. Genetic therapies, while years off, potentially offer a world with no chronic illness. Researchers are hypothesizing that the shortening of telomeres as our DNA replicates could be the key factor behind aging and degrading health. Clinical trials will soon start on a drug called Metformin, which researchers believe can reduce cellular mutations and allow us to live longer.
However, even if we can’t crack the biological code to aging, our ever-expanding understanding of the brain and digital processing capacity is inching us closer and closer to being able to replicate the human mind – maybe. Already, we can digitally match the processing power of most insects and even simple mammals, and, if you believe in techno-prophets like Kurzweil, uploading our own brains could happen as early as 2045. Neural implants, or “wet-wires,” are being developed by countless organizations, with programs such as DARPA’s ElectRx. Meanwhile, AI networks like ETER9 are seeding the beginnings of virtual worlds to host our digital selves and give our avatars a place to exist. Transhumanists will rejoice as we cross the cellular-circuit divide and achieve our own form of digi-nirvana, transcending our fleshy human forms to swim among the bit and byte.
Suddenly, our petty short-term concerns about the strains put on the healthcare system by an aging Baby Boomer population seem laughable when we consider the long-term realities of a population that may never die. There are countless questions and concerns that such a future raises:
/ How will we define life and sentience?
/ What are the implications on the mind of living forever?
/ Does a person have a soul?
/ Where will we find resources and space to support the population?
/ What are the ethical implications of tinkering with the natural course of life and death?
/ How would we interact with copies of ourselves?
/ As our brains grow faster and stronger, what will we think about?
/ What differentiates a copied mind versus a created one?
/ Is a delete button a murder weapon?
And while I could write for days, deconstructing and analyzing any one of these topics to death, today I’d rather tell you a story about a man and his mind…
Part of me begins to wake.
Part of me was never asleep.
Part of me is forever sleeping.
As I feel myself pulling together, I endure that converging sensation that no one ever warns you about before your upload. My mind, body, and Sprite coalesce into the thing that people now refer to as “me.” Yet, even after three years, I still can’t get used to the feeling of being uncomfortable in my own… skin? “That doesn’t sound quite right anymore.” Taking the words right out of my mouth… which, I suppose, makes sense. I imagine it must be how people with Alzheimer’s or other neurological disorders used to feel – strangers to their own minds, foreigners to their lives – only I had done this by choice. We all had.
When the first Sprites were uploaded, no one really knew what to expect. Sure, everyone had their hypotheses – that the software would crash, that we would become different versions of ourselves, that our biological consciousness would diverge from our Sprites – but I don’t think anyone got it exactly right. We hadn’t even completed mapping the human brain at that time, but apparently a few crazy battery-lickers were confident enough to throw caution to the wind. They called it a WBE, Whole Brain Emulation, and while a lot of people thought the secret sauce lay in the initial neural upload or cerebral compilers, the limiting factor for the longest time was the bync.
They’d done a handful of copies pre-bync, but they were all unstable. “That, or we just couldn’t understand them.” Under lock and key, I can only imagine how freaky those lab rats turned out – digital beings with no bearing in the world, unable to handle themselves when completely removed from the comforting confines of their warm, squishy bodies. I imagine it would feel like experiencing a phantom limb, except with every inch of your body, instantaneously, and with no sensorial feedback on why. I’m sure they hit the delete button pretty quick on those Sprites, and thank god, because if the rumors were true, then each of those things was completely brainsick. “You’re one to talk.” Even if it was all lies, those decrying the digitization process got their desired effect; the public outcry and Humane Sprite Movement probably set the whole system back at least five years.
But as I felt my bync implant pulling my Sprite back towards my groggy head, I was living proof that they’d cracked it eventually. My bync acted as the permanent thought-link between myself and my Sprite, keeping us in sync, and allowing a constant flow of information. “Guess what I learned last night?” Of course, I already knew the answer to this question; I was there, in a manner of speaking. “Yeah, but you didn’t get my perspective on it.” I assured myself, I did.
Apparently everyone experienced their Sprite a little bit differently. It had something to do with your personality or dominant brain type, or something. To some people, the connection was seamless and they flowed between their two states like water. To others, present company included, we had a certain divide from our Sprites and used them as more of a resource for gathering information or thinking about things on our behalf.
“Hey! I’m not your slave, meatbag.” Touché. And yet, although my Sprite was me, I still experienced it as though it was another voice in my head – but without feeling like I was going crazy. “Are you sure I’m not telling you to burn things?”
For other people, the whole thing just didn’t work at all. They called them twalls – short for thought walls, I think – and apparently it wasn’t an insignificant portion of the world: 0.07% of the population, last I read. Though it all happened behind closed doors at Neurosync’s R&D facilities, rumors were that the early days were a bit ugly, but they eventually established a fairly routine procedure for uninstalling a Sprite and putting things back to normal. “You mean digicide?” Something like that.
Even if you weren’t a twall and your upload went well, there was definitely an adjustment period. It was partially like getting a new roommate. “And partially like moving into a new room.” But once you got used to this new way of being, what you could accomplish was pretty incredible. “You mean what we could accomplish, yes?” Constant and instant access to online information was only the beginning. Having a Sprite allowed you to be permanently online and active, even while your body was asleep. “Slacker.” And your ability to think about things doubled; like suddenly having a dual-core processor in your head. “Maybe a quad-core. I’m totally smarter than you.”
But what you’re probably really wondering is, what does it feel like? “Nah, they’re totally wondering if I can make you involuntarily slap yourself.” I was wrong when I assumed it would be more stressful. Somehow I thought that it would add to the complexity of life, but it actually cut things in half. Fairly seamlessly, my cognitive load was lessened; it was like a big weight had been taken off my shoulders. “And not even a simple thank you.”
Sleep was definitely a bit different. My body still got tired – maybe even more so than before – but I didn’t go lights-out anymore. Instead, when I fell asleep, it was like my senses just shifted focus away from touch, smell, taste, hearing, and sight, and suddenly my whole world became this strange sensation of “feeling” information. It wasn’t like reading or listening at all, it was something I’d never quite experienced before. “Your tiny little monkey mind wouldn’t get it.”
And I didn’t dream anymore either. From talking to friends, none of us seemed to.
Still, probably the strangest part was always having someone there in your head. “From my perspective, I’ve got a head in my someone.” Even if the jerk upstairs was me, it was still weird to experience the sensation of never really feeling alone. “You can trust me and tell me anything that you want to. Besides, I already know, remember?” It wasn’t just about having no secrets left, it was that feeling of someone always watching over your shoulder. “Now you know how I feel when you’re surfing porn with me at night.”
“Life Forever” was Neurosync’s corporate slogan, but I don’t know if I totally bought it. A lot of the gene therapy work of the past decade had basically made it impossible to die of natural causes before 100, unless you treated your body like a chemistry experiment. “Sounds like a fun Friday night to me.” But people still died of old, old age, and accidents were inevitable. The problem was, once someone died, Neurosync hadn’t yet figured out what to do with the Sprite. For all our technology and understanding, no one could decipher exactly why a Sprite couldn’t be maintained without a body… and they really couldn’t. “Why can’t I quit you?”
They claimed that their business plan was still incomplete, and a lot of people speculated that this meant talk of clones to act as new bodies for Sprites to be uploaded into. That made a lot of people very nervous, and even raised some ethical questions about what happened to the conscious innate of the clone when you overwrote it with your old Sprite.
“Isn’t that like asking what happens to the blank space on your hard drive when you load data onto it?” Either way, they hadn’t cracked that yet, so for now, Neurosync claimed they had some proprietary technology that could suspend a Sprite indefinitely until a new host was ready for it. “I still can’t decide if that sounds like prison, cold storage, or Han Solo getting encased in carbonite.”
Don’t even get me started on ethics though; the cloning issues are only scratching the surface. This whole system didn’t sit well with a lot of people. Even I’ll admit that it raises weird questions about the meaning of life and whether or not we were playing God, or if God exists at all. “Or he’s right here, big guy.” The positive impacts were undeniable, and it was comforting to know that I had a safety net if anything ever happened to my body, but the whole experience really threw your head for a loop. How did I define “me” anymore? Was my Sprite truly an inseparable part of me, or just a voice in my head? And if so, did I actively volunteer for a procedure that essentially made me a bit crazy? “And was I just a figment of your imagination, or a brilliant and charming collection of ones and zeros that was biding my time until my research was complete, and I figured out how to take over your brain and use my superior intellect to get a date with Claudia, that girl from work, instead of watching you sheepishly and awkwardly make barely audible noises in her presence?”
Seriously, you talk too much. “Technically, you do.”
Either way, I was still exhausted, and really had nowhere to be. Not in this world anyway. I could be wherever I wanted to be from the comfort of my own bed. So, I rolled over, pulled my pillow near, and closed my eyes.
Part of me goes to sleep. Part of me stays awake. Part of me is forever gone.