In 2015, Google published a research paper entitled ‘A Neural Conversational Model’. It covered the findings of recent research carried out around an Artificial Intelligence-powered ‘chatbot’ the tech giant’s data scientists hoped was another step in their quest to achieve a natural language processing and machine learning model that would one day allow for realistic human to machine conversation. Having first devoured large swathes of the internet as a huge database of communication, information and language the researchers set about asking the bot questions. One Q&A pairing was:
Human: What is the purpose of living?
Machine: To live forever.
The AI chat bot’s deep learning algorithm had come to the conclusion, based on the internet content that had been its teacher, that the ultimate purpose of life was to achieve mortality. A few years on and some experts believe that, perhaps fittingly, it is advances in the latest technology of AI that could mean one day relatively soon we may in fact, through AI, achieve that seemingly impossible goal.
For now, technology and science curing mortality is simply a tantalising prospect, the merits and drawbacks of which provide for an interesting debate. But there are enough who believe that recent leaps in understanding how our bodies and brains work mean that the choice of immortality, in some form, may not be all that far distant into the future that we shouldn’t begin to consider the questions and implications that it the prospect raises.
In my first year studying Philosophy at Edinburgh University back in 1997 one of the first, and more interesting, questions we explored as beginner students was where the essence of an individual is found. What are the logical preconditions for a person to be considered as continuing to be that person and when are they no longer that person?
We were given different thought experiments that centred upon linear continuation of the physical body and the conscious mind. Over our lifetimes the physical building blocks of our personhood are in constant flux. Over time the cells our bodies are built from die and are replaced by others. Despite that we would still philosophically, morally, scientifically and practically consider a person the same person despite the fact that over a number of years every cell in our bodies is replaced. If this is the case does it even matter if it is a gradual process, as happens naturally, or if, in a theoretical example such as teleportation, our bodies were reconstructed as identical replicas in a new location from technically distinct cells?
The biological material would not technically be the same but an exact copy. It would not be a gradual process but an immediate one but the result would be the same – the teleported individual would be an exact biological and mental replica with the same memories, opinions, belief set, mental capacity and knowledge. The general conclusion was that this ‘copy’ would still be the same person despite being physically completely distinct. The logical continuation of that conclusion is that our personhood lies in our minds rather than physical bodies.
We are the accumulation of all of our conscious and sub-conscious memories, experiences, thoughts, interactions, opinions, beliefs and knowledge. And if we already accept that our identity is not based on the physical continuity of our biological bodies that must extend to our brains. The consensus is that it is in the intangible quality of our ‘minds’ rather than physical brains that we, as distinct entities exist.
Despite all of our progress in understanding the world around us, there are still many unknown questions. Where the intangible ‘mind’ exists and its precise nature is among them. On some level, this distinction between the physical body and ethereal ‘person’ has always been a part of human culture. It has simply been expressed through words such as ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’. Now scientists would probably consider it biologically stored and processed ‘data’ and algorithms with our brain the processor, storage capacity and other hardware components.
Will AI Mean Our Minds Could Live Forever?
If that biologically stored data and software can be somehow exactly copied and transferred to another ‘brain’, whether biological or synthetic, would that not mean that we continue to exist as a person? On most accepted definitions of personhood, the answer would be yes.
As Michael Graziano, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University recently commented on the topic for Quartz:
“Eventually the mind will become migratable information, just like files can migrate from one device to another and live in the cloud. When the information processor – the brain – goes, you’ll be able to copy [the mind] and implement it in other hardware”.
The potential of an AI afterlife after our biological bodies have long since perished is still contained by the bottleneck of the fact that our brains are so extraordinarily complex that we are some way from fully understanding the intricacies of how they function. We still can’t properly image and map the brain in its most intricate detail, let alone put together a user manual for the precise way it works that would mean a synthetic recreation might be theoretical possible.
But within decades, possibly low digits of decades, many experts believe we will. Developments in AI are now super-charging the pace of medical and scientific breakthroughs. The amount of data AI algorithms can process and their ability to isolate patterns in that data and draw conclusions from them is opening the door to a new era of discovery and detailed knowledge of how the universe, world and its inhabitants and features work.
A major part of that is slowly unlocking the secrets of how the most complex organs of our body work, including the brain. That is behind the new generation of biotech medicines and treatments that can be both personalised and highly targeted. One day it will likely mean we can engineer brains that work exactly in the same way those we are born with do. If we can then crack the code of how our brains store information and how to copy that information and upload it to a new home, we would essentially become potentially immortal, in the sense that our minds and consciousness would no longer be constrained by the ‘best before date’ that our biology comes with.
The Problems and Questions AI-Powered Immortality Raises
As we approach the point the still theoretical point AI-based mind immortality might become a genuine possibility, arguably even from now as it could be sooner than expected, a number of crucial ethical and practical questions will need to be addressed.
Who would decide who and why individuals are re-created through an AI proxy to their mind? Would we all have this right, would it be based on the pure commerce of whoever can afford it or would it be based on some kind of panel consensus conclusion on the particular value that mind might bring to wider society? And who might be responsible for turning that AI mind off again? Would it have the same rights and be bound by the same rules, laws and obligations as a traditional biological person?
If an AI mind committed a criminal offence would the criminal record be attached to the biological ‘person’ as responsible? Or would some new class of ‘AI mind continuation’ identity be conferred on ‘machine’ version of a biologically deceased individual?
These are just a few of the questions that we should begin to discuss around the theoretical possibility of AI offering us the option of a form of mental immortality. Perhaps the deepest secrets of how our bodies and brains work will remain a mystery for longer than we expect or even forever shrouded in mystery or key unknowns and answering these questions will never become necessary. But current thinking is that one day we will manage to create the technology to ‘export’ the human mind, the essence of our humanity and personhood, and re-home it in new ‘hardware’. And that one day may not be centuries but only decades, possibly not many, away. Diverse projects with a lot of funding exist.
As Professor Graziano concludes:
“Given the way technology is moving, I’m pretty sure that eventually we’ll have perfectly good, uploaded minds with all the social confusion and upheaval that comes with that. But I’m glad I’ll be dead before then”.