What if your spirit lives on the internet forever? (2023)

IImagine if a person's brain could be scanned in great detail and recreated in a computer simulation. The person's mind and memories, emotions, and personality would be duplicated. In fact, a new and equally valid version of that person would now exist in a potentially immortal digital form. This futuristic possibility is called mental strain. Brain and consciousness science increasingly suggests that it is possible to charge the mind; There are no laws of physics preventing this. Technology is probably far in our future; Centuries may elapse before the details are fully worked out, and yet the mental strain seems inevitable given the interest and effort already directed toward that goal. Of course, we can't be sure how this will affect our culture, but as simulation technology and artificial neural networks take shape, we can get a glimpse of what this brain-loaded future might look like.

Suppose one day you go to a clinic to have your brain scanned. Let's be generous and pretend the technology works perfectly. It has been tested and debugged. It captures all of your synapses in enough detail to replicate your unique mind. It gives this ghost a standard virtual body that is reasonably comfortable with its face and voice in a virtual environment like a high quality video game. Let's pretend it all came true.

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The first you, let's call it your biological self, paid a fortune for the procedure. And yet you exit the clinic just as fatally as you entered it. You are still a biological being and will eventually die. When you drive home you think, "Well, that was a waste of money."

At the same time, the simulated you wakes up in a virtual apartment and feels like before. It has a continuity of experience. He recalls going to the clinic, stealing a credit card, signing a waiver and lying on the table. It feels like being drugged and then waking up somewhere else. It has your memories, your personality, your thought patterns and emotional quirks. Sitting on a new bed, she says, "I can't believe this worked! Definitely worth the cost.”

What if your spirit lives on the internet forever? (1)

I won't call it "it" anymore because this ghost is a version of you. We call it the simulated self. You decide to explore this "Sim". Step out of your apartment into the sunlight of a perfect day and you'll find a virtual version of New York City. Sounds, smells, sights, people, the feel of the pavement underfoot, it's all there, albeit with less litter, and the rats are perfectly hygienic and positioned according to local color. You talk to strangers in a way you would never do in real New York, where you would worry that an impatient passer-by might smack you in the teeth. Here you cannot hurt yourself because your virtual body cannot be broken. You stop at a coffee shop and have a latte. It does not taste good. It doesn't feel like anything goes in the stomach. And nothing is because it's not real food and you don't have a stomach. It's all a simulation. The visual detail on the table is imperfect. There is no rust in the rust. Your fingers are fingerprint-free, smooth to save memory of fine details. The breath doesn't feel the same. If you hold your breath, you won't get dizzy because there is no oxygen in this virtual world. You find yourself equipped with a simulated companion smartphone and call the number that used to be yours, the phone you had with you just a few hours ago in your experience when you entered the clinic.

Now the biological you picks up the phone.

"Me," says the Du Sim. "It's me. I mean it's you

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"I'm depressed, this is happening. I'm in my apartment eating ice cream. I can't believe I spent all that money for nothing."

"Nothing?! You wouldn't believe what it's like here! It's a fantastic place. Remember Kevin, the guy who died of cancer last week? He's here too! He's fine and still has the same job yoga studio three times a week to teach his fitness class but his real life girlfriend left him for someone who isn't dead yet and yet there are plenty of new people to come along with who you can depend on. here ".

I have to resist letting myself be carried away by the humor of the situation. Behind the details lies a very real philosophical conundrum that people will eventually have to confront. What is the relationship between bio-you and sim-you?

What if your spirit lives on the internet forever? (2)

I prefer a geometric way of thinking about the situation. Imagine your life is like the ascending stem of the letter Y. You are born at the bottom and as you grow your spirit shapes and changes along a trajectory. Then you get scanned and from that moment the Y forks. Now there are two tracks, each equal and rightfully yours. Suppose the left branch is the simulated self and the right branch is the biological self. The part of you that lives indefinitely is represented by both the stem on the Y and the branch on the left. Just as your child self lives within your adult self, the stem of the Y lives within the simulated self. After the exploration is complete, the two branches of the Y walk down different life paths and gain different experiences. The branch on the right will die. Anything that happens to him after the fork point will not achieve immortality unless he chooses to rescan himself. In this case, another branch appears and the geometry becomes even more complicated.

What emerges is not a single you, but a topologically intricate version, a hyper-you with two or more branches. One of these branches will always be lethal, and the others have an indefinite lifespan depending on how long the computing platform is maintained.


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You might think that due to the biography you live in the real world and the simulation you live in a virtual world, the two will never meet and therefore should never face any complications of coexistence. But who needs to meet in person these days? We mainly interact electronically anyway. Sim you and bio you represent two fully functional, interactive and capable instances of you competing within the same larger, interconnected social and economic universe. You could easily meet via video conference.

At its simplest level, the mental strain would keep people in an indefinite afterlife. Families could have a Christmas dinner with the granny sim participating in the video conference, the tablet screen at the end of the table, provided she already has time for her birth family given the ample options in the simulated playground. It is this kind of idealized afterlife that people have in mind when considering the benefits of mind charging. It's a man-made heaven.

But unlike a traditional heaven, it's not a separate world. It is perfectly connected to the real world. Think about how you are interacting with the world right now. When you live the typical Western lifestyle, the smallest part of your life is interacting with people in your physical space around you. His connection to the big world is almost entirely through digital media. The news comes to you on a screen or through headphones. Distant places are real to you mainly because you get to know them electronically. Politicians, celebrities, and even some friends and family members can exist for you primarily through dates. People work in virtual offices, where they only meet their colleagues via video and text.

What if your spirit lives on the internet forever? (3)
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Each of us may already be in a virtual world with information constantly flowing in and out via CNN, Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and text messages. We live in a kind of multiverse, each of us in a different virtual bubble, the bubbles occasionally merging and breaking apart in real space, but always connected via the global social network. If a virtual afterlife is created, the people in it, with the same personalities and needs they had in real life, would have no reason to isolate themselves from the rest of us. Very little needs to change for them. Socially, politically, and economically, the virtual and real worlds would merge into a larger and ever-expanding civilization. The virtual world could also be just another city on earth, filled with people who immigrated there.

We have always lived in a world where culture changes with each generation. But what happens when the older generations never die but remain just as active in society? There is no reason to believe that the living will have any political, economic, or intellectual advantage over the simulated.

Think of the jobs people have in our world. Many of them require physical action, and these are the jobs likely to be replaced by vending machines. Taxi driver? Publicly shared self-driving cars are almost here. street cleaner? Cashier? Construction worker? pilots? All of these jobs are likely to be for the pit for the medium to long term. Robotics and artificial intelligence will take over. The rest of our work, our contributions to the larger world, are done through the mind, and if the mind can be charged it can do the same work. A politician can work from both cyberspace and real space. It could also be a teacher, a manager, a therapist, a journalist, or the guy from the complaints department.

What if your spirit lives on the internet forever? (4)

A company CEO, a Steve Jobs guy who has formed in his brain a series of neural connections that make him exceptional at his job, can run from a remote, simulated office. If you need to shake hands, you can temporarily take possession of a humanoid robot, a kind of shared rental robot, and spend a few hours in the real world, meeting and greeting each other. Even calling it the "real" world sounds detrimental to me. Both worlds would be equally real. Perhaps a better term is the "base" world and the "cloud" world.

The world of foundations would be full of young people, mostly under 80, who are still gaining valuable experience. His unspoken responsibility would be to gain wisdom and experience before joining the ranks of the cloud world. The balance of power and culture would quickly shift to the cloud. How could it not be? This is where knowledge, experience and political connections accumulate. In this scenario, the base world becomes something of a larval stage for immature minds, and cloud world is where life really begins. Uploading thoughts could change our culture and civilization more profoundly than anything in our past.

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Michael SA Graziano is Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Princeton University.


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