Monday, June 17, 2013

John Danaher - Can We Upload Our Minds? Hauskeller on Mind-Uploading (Part One)

Over at the IEET site (Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology), John Danaher has started a series of posts on uploading human minds into machines (computers). Danaher is riffing on an article by Michael Hauskeller, entitled "My Brain, My Mind, and I: Some Philosophical Assumptions of Mind-Uploading" (International Journal of Machine Consciousness; Vol. 4, No. 1 (2012): 187 -200; DOI: 10.1142/S1793843012400100).

Here is one section of Hauskeller's paper, specifically chosen for its hyperbole and anti-flesh perspective:
2. Messy Bodies 
What we witness here is what is often described as an increasing cyborgization of the human, where ‘cyborg' can be defined as a human being some of whose parts are artificial. In light of these developments it may appear not unreasonable to expect that this is only the beginning and we will progress further until we have achieved the goal that is implicitly pursued in all those innovations that couple human beings with fast-paced hyper-technology: complete independence from nature, unrestricted autonomy. For as long as we are hooked to this organic body, we will never be entirely free and safe. The organic body is a limitation that is resented by many, and that they hope we will be able to overcome not too far in the future. "Soon we could be meshing our brains to computers, living, for all practical purposes, on an "immortal" substrate, perhaps eventually discarding our messy, aging, flesh-and-bones body altogether". [Klein, 2003] The human body is not only regarded as dispensable; it is an obstacle, an enemy to be fought and to get rid of. It ages and makes us age with it, eventually annihilating us. It is "messy", disorderly and dirty; it brings chaos and decay into our lives. "Flesh-and-bones" is a material that is deemed unsuitable for an advanced, dignified, enlightened and happy existence. So let's abandon it if we can. Good riddance to bad rubbish! "If humans can merge their minds with computers, why would they not discard the human form and become an immortal being?" [Paul and Cox, 1996, 21]. 
Yet in order to become truly immortal, our goal should be to become a "cyberbeing", a being that is more than just interlinked with machines, more than just partly a machine itself, and even more than a machine in its entirety. Gradually replacing human biology and the messy organic body by a more durable and more controllable substrate is certainly a considerable improvement, but it is by no means sufficient. Why not go a step further and, if at all possible, discard the physical body altogether? That is, any particular body, any body that is essentially and not merely accidentally ours, not only something we use and can discard when proved not useful enough or no longer useful, but rather something that defines our very existence and has, as it were, pretensions of being us. In other words, why not relocate and transform our existence in such a way that we are no longer bound to any particular material substrate, be it organic or non-organic, because all we need, if anything at all, is the occasional body to-go as a communication facilitator, a hardware on which to run the program which we then will be [Moravec, 1989]. "Imagine yourself a virtual living being with senses, emotions, and a consciousness that makes our current human form seem a dim state of antiquated existence. Of being free, always free, of physical pain, able to repair any damage and with a downloaded mind that never dies". [Paul and Cox, 1996, xv] The telos, the logical end point,  of the ongoing cyborgization of the human is thus the attainment of "digital immortality", which is more than just "a radical new form of human enhancement" [Sandberg and Bostrom, 2008, 5]. Rather, the desire to conquer death, that "greatest evil" [More, 1990], is its secret heart, that which gives the demands for radical human enhancement their moral urgency. And the best chance to attain what we desire is through the as yet still theoretical possibility of mind-uploading.
If these paragraphs seems over the top, it's because they are. Hauskeller appears to be mocking some of the beliefs of the transhumanist camp. He is a believer in the situated self, the self as a product of its body-brain, it's experiences, it's cultural and environmental embeddedness, and its relationships with others (or maybe I am reading my own views into his) - its situation in temporal reality.
The brain is only one of our organs (albeit a very important one), that is, an instrument that we use in order to accomplish certain tasks in accordance with our general desire to survive in this world. My brain is situated in a body, as is my mind, which is one of my modes of existence, no more and no less. Although, let's face it, we do not have the slightest clue how conscious experience comes about and how there can be such things as selves in the first place, it is rather unlikely that mind and self are directly produced by the brain, as is commonly assumed. There is no direct evidence for that. The brain develops and changes with the experience we accumulate during our lives, and it does so because it has a particular job to do within the system that we call a living, conscious being. It rises to the occasion. That we can manipulate the mind by manipulating the brain, and that damages to our brains tend to inhibit the normal functioning of our minds, does not show that the mind is a product of what the brain does. The brain could be just a facilitator. When we look through a window and the window is then painted black, our vision is destroyed or prevented, but we cannot infer from this that the window produces our ability to see. The brain might be like a window to the mind. Surely the mind is not in any clear sense localized in the brain. Alva Noe is right when he declares the locus of consciousness to be "the dynamic life of the whole, environmentally plugged-in person or animal" [Noe, 2009, xiii] We are not our brains, we are "out of our heads", as Noe puts it, reaching out to the world as "distributed, dynamically spread-out, world-involving beings". [Noe, 2009, 82]
Suffice it to say that I am more in line with the views of Hauskeller than I am of Danaher, who, in the article below, attempts to rebut or dismiss objections to the proposition of mind-uploading.

Can we upload our minds? Hauskeller on Mind-Uploading (Part One)


John Danaher
Philosophical Disquisitions
Posted: Jun 14, 2013

A lot of people would like to live forever, or at least for much longer than they currently do. But there is one obvious impediment to this: our biological bodies break down over time and cannot (with current technologies) be sustained indefinitely. So what can be done to avoid our seemingly inevitable demise? For some, like Aubrey de Grey, the answer lies in tweaking and re-engineering our biological bodies. For others, the answer lies in the more radical solution of mind-uploading, or the technological replacement of our current biological bodies.
This solution holds a lot of promise. We already replace various body parts with artificial analogues, what with artificial limbs, organs, and sensory aids (including, more recently, things like artificial retina and cochlear implants). These artificial analogues are typically more sustainable, either through ongoing care and maintenance or renewal and replacement, than their biological equivalents. So why not go the whole hog? Why not replace every body part, including the brain, with some technological equivalent?

That is the question at the heart of Michael Hauskeller’s article “My Brain, My Mind, and I: Some Philosophical Assumptions of Mind Uploading”. The paper offers a sceptical look at some of the assumptions underlying the whole notion of mind-uploading. In this post and the next, I’m going to run through some of Hauskeller’s arguments. In the remainder of this post, I’ll try to do two things. First, I’ll look to clarify what is meant by “mind-uploading” and what we would be trying to achieve by doing it. Second, I’ll introduce the basic argument in favour of mind-uploading, the argument from functionalism, and note some obvious objections to it.

This series of posts is probably best read in conjunction with my earlier series on Nicholar Agar’s argument against uploading. That series looked at mind-uploading from a decision-theoretical perspective, and offers what is, to my mind, the most persuasive objection to mind uploading (though, I hasten to add, I’m not sure that it is overwhelmingly persuasive). Hauskeller’s arguments are more general and conceptual. Indeed, he repeatedly relies on the view that the concerns he raises are conceivable, and worth bearing in mind for that reason, and doesn’t take the further step to argue that they are possible or probable. If you are more interested in whether you should go for mind-uploading or not, I think the concerns raised by Hauskeller are possibly best fed back into Agar’s decision-theoretic framework. Still, for the pure philosophers out there — those deeply concerned with metaphysical questions of mind and identity — there is much to grapple with in Hauskeller’s paper.


1. What are we talking about and why?

In my introduction, I noted the obvious link between mind uploading and the quest for life extension. That’s probably enough to pique people’s curiosity, but if we are going to assess mind uploading in a serious way we need to clarify three important issues.

First up, we need to clarify exactly what it is we wish to preserve or prolong through mind-uploading. I think the answer is pretty obvious: we want to preserve ourselves (our selfs), where this is defined in terms of Lockean personhood. In other words, I would say that the essence of our existence consists in the fact that we are continuing subjects of experience. That is to say, sentient, self-aware, and aware of our continuing sentience over time (even after occasional bouts of unconsciousness). If we are not preserved as Lockean persons through mind-uploading, then I would suggest that there is very little to be said for it from our perspective (there may be other things to be said for it). One important thing to note here is that Lockean personhood allows for great change over time. I may have a very different set of characteristics and traits now than I did when I was five years old. That’s fine. What matters is that there is a continuing and overlapping stream of consciousness between my five year-old self and my current self. For ease of reference, I’ll refer to the claim that mind-uploading leads to the preservation and prolongation of the Lockean person as the “Mind-Uploading Thesis” (MUT).


The second thing we need to do is to clarify what we actually mean by mind-uploading. In his article, Hauskeller adopts a definition from Adam Kadmon, according to which mind-uploading is the “transfer of the brain’s mindpattern onto a different substrate”. In other words, your brain processes are modelled and then transferred from their current biological neuronal substrate, to a different substrate. This could be anything from a classic digital computer, to a device that uses artificial neurons that directly mirror and replicate the brain’s current processes. Hopefully, that is a reasonably straightforward idea. More important than the basic idea of uploading is the actual method through which it is achieved. Although there may be many such methods, for present purposes two are important:
Gradual Uploading/Replacement: The parts of the brain are gradually replaced by functionally equivalent artificial analogues. Although the original brain is, by the end of this process, destroyed, there is no precise moment at which the biological brain ceases to be and the artificial one begins. Instead, there is a step-by-step progression from wholly biological to wholly artificial. 
Discontinuous Uploading/Replacement: The brain is scanned, copied and then emulated in some digital or artificial medium, following which the original brain is destroyed. There is no gradual replacement of the parts of the biological brain.
There may be significant differences between both kinds of uploading, and these differences may have philosophical repercussions. I suspect the latter, rather than the former, is what most people have in mind when they think about uploading, but I could be wrong.

Finally, in addition to clarifying the means through which uploading is achieved, we need to clarify the kinds of existence one might have in the digital or artificial form. There are many elaborate possibilities explored in the sci-fi literature, and I would encourage people to check some of these out, but again for present purposes, I’ll limit the focus to two broad kinds of existence, with intermediate kinds obviously also possible:
Wholly Virtual Existence: Once transferred to an artificial medium, the mind ceases to interact directly with the external world (though obviously it relies on that world for some support) and instead lives in a virtual reality, with perhaps occasional communication with the external world. 
Non-virtual Existence: Once transferred to an artificial medium, the mind continues to interact directly with the external world through some set of actuators (i.e. tools for bringing about changes in the external world). These might directly replicate the human body, or involve superhuman “bodies”.
An added complication here comes in the shape of multiple copies of the same brain living out different existences in different virtual and non-virtual worlds. This should probably be factored into any complete account of mind-uploading. For an interesting fictional exploration of the idea of virtual existence with multiple copies, I would recommend Greg Egan’s book Permutation City.

Anyway, with those clarifications out of the way, we can move on to discuss the arguments for and against the MUT.

Read the whole article, and stay tuned for future installments in this series by Danaher.
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