Throughout history, anytime an invention or technology has been presented to public, there has been criticism of some sort. Inventions such as the printing press, light bulb, television, alternating current, flight, vaccines, personal computer, phones and internet in received severe criticism due to their perceived effect on humanity. We all realize the importance of these technologies and how they can be utilized to make our life easier and more efficient. But it must be accepted that new inventions come with their own risks, and they must be used with caution and for the desired purpose.
Wrong use could raise ethical and legal concerns, which is what my essay is going to detail.
Before going into detail about the technologies and the issue they might bring, I want to highlight the importance of natural sciences with regards to new technology. I claim that every ground-breaking invention’s inventor owes it to some natural scientist to thank for. Without Newton, we would not have been able to understand the world around us as we do today.
Without understanding of gravity no air planes would have been possible let alone sending satellites in orbit, robots to other planets, man to Moon or to Mars. Without Chemists, the advancements in vaccines and weaponry would have been stunted. Without Biologists, who helps us understand out anatomy but more importantly our brain functionality, which helps us make better sensory devices. The point is that we would not have internet, television, cars, and not only these but everything around you.
The chair we sit, the bed we sleep in, and the cup we drink out of had not been possible without their research.
Having highlighted their importance, I want to divert the attention specifically to the advancements in medicine and neuroscience and how it can change the world around us. Due to research and technology we have been able to raise the average life span from 35 in 19th century to about 85 in 20th. That is a huge improvement, but it is often misleading if you start to believe that humans are living longer now.
The term average life span must not be confused with maximum life span. The infant mortality rate highly skews the average life span. That is to say that if you had two children, and one died at birth and the other died at 80, the average life span would be 40, which is statically accurate but meaningless. Over the years, treatment of cancer, heart diseases and influenza has increased the average life span but not much has been achieved in terms of increasing the maximum life span. As a matter of fact, human’s maximum life span is believed to be capped at 125 years.
But that is however, changing. With increasing research in gerontology, the study of aging, it is become more evident that maximum life span might increase. Prof Jim Vaupel, a specialist in ageing at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany and one of the authors, said: “The evidence points towards no looming limit. At present the balance of the evidence suggests that if there is a limit it is above 120, perhaps much above – and perhaps there is not a limit at all” . Currently, as believed scientists, is that humans age plateaus out and mortality rate levels off after reaching 100. After that, it is 50/50 each birthday. Given that it is still believed by statisticians, according to a paper in Scientific America, that there are about 500,000 people aged 100 or above, and that number is predicted to double each decade.
So far, researchers have pointed out to different factors that can extend maximum life span. Some of them include research in anti-aging drugs, nanotechnology, and cloning and body part replacement, cyborgs, cryonics, engineered negligible senescence, genetic editing, fooling genes, and many more.
The possibility of clinical immortality raises a host of medical, philosophical, and religious issues and ethical questions. These include persistent vegetative states, the nature of personality over time, technology to mimic or copy the mind or its processes, social and economic disparities created by longevity, and survival of the heat death of the universe.
The one technique I wanted to talk about is called mind uploading. One of the complications that will arise as humans get older, that they lose the memory capacity that they can hold. To fix that, researchers have suggested to ‘move’ the conscious mind to computer.
Mind uploading can done for two purposes. One main reason is that the person might be ‘full of memory’ and wants to upload his memory to a computer and erase the undesirable memory from his brain so he can have room for more. Other reason is that the computer to which the mind has been ‘uploaded’, that computer can now think and take actions as a human would do. So, it can act more like a robot, but smarter.
Like with any invention, mind uploading comes with its own set of issues. It can cause philosophical and verification issues, along with ethical, legal, political and economic implications.
The utilization of mind uploading to erase part of the memory blurs the line of one’s self identity. Who are we if our brain is not the same as it used to be? Are we still the same person? Even if one dies, they can transport their brain to another person’s body, so does that mean are they still alive? If that person had committed crime in the past and now has his mind moved to another person? Who should go to jail? This can cause all sorts of issues in every kind of crime; we would new definitions of identity. Another potential consequence of mind uploading is that the decision to ‘upload’ may then create a mindless symbol manipulator instead of a conscious mind. Are we to assume that an upload is conscious if it displays behaviors that are highly indicative of consciousness? Are we to assume that an upload is conscious if it verbally insists that it is conscious? Could there be an absolute upper limit in processing speed above which consciousness cannot be sustained? The mystery of consciousness precludes a definitive answer to this question. Numerous scientists strongly believe that determining whether a separate entity is conscious (with 100% confidence) is fundamentally unknowable, since consciousness is inherently subjective.
Brain emulations could be erased by computer viruses or malware, without need to destroy the underlying hardware. This may make assassination easier than for physical humans. The attacker might also take the computing power for its own use.
There are verification issues with the other form of mind uploading where an emulation acts as a person of its own. It is argued that if a computational copy of one’s mind did exist, it would be impossible for one to verify this. The argument for this stance is the following: for a computational mind to recognize an emulation of itself, it must be capable of deciding whether two Turing machines (namely, itself and the proposed emulation) are functionally equivalent. This task is uncomputable due to the undecidability of equivalence, thus there cannot exist a computational procedure in the mind that is capable of recognizing an emulation of itself.
The process of developing emulation technology raises ethical issues related to animal welfare and artificial consciousness. The neuroscience required to develop brain emulation would require animal experimentation, first on invertebrates and then on small mammals before moving on to humans. Sometimes the animals would just need to be euthanized in order to extract, slice, and scan their brains, but sometimes behavioral and in vivo measures would be required, which might cause pain to living animals.
Many questions arise regarding the legal personhood of emulations. Would they be given the rights of biological humans? If a person makes an emulated copy of themselves and then dies, does the emulation inherit their property and official positions? Could the emulation ask to ‘pull the plug’ when its biological version was terminally ill or in a coma? Would it help to treat emulations as adolescents for a few years so that the biological creator would maintain temporary control? Would criminal emulations receive the death penalty, or would they be given forced data modification as a form of ‘rehabilitation’? Could an upload have marriage and child-care rights?
If simulated minds would come true and if they were assigned rights of their own, it may be difficult to ensure the protection of ‘digital human rights’. For example, social science researchers might be tempted to secretly expose simulated minds, or whole isolated societies of simulated minds, to controlled experiments in which many copies of the same minds are exposed to different test conditions.
As one can see there are many issues with mind uploading let alone immortality. I believe that our society do not yet have the answer to the issues brought up in my essay. Slowing down the advancement in mind uploading can be a good idea as it might give society more time to think about the consequences of brain emulation and develop institutions to improve cooperation. But if past is any indicator there are very few feasible technologies that humans have refrained from developing. The main bottleneck is research in neuroscience, and hopefully by the time we understand more about consciousness and inner workings of brain, we might be ready for brain emulations. But until then, we can only hope!