I’ve recently read a book on the so-called singularity, the point in human development when our science would have reached a point that would allow us to upload our consciousness into machines and thus achieve eternal life with enhanced intelligence and physical strengths.

The idea is very tempting, I would love to be able to live long enough to experience this vision of our future. It would be exhilarating to be free of the physical constraints of this mortal body, to be able to think at the speed of light rather than at the slow speeds that my organic brain is capable of.

But at the same time, I am worried. Would uploading our brains into machines really allow us to upload our conscienceless? Is our consciousness really embedded in the neural connections in our brain? Connections that can be mimicked by the machine we will be uploaded into, or is there more to consciousness than that?

It is a very important question; depending on how that question is answered, the singularity could be either the best thing to happen to the human race or the point at which we all commit mass suicide.

Think of it this way, do we know for sure that our consciousness is contained only in our neural networks? What if our consciousness is separate from our bodies as the dualists have always claimed? Would destroying our physical brain while uploading to computers, as the current set of futurists envision, mean that we would be destroying the thing that makes us conscious?

Would copying our neural networks to a machine merely result in a mockery of humanity? A thing that appears to be conscious in all external behaviour but in reality is just following a set of rules to mimic the person uploaded without any trace of their consciousness being present?

While reading about the singularity, I came across the Chinese Room Experiment, a thought experiment where an English speaker is locked into a room and given a set of symbolic rules to use to generate responses when given a Chinese phrase as input. If the rules are complete enough, such a person could form coherent responses to questions put to him in Chinese, not because he understood Chinese, but by merely manipulating the input symbols according to the rules given to him. So while he would appear to be able to understand Chinese to those asking him questions, in reality he would not understand a thing.

Could our neural networks be similar to those symbolic rules? Would uploading our neural patterns, a process that would destroy the organic brain, result in a machine that can mimic our external behaviour by manipulating symbols but not really be conscious of what its doing?

Would we really be killing ourselves? Destroying whatever truly makes us “us” in our quest for immortality? Would the machines created be technological zombies, incapable of any conscious thought? Would we be consigning the human race to extinction? Leaving behind a civilisation of machines obeying rules that were encoded in our neural networks blindly without the faintest idea about what they truly “feel like”?

Food for thought, I just hope the questions are resolved before we reach a stage where we can inflict irreversible damage on the human race through our ignorance.


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