Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Rest Of My Brain (part 2)

part of a series on thinking outside the skull

(Missed Part 1 and want to go back and read it? It appeared in this blog back on Feb 28.)

Let's engage in a little thought experiment. It's 100 years from today, and there are two key biomedical technology advances important to our discussion.

  1. Bionics beyond today's wildest dreams, able to recreate/enhance any body part. Or a whole body. Replace limbs, heart valves, eyes and more with parts as good or better than the originals.
  2. Brain download/upload technology, to protect and preserve human knowledge. "Backup" your brain to protect against catastrophic cognitive loss from head injury or disease or to share some specific knowledge with others.
Now let's imagine two scenarios involving tragic loss of brain matter and cognitive capacity.

In the first, you are undergoing a delicate brain tumor removal surgery and as a precaution, your brain is fully backed up. The tumor is large and the surgery complex, and a portion of your brain must be cut away. So you get some bionic brain implants AND you get the backup content of your brain reloaded. You recover completely.

Thoughts to consider: You clearly relied on external storage of your thoughts and memories, and without them, you would not have come through the ordeal nearly as well. Did you exist simultaneously in the confines of your skull and also in that external storage for a time? Which of the two was "you" during those few hours? Was it the incomplete version of your thoughts, knowledge and memory in your skull? Or the complete version in the storage device? Or both?

Now consider a second scenario.

This time, your delicate surgery is being done because of an accident so severe that nobody knows if you can be pieced back together. Head and body severely traumatized. A brain backup that had luckily been done just days before is available, and on hand. The surgery goes on for hours, with several organs and limbs being replaced, but your life holds on by a thread. 15 hours in, the Chief of Bionics at the hospital asks your loved ones to consider whether your stored brain contents should be loaded into a new humanoid full bionic body. It has never been done, but the team believes that the new bionic body is far and away the best ever and fully capable of carrying your thoughts, memories and knowledge. Word from the operating room is that you are near death, and your loved ones agree to the brain load into the bionic body and sign the papers. An overly zealous Bionics team begins the process immediately. And the surgery continues. Eight hours later, your brain has been fully uploaded into the bionic body. As the process is completing, more than 33% of that brain backup is accidentally damaged. At about the same time, word comes from the operating room that after 24 hours of grueling surgery, you are going to come through alive. Alive, but much of your brain is lost. The upload from the brain backup begins, but in a moment of shared horror everyone recognizes that the upload will be incomplete due to the 33% loss. Your brain is restored as completely as possible.

Thoughts to consider: Many mistakes were made and there was some unethical or at least unwise behavior on the part of the hospital. But medical mistakes happen a century from now just as they do today. Your thoughts, memory and knowledge are now mostly (but not fully) back in your own skull. But a complete copy is in a fully bionic life form. The latter carries on conversations and recognizes loved ones in your voice and with all your memories (many of which you, the original you, no longer have). Which is "you"? Should both continue to exist? Which one gets called "dad" by the kids, goes back to work at his employer, owns property? Would it be murder to terminate the bionic body with your full memories?

If this continues to be of interest, there will be a part 3. Meanwhile, please leave a comment and let us know what you think.


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  1. You ask in the first instance: Which of the two was "you" during those few hours?

    No. This copy was merely a "cold store" copy, there was no thinking process to evolve the thoughts, so these thoughts were not animated, or alive. This copy was merely a snapshot of you, and therefore only a thin slice of you.

    In the second instance, while I can take your scenario as a given, I don't understand why a read-only backup is damaged by reading from it...

    1. Perhaps your considerable intelligence requires a physically large storage array to hold it- even a century from now. And perhaps a piece of heavy equipment was accidentally dropped onto a third of it.