Saturday, 12 January 2013

Can We Live Forever?

The answer to this question is maybe. There are many factors that come into play when trying to answer a question like this which pertain subjects like religion, philosophy and engineering. In order to answer this question one must understand what life and consciousness are, what makes a person a person and search the technological advances, which will aid the process.

            It is hard understand what exactly consciousness and identity are. Evolutionary biologists suggest that consciousness arose in order to help a human plan for the future. Strangely enough, it is remembering the past that taught us predict the future. By learning how to store memories, a human mind learned how to predict future, based on the past events. That is also why we have imagination. One side effect of it is that sometimes we don’t remember past events correctly. Like Ronald Reagan who thought that his ancestors died in the Alamo. Biologists argue that having memories of the past events by itself is quite useless, we only have memories to use them as a template for the future. That is why we sometimes confuse thoughts and dreams with reality. The part of the brain that is responsible for predicting the future is the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe in the brain is possibly the only reason why we are able to go on the Internet and fly across the globe as opposed to running around in the jungle.

            It seems weird for us that the brain is us, it seems that we are an entity stuck in this body. We believe that we are free to do anything and that we are in control of our lives. Unfortunately that is not the case. Our brain works in a such way that anyone who studies it is at first in disbelief. There have been cases when a people were unable to recognize faces because a part of their brain that is responsible for face recognition doesn’t “work”. Another case reports a man who is unable to recognize objects, he sees them the same way as we do, but he doesn’t comprehend what they are, he understand the concept of an object. The reason once more is that the part of the brain responsible for object recognition doesn’t “work”. Some paralyzed people act like their body parts can work, not because they lie, but because they really do believe that their limbs work. When asked to move an object, they usually come up with an excuse such as “oh i didn’t feel like using my hand”.

            Following this logic, one can say that it is not us who controls our brain, but the brain that controls us. But then again, we make a distinction between us and the brain, because that’s the way it seems to us, which is incorrect.

            Now since the brain is us and we are the brain, assuming that it would be possible to replicate, modify or download the information from our brain, we could suddenly be somewhere else. To be more specific, let’s assume that bioengineering scientists have come up with artificial neurons, which are exactly the same as the ones in the brain. Now one by one, we extract a neuron from the brain and replace it with the artificial one. Since we are replacing them one by one, the flow of consciousness is not affected. The person is aware of themselves and the surroundings. The question now lies, now that each neuron in the person’s brain has been replaced, is it the same person?
            This thought experiment has existed for centuries, and has been known as the Theseus Ship. In that thought experiment Theseus has a ship, in which each part is gradually replaced one by one until each part is replaced. The question then lies, is it still Theseus’ Ship? Similarly, is the person whose neurons have been replaced still the same person? Well, it is impossible to answer the question, because there is no real answer. Some argue that since there was no stopping in the flow of consciousness, the person is the same. However, if the person was put to sleep and had the neurons replaced then a new person would wake up.

            That is not the only way one could become immortal. The brain could be potentially uploaded to a computer and therefore reach immortality. To understand this concept, one must first be acquainted with the Brain in the Vat thought experiment. Imagine a crazy scientist, who has advanced technology. The crazy scientist kidnaps a person and extracts their brain. He puts it in a vat and connects cords to his brain, which imitate the stimuli the brain receives from the body. The cords are connected to their brain in such a way the computer gives their brain images, sounds etc. So the question is, is their reality any different from ours? Is it possible that you, the reader are really in some crazy person’s lab and everything is just an illusion created by the computer. And although it is fun to entertain such ideas, one must understand the purpose of this thought experiment. Everything we hear, feel and see are just what our brain tells us what they are. The colors are the way the brain tells us. What if all of us see the colors in a different way but call them the same names? The space around is mainly empty, there is much more empty spare in a solid object than particles. If our brain saw the world the way it is described in physics, we would mainly just see empty space around us, but that would be evolutionarily disadvantageous. These questions and ideas have no answer and its doubtful if they ever will be answered. We cannot know what its like to be another person or a creature. We will never comprehend how bats can see through sound and whether our pet is conscious.

            Therefore downloading the brain into a computer is very plausible. With computer simulating the stimuli that are sent to our brain, we could live in a world created by the computer. In a utopia where anything we want will appear in front us just when we wish it to. However some will argue that that is worse than death. A life where there is no incentive to work is meaningless. Furthermore, religious people look forward to meeting Saint Peter at the gates of Heaven or reincarnating into a different living object. 

            The other solution to this problem is be to connect the computer brain of a person whose brain has been downloaded, into to a robot body. In other words, the brain of a human is downloaded into a computer in which the person is still consciousness. And then, instead of connecting cords into the brain in order to simulate the reality, the cords are connected to artificial body and head with sight and hearing. In a weird way, it is transforming a human into a robot, but assuming that the robot body looks exactly like a human one, that person/robot would be able to lead a normal life. Here's a video of a robot being controlled by brain cells of a rat grown in the lab:

            And although this solution seems to work, it also opens a metaphysical can of worms. Let’s assume this: a person who is thought to be dead has his brain downloaded into the computer. A few hours later, a miracle happens and the person comes back to life. So now we have a consciousness in the computer and in the person. One consciousness becomes two, and is it not the proof that the computer consciousness is not the “real” consciousness? Well, once again, it depends on one’s definition of consciousness. Philosophers claim that a human, what makes you, you, is the experiences. So in that way, both are just as real, and both are the same person.

           Another interesting scenario appears if we imagine that two brains are downloaded into the same computer. In that way, who is the computer and how will these two consciousnesses work together? Will that combined one person go crazy? Will one consciousness take over the other, or will this strange situation create a synergy in which both consciousnesses gain from such an experience?

            One could also study consciousness by looking at the animals. Are animals conscious? It is highly doubtful that a slug is aware of its existence, but a chimpanzee isn’t (chimpanzees can recognize themselves in the mirror). Does a dog suffer or simply feel the pain without understanding what it really is? When a predator corners the horned lizard, it uses the defense mechanism that is wired into its brain. It squirts blood out of its eyes to distract the predator and get away. The lizard doesn’t really understand what it’s doing. It is in its genes, which over millions of years formed in a way that would be most efficient for the lizard to survive and pass on its genes.

            And although we consider ourselves to be conscious and in control of our bodies, that is not always the case. Evolutionary biology suggests that our behavior can be explained by evolution. We do things in a certain way because back in the hunter-gatherer times, it was the only way to survive. If you are faced with a huge lion in front of you, you will immediately enter the fight or flight mode, meaning that either you will fight the lion or run away. At the same time, adrenalin will be released into your blood to give extra strength, sweating will cool down the body temperature as physical action raises it, and other changes in your body will happen involuntarily. Another example is when a 6-month old baby is shown pictures of people of his own race and a different one; they will look longer at the picture of the person that is of the same race. Evolutionary psychology affects us before we are even old enough to become conscious.

            A good way to understand all of this is through yet another thought experiment, known as the Chinese room experiment. Imagine a man who has been hired to a Chinese company although he doesn’t know a single word in Chinese. His job consists of sitting in a room that is completely isolated from everyone/everyone else. He sits alone in a closed office, which has two openings in the wall. He receives documents in Chinese from one of the openings. He looks at the document and then opens a special book in which he has to match the characters in the document with the ones in the book. After matching them, he writes characters on the piece of paper based in the book. He works there for years, and eventually the book is not even required. He becomes very efficient at it, and knows exactly what to do once the documents come and does his work very quickly. But he never understands what exactly it is that he is writing. That is similar to consciousness. The process of the documents coming in and replies coming it out is similar an organism receiving stimuli and responding to them. Animals become better at things, dogs become trained, on top of evolution, training modifies them to become more efficient, and yet the dog never understands why exactly it is that it has to fetch the tennis ball. The stimuli coming in the dog seeing the ball fly, and the dog’s response is to get it. The dog will never comprehend what it does the same way the man will never comprehend what it is that comes in and out.

            So yes, consciousness is extremely complicated, which makes immortality all more perplexing and baffling. Immortality has been a dream of man for eras, and now it seems that the dream can be achieved, but in a way no one could have predicted. Technological advances will inevitably lead to more complicated computer structures which one day may become AI and help us better understand a consciousness. And yet there is still a chance that once the necessary technology is there, it still won’t be “us” who live forever, but rather the continuation of our consciousness (whatever that might mean to you). I can only hope I live long enough to become immortal.

This is what the future might look like for us:


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