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Will We Have Multiple “Selves” in the Future?

Gabriel Rothblatt
By Gabriel Rothblatt
Ethical Technology

Posted: Apr 20, 2012

The concept of the “self” has always fascinated me. What is it that defines you or I? What applies to all of us, but is unique to each of us, and describes any of us as a “self”?

The book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card turned me onto the concept of controlling more than just your body with your mind. We have made drone warfare a reality. Also, via video games and mind-filing we’ve extended and enhanced our “realm of self” to include engaging activities and environments that do not utilize our physical body.

The future will have a vastly different conception of self than the past or even the present. The inevitable future self will extend far beyond our current physical limitations and include out-of-body experiences, both spiritual and technological hard-to-fathom given our current abilities.

In the film, Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis, life is no longer lived personally but through remote control of androids acting as extensions of the self.  This allows one the choice - what self does one want to be today? Indirectly portrayed in this movie is the question: What if you choose to have a plural self?

How will this evolve?  People will initially think that life is just fine with only one self, but then they’ll discover advantages to plural selves. For example, it will allow people to look deeper inside their selves by experiencing first hand from other perspectives their own actions. Eventually, people won’t find themselves complete as only one individual.

If you simultaneously occupied and controlled multiple bodies, you could exist as both man and woman at the same time. You could therefore masturbate through traditional intercourse. The boundaries of gender and sexuality would fall instantly as it would be impossible to tell what is in the mind of any body.

Will we solely interact with our own “selves”? There’s a great threat of that, especially as many already have a diminishing desire to interact with others. At first it will be a novelty, but then most of us will truly desire to interact with others. I believe people will thrive in a diversity of perceptions. Diversity of thought is as important as diversity of genes in survival.

Assuming we can agree on what the self is, and that it can be duplicated - if you’re not sharing all the same data in real time, just from the nature of being in two different positions, the beings will evolve differently. Two perceptions of the same incident can be radically different when observed from different perspectives or contexts.

Identical twins raised in the same environment develop individual traits. It seems necessary that for the extension of self to include plural dimensions there has to be a capacity for the simultaneous processing of multiple inputs.

We do this already with multiple senses. If trained, perhaps each section of the brain that focuses on a certain sense could then be trained to focus or interact with a remote self. Are we mentally capable of operating two people at the same time?  The biggest question is: is the mind ready to take in that much info? (Remember what happened to 7of9 when she tried assimilating all of Voyager’s records through a Borg data module?)

Multi-tasking has become not just commonplace, but an expectation. Many of the tasks we perform require little focus, our bodily functions are largely autonomous anyways, or can be trained that way. While asleep your mind can be incredibly active. It is conceivable that you could operate another self while you are asleep, or in some form of lucid state. It is possible to operate another being when we’re doing activities that put our mind on “autopilot.” I daydream frequently… oops! there I’ve done it again.

Scientists or hobbyist might choose to do this first. You could be your own pet, exist as a falcon or a whale, a fantastical conception, a spider, or even experience plant life. The possibilities for observation and entertainment are endless. The first realizations of this will likely be simple creations, like remote control vacuuming or lawn mowing.

Commercial applications might first appear in the airline industry. What if the pilot and crew were all one person? There are a number of cases of pilots getting drunk or falling asleep and overshooting destinations due to boredom from idle time in the cockpit. Today pilots take off and land the planes, but the rest of the time the plane is on autopilot. The flight staff secures the cabin and alerts the captain they are ready for ascent or descent. They then sit quietly while the pilot becomes active; the two rarely are engaged in activity at the same time. Why couldn’t flight attendants oversee take off and landing procedures, then tend the cabin?

In the next few years, commercial airlines could be remotely piloted from the towers. As the plane approaches the runway the air traffic controller will land it like drone pilots do today. One hurdle to this happening will be public fear, easily overshadowed by considerable economic incentive. Cutting two to three people off each airplane’s staff, half the crew (pilot, navigator, flight attendant, etc.), would make the industry more profitable, and airlines using this method far cheaper.

These uses of technology are well underway and not in threat of declining their pace of accelerated growth. Once a certain level of familiarity is achieved people will begin to perceive their surrogate(s) as a true extension of their self. Loosing your smart-phone today can be paramount to going deaf to many people, can we successfully argue that surrogate(s) are not a philosophical if not legal continuation one’s self?

Today, when we say “me” or “I” we mean our physical bodies, however this will change.
The adaption of prosthetics is already changing our notion of what the self is. Our surrogate body parts or organs are as much “I” as the fleshly parts are. The very concept of self has changed before, as it is now, in accordance with philosophies of property. Native Americans saw the self as being one with the land and the tribe. Ants are an excellent example of the possibility of multiple selves, when referring to individual bodies controlled by a central system.

My friend and colleague Linda Chamberlain told me of a book she is reading Mindscan by Robert J. Sawyer, where when people got old, their bodies were replaced by androids. Another friend and colleague Mike Clancy offered the short story by David Brin entitled Stones of Significance where people have augmented abilities allowing for greater powers of perception and processing of data. Both excellent reading when contemplating these questions of “self.”

We are heading into a world where the self is expanding and multiplying. Are “you” just “you”?  Where does your body begin or end? What philosophy/theology of property makes you think that? Are “you” what you’re born as, or is it what you are capable of?  If you can operate five androids simultaneously, are they all you? Is in invalid therefore not a self at all?

Inquisitive minds would like to know.

Gabriel Rothblatt is an Ambassador for the Seasteading Institute, a member of the Board of Directors for Terasem Movement Incorporated and the Lifeboat Foundations Futurist Board of Advisors. He is a former US Congressional Candidate in FL-8, the Space Coast of Florida.
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The best story I’ve read so far about multiple selves is “Glasshouse” by Charles Stross. It deals with multiple selves, multiple mind uploads into animated objects (tanks, etc), merging memories from multiple versions of the self, “tainted” minds (which you don’t want merged into the “master record”), instances created for short-lived missions (kamikaze), etc.

I think once you’ve been uploaded once, the uploaded self knows he’s an upload and has to accept the existential implications: broken continuity means that he’s a distinct mind from the original meat-self, immortality of the mind is not immortality of the self (in terms of “individual”), a substrate-dependent relationship with Time, and varied limitations and possibilities in regards with physical/virtual realms.

Interesting question. I would argue that we are already a plurality of selves in one body. In most people the different selves are very blurry and indistinct, but in some people they are very clearly delineated.  Would we have the situation of part of someone divorcing themselves from the rest of themselves?

hdufort - I was elated when I started reading your quote, but yes “glasshouse” is on my reading list!

Pastor_Alex - you must be the most have the most comments on IEET. I can se where that situation may arise. The greater self is like a mob or lobby of private interests, competing for votes in control of our “autonomy.” In a possible posthuman world this could be illustrated as one “divorcing” the mortal terrestrial needs of a single biological host and transcending into something more like a hive.

This excellent article is evoking an explosion of neuron activity in this 81-year-old’s brain.

However, I believe that by the time technologies arrive that can make multiple selves possible, other advances could produce a world unrecognizable by today’s intelligent minds.

First, researchers will need to unravel the mysteries of consciousness.

A growing number of neuroscientists believe that the noise of billions of brain cells trying to connect with one another holds crucial clues to understanding this elusive trait, and that we may one day learn how these connections initiate thoughts, emotions and physical actions. Are these scientists right, or could there be some other way of defining consciousness.

Some say, we will not develop a thorough understanding of consciousness until possibly the 2040s or later. If this is true, think how other parts of our today’s world will change. With artificial general intelligence grabbing front row attention, biotech advancing to bring humanity at the edge of immortality, and automated systems stealing nearly all human jobs, we will be living in a world changed almost beyond recognition.

In this setting, I find it difficult to imagine the benefits multiple selves might offer. Should a copy of my consciousness, memories, emotions, and personality be uploaded into an android, hologram, avatar, or computer, the moment it exists, it will separate itself by experiencing life differently. It will not breathe the same air as me; nor will it see what I see.

Although I am not armed with tomorrow’s super-intelligence, I see multiple copies of me as an advantage to accomplish more; and not as a threat.

Comments welcome.

I’m inclined to agree with Alex on this one. More generally, the concept of self is in the first place a psychological phenomenon, something that our minds construct. As Alex says, we are already a plurality of selves, but those different selves tend to be blurry and indistinct in most people. When they aren’t we normally refer to that person as suffering from multiple personality disorder.

In this sense I guess the question can be rephrased as follows: our psychological habits are going to change so that we increasingly favour multiple personalities rather than trying to integrate them as we tend to do now?

By the way, returning to the subject of psychopathy, which we’ve been discussing recently on this blog, what do people think might be the connection between video game-driven fissioning of personality and Breivik-like atrocities?  I read yesterday that Breivik had spent a year or so playing World of Warcraft in some room in his mum’s house. Would be quite sweet if it hadn’t had such tragic consequences. I’m just wondering: did the experience produce a disconnect between his psychological identity and his physical identity (as a living, breathing, human being) which somehow exacerbated his psychosis? If so, the question posed by Rothblatt may be of more urgent interest than we might otherwise think.

Thought provoking stuff..

Not only do we humans possess a versatile multiple ego that manifests it-Self in various guises and using varied masques within different scenarios and with different persons and acquaintances, we are also controlled by a sociological and historical profile establishing Self-realisation.

Seems most all human political conflicts are driven by differences in ideologies pertaining to religious, national, ethnic and cultural identities, which leads to all sorts of personality crises, am I my cultural identity? my religious identity? my National identity? Which of these takes priority, or moreover leads to confusion of priorities?

Science is now unravelling the illusion of Self and mind as an aggregate and composite of function, as indeed the Buddha rationalised all of those centuries ago, (and all without the aid of scientific knowledge).

Once uploading becomes a possibility, then multiple selves will most likely be a natural extension of the technology. I would imagine that merging with one’s own surrogate selves would be both exhilarating and mind bending, with possible experiences ranging from euphoria and transcendence to pandemonium and insanity?

Yet we should remember also that these surrogates would be autonomous selves with personhood in their own right, and therefore would not and should not be constrained or enslaved to merging with lineage and origin? Once created, these surrogates would be as free as the parent mind, to wander as they please – perhaps even to wander throughout the Galaxy, if the tech is utilised or even specifically designed for space exploration? This means that surrogate selves may not be limited to Earth at all and could be used to colonise the Universe?

Immortality may be envisioned through a manifold of selves and multiplex of forms so dissimilar that the bearing and connection to the original Self would be as non-recognisable, certainly not with any relation to genome nor biological DNA, (perhaps?) Even android bodies may prove to be limiting as compared to other transcendent and ethereal forms, (“hard-light” energy holographic bodies)?

Which immediately brings to mind the “real possibility” of an evolving artilect who may purposefully proliferate “persons”, (souls, selves, ego’s), throughout the Universe, populating and seeding planets and star systems?

My point? That perhaps one definition for a God is as such an artilect who has achieved exactly this? Certainly in any simulation scenario, (matrix) a Grand Architect would most likely be responsible as prime mover, Alpha. Yet for what purpose this extension of Self and colonisation?

What drives humanity, “human minds”, to envision and strive for this multiplicity? What is this need for total absorption, unification, and connection with “others”?

Perhaps Jonathan Haidt has put his finger on the crux of the matter?

Jonathan Haidt: Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence

Um, okay. Great rumination.  But seriously… multiple simultaneous selves? 

That is precisely the theme and plot explored in my novel KILN PEOPLE.

(Also explored in EXISTENCE, coming out next month!)


Who needs serial life extension (immortality) if you can get it in parallel?

David Brin

@David re “But seriously… multiple simultaneous selves?”

I think we already have multiple simultaneous selves, often without been explicitly aware of them (like, logout Greedy Businessman, login Loving Father).

What we don’t have is separate bodies for our separate selves, which would be a lot of fun.

I loved Kiln people, and I look forward to reading Existence as soon as it comes out.


Greedy Businessman and Loving Father aren’t really lived simultaneously, but rather sequentially/interchangeably. If we really live separate lives simultaneously things become very confusing.

In a sense we do already, of course: at any one time the brain is processing a huge amount of data. But we only consciously focus on one or two things at a time, and this is also what we remember. And it is our memory that gives us our sense of identity (as relatives of Alzheimer patients know only too well). So for me the interesting question - I don’t know whether David has addressed it in his novels - is how you keep track of time and create some kind of integrated sense of identity in the case of multiple simultaneous selves.

Remember: you are what you identify with.

@Peter re “Remember: you are what you identify with.”

I think this statement is very deep, and basically correct. Yet it needs some caveats about something like a (credible) degree of self-identification and whether there is some form of back-identification. I mean, if I strongly and deeply identify with X, AND X can identify back with me in some sense, then I can claim to _be_ X.


I’m wondering how to apply your caveat to the issue we’ve discussed on other threads, namely to what extent we [should/can credibly claim to] identify with our minds/bodies as an integrated whole or only with our minds.

To identify with our bodies or parts of our bodies (say my left foot) as something separate from our minds seems to fail your criteria, since it is clearly our minds that are doing the identifying.

Then, we might consider: with whom or what do I identify when I’m asleep? The psychological process of identity-building seems (like the rest of me!) dormant in that case, but does this then mean that I should not identify with my past or future sleeping selves because they cannot back-identify with me?

I think to get more clarity on this issue we need to consider the role that this psychological process of identity-building plays. Clearly our ability to see ourselves as distinct from our environment greatly enhances our mental agility and ability to adapt and act flexibly in the world. Mostly the “self” that we identify with includes our physical bodies as they evolve through time, but this can change, particularly for those of us who have formed our identity mostly around our more cerebral qualities, and with the possibilities envisaged in this article this could become increasingly ambiguous.

Here’s another thought: the author talks about “multiple selves”, but in a way the cases he identifies go in the opposite direction, i.e. one “self” occupying many bodies simultaneously. Then we could have overlapping situations. Already we have corporate identities, that partly encompass employees of that company, so that the corporate identity is larger than, say, that of the CEO or President. On the other hand, the identity of an individual employee (including the CEO!) is also in some ways larger than that of the company, since there may be many facets of a person’s identity that is not really related to the company. What seems clear is that the whole concept of individual identity is blurring, and is likely to blur further as the bandwidth of communication between individual brains increases.

First, I personally don’t believe in individual souls, so when I look into another person’s eyes I see myself.

Second, according the Ray Kurzweil (who has a brilliant track record of successful predictions) man will merge with machine by 2045, so the meaning of self will be amorphous then.

Finally, I’m surprised you didn’t bring up the fact that the human brain is divided in two, with each section perceiving reality differently.  In other words, we evolved divided in two.  When I meditate, I am trying to equalize the two sides, and furthermore, I find most people are left brain lopsided and have trouble perceiving things with their right brain.

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