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Transhumanist Papa: a talk with my six-month-old son
Jønathan Lyons   Jun 16, 2012   Ethical Technology  

“Papa?”
“What’s up?”
“When will you die?”

I scratch my head. Our boy is barely six months old, so clearly we are not actually having this conversation. I must be writing a letter to a future him.

“Well, lad, that’s not something I have an easy or obvious answer for.”

“Why not?”

“Well, because there’s an old saying: Death is the great equalizer,’ it sez.”

“What’s it mean?”

“It means that everyone, wealthy or destitute, kicks it someday.”

“You aren’t going to answer my question, are you?”

“Getting to it, I promise. See, I don’t necessarily plan on dying.”

“What?”

“I mean, I plan for retirement, I have a life insurance policy — I’m not irresponsible about it.”

“Uh — “

“See, apart from a traffic accident or something getting me, I don’t believe that death will always be the great equalizer; it may not be true yet, but shortly, I think a new reality will dawn in which it’s not the case that everyone dies. Mind uploading technology is on its way. Serious, very intelligent people are making it their lives’ work. And mind uploading is only one way that we might not need to die.”

“Really?”

“Yep. Cryogenics promises the possibility of revival at some point in the future, once science has figured out how to fix whatever killed you.”

“You mean, putting your corpse in a freezer?”

“Yep. Or just my head. And it’s a little more involved than plunking a Tofurky roast in our freezer after we go grocery shopping, but that’s one way. Hank talks about his plans for cryonics and having his connectome scanned in in super-high-def. That’s one way.”

“Really?”

“It’s one way it might happen, yeah. Futurist Dr. Max More talked about cryonics and Alcor on the Singularity 1-on-1 podcast fairly recently. You can sign up to arrange to have that done, upon your death.”

“Momma says you’re crazy.”

“Your Mother is always right, of course. But I’m just extrapolating from the sorts of technology that scientists are developing right now.”

“How else might you not die?”

“Well, as the neurons in our brains die, they could eventually be replaced by nanotech, artificial neurons and synthetic synapses that could be much more durable than the originals. They’ll probably even improve upon the design. Luke Muelhauser, executive director of the Singularity Institute, points out that ‘our axons carry signals at 75 meters per second or slower. A machine can pass signals along about 4 million times more quickly.’ Replace the old ones on an ongoing basis and eventually you’ll become someone whose brain not only doesn’t have to age and die, but gets faster with each new sunthetic installation. And because minds are what brains do, who you are will remain intact, with improved hardware capabilities and reliability.”

“Momma says transhumanism is a cult.”

“We sacrifice offerings to the Holy Yottaflop.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Always listen to your mother.”

“Okay — then how else?”

“Substrate independence.”

“Substance dependence?”

“No — substrate independence. It’s about the essence of what you are becoming something that doesn’t necessarily need to reside within an organic brain. It’s part of mind uploading, really; it means that you can move from your organic medium to other, technological media, and possibly into organic media again, back and forth.”

“You mean you’d leave your body and go into — what? — toaster?”

“It’d have to be a hell of a toaster for me to want to, but who knows what convergence might bring?”

“So, a toaster, or a new body?”

“Yep. Dr. Martine Rothblatt thinks that the first astronaut on Mercury will be an uploaded person who’s downloaded into a tech body designed to withstand both the trip there and the conditions on the planet.”

“What do I call you when you upload?”

“Papa.”

“I call you that now. But I mean, what sort of a person will you be?”

“Ah I getcha. One word for the uploaded is transbeman — that’s TRANSitional Bio-Electric huMAN.”

“When you become a transbeman, does the biological you die?”

“I hope not. I mean, that would be convenient insofar as not having two of me around to try to impress you or to compete for your mother’s love, but if uploading destroys the original, then signing up for the process strikes me as a sort of suicide. Suicide with a tech rebirth, but still ... “

“So you won’t die when you become a transbeman?”

“I don’t think so. Quite the opposite, really. You know how I am about my writing? Squirrelling everything away on an external drive, and on a flash drive, and keeping copies on my computer at my office?”

“Momma says you’re paranoid.”

“Your mother knows best. But I think it will copy the original. I think it’ll be more like doing a backup, where the uploading process probably won’t destroy the original. Then if something happens to the original, the backup can be booted up and, as Vonnegut used to say, Hey, Presto! You’re back! Well, you up until the moment of your most recent backup, of course.”

“Would it be you?”

“I think so, yeah. Another me.”

“Could you make copies of the copy?”

“I don’t see why not. I’m not religious. I don’t think that what we are, ultimately, is some mystical being inhabiting this meat of ours. I just don’t have any proof of that (though “21 Grams” was still a great flick). What we are, fundamentally, is information. Once we’ve been translated into a form that can be uploaded to some new medium, making a copy should be simple.”

“You mean there will be more of you running around?”

“Not more of me. Not yet, anyway. I cling to a belief in my own uniqueness. Two of me would contradict that. But other people will want to make copies of themselves. Other versions of one’s self could be booted up on some new substrate and head out into the world. They’d share a common history and memories up to a point, but each would finds zir own destiny.”

“Zir?”

“I’ll get to that in another column, but because you are such a tech-savvy six-month-old, you can follow this link and see my explanation at the end of the article.”

“So you’re immortal?”

“Not yet. I used to joke that I wanted to live to be at least 300, but I wasn’t really joking. I tend to think that claiming not to want to live forever is a sort of extension of the old punk adage that you should never trust anyone over the age of 30; problem is, either you die accidentally and/or unnecessarily at a young age, or eventually you live to be 30, and beyond. Then where’s your cred? I’m just saying that I don’t think it’s all that brave or hip or whatever to claim to want to die before you have to. And I’m making plans for, y’know, if I die. ‘Immortal’ might not be quite the right word. I’d really like to be able to go offline — to die — on my terms, if that’s possible. But I hope to be around for a long, long time.”

“Excellent!”

“That’s what you think now, apple o’ my eye. Wait till you’re 17!”

 

* Disclaimer: in this piece, neither my six-month-old, nor his mother, are meant to represent the actual people. They are rhetorical devices. Foils. Nothing more.

 

Jønathan Lyons is an affiliate scholar for the IEET. He is also a transhumanist parent, an essayist, and an author of experimental fiction both long and short. He lives in central Pennsylvania and teaches at Bucknell University. His fiction publications include Minnows: A Shattered Novel.



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