Copying consciousness

Canadian science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer is intrigued by the mystery of human consciousness. He’s written about it in various ways over the course of his career, and the thought-provoking premise of his latest novel, Mindscan, is that in 40 years humans will be able to download their consciousness into android bodies.

Interestingly, Ian Pearson, a futurologist with British Telecom, has just issued the same prediction. Pearson, who holds degrees in applied mathematics and theoretical physics, doesn’t reference Sawyer, but then, Sawyer himself wouldn’t say he’s breaking new ground: science fiction writers have written about the possibility of downloadable human consciousness since the 1960s, at least, and several recent novels besides Mindscan deal with the idea in various ways.

Both the SF writers and Pearson are basing their predictions on the incredible rate at which computer power is increasing, coupled with advances in understanding the source of human consciousness. Pearson points to Sony’s upcoming PlayStation 3, which is 35 times more powerful than previous game consoles–powerful enough to have been considered a supercomputer just 10 years ago. He estimates PlayStation 3 will have one percent of the computing power of a human brain. At that rate, PlayStation 5 may be the brain’s equal.

Pearson thinks that by 2020 we may have a conscious computer with superhuman levels of intelligence, and by 2050 rich people will be able to download copies of their consciousness into computers. (The not-so-well-off may have to wait another couple of decades.)

This is not a universally held opinion. The exact nature of consciousness is still unclear. Some scientists believe it can never be understood, because it is bound up with quantum phenomena, which are affected by conscious observation–in quantum theory, some things don’t become concrete until observed by a consciousness. You therefore can’t observe consciousness in action because the very act of observing it alters it. And if you can’t pin down its precise nature, you can’t copy it to a machine, either.

For the purposes of his novel, Sawyer invokes something called “quantum fog” as the medium of consciousness copying, but ultimately takes the view that consciousness is an understandable phenomenon, and therefore one which can be copied. (Although he also, for the sake of his story, takes the position that pure machine intelligence won’t be achieved within the next 40 years.) A lot of the book is taken up with courtroom arguments over the nature of consciousness–if you’re looking for brief descriptions of the major scientific positions, you’ll find them in Mindscan. But Sawyer’s focus is as much on the sociological impact of mind-scanning technology as on the possible workings of the technology itself.

Pearson, at least in the news stories his predictions generated, doesn’t have much to say about this: he just says there should be a global debate before anyone builds a machine as smart as a human being, and that the ability to download consciousness to a computer would mean that “when you die it’s not a major career problem.”

Sawyer has worked out a possible future involving this technology in much more detail. In his novel, the old or the terminally ill–provided they’re rich–can download a copy of their consciousness into an android body. The android version of the individual takes up the reins of life again, while the original, the “shed skin,” is quietly shipped off to a resort on the far side of the moon, to live out his or her final few days in comfort.

Sawyer identifies several potential problems, two of which drive his plot. What if the people close to the copied person refuse to accept the android as equivalent to the original–or, indeed, as a real person at all? And what if the original changes his or her mind after being copied? What rights does each version of the individual have? (There’s clearly a bright future ahead for lawyers, at least.)

Mindscan is not a prediction of the future–nobody can predict the future, not science-fiction writers like Sawyer, and not even “deadly earnest” (in The Observer newspaper’s words) futurologists like Pearson. But both science fiction writers and futurologists can provide us with a heads-up of what could be coming our way–a vaccination against future shock.

The astronomer J.B.S. Haldane famously said he suspected that the universe is not only queerer than we imagine, it’s queerer than we can imagine. Ditto the future. And although we won’t (alas) be zooming around the universe any time soon, it’s important to remember that the future is already–and always–zooming toward us.

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1 comment

    • Anita Daher on May 31, 2005 at 12:01 pm
    • Reply


    “when you die it’s not a major career problem.”

    I like this. Perhaps the new me will be able to stay awake at night and finish that book I’ve been working on forever…

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