By Dwight Gilbert Jones
Martine Rothblatt’s new work “Virtually Human – The Promise and the Peril of Digital Immortality” is a definitive overview-cum-prototype design for the emerging science of cyber consciousness, with a focus on its possibilities as a pathway to immortality.
The author is an unashamed enthusiast for the prospect, which is refreshing, as there is no attempt here at guarded optimism, with some chicken shit disclaimer that we may be wiser to accept our fate. She tells us just how she thinks cyber consciousness will happen, and why your “mindclone” will be you. This is where she selectively over-reaches, and denies the flesh its due -to praise the ugly digital step-sister and ignore Cinderella. Yet her examinations will all be useful scaffolding for the models that are to come. The first steam engine was made with a tin can.
I have evolved an ostensibly competing scheme for immortality based on DNA stewardship, and it is indicative of some discord when the word genome does not occur in this book’s extensive index. My position is that your DNA is you, and the structure of your genome is your digital pattern. Discussion then centers on your genotype vs your phenotype, and not on the role of memories, as it does for her analysis. By my view, the smoke trailing a train does not define it.
The author is desperately aware that identical twins are a living laboratory contrapuntal to her project, and she gives the twins and their private languages very short shrift. She decides that their epigenetic makeup makes each one essentially different, indeed impossible to replicate. Yet she begs for every possible concatenation and concession to make you believe that her memory-loaded multimedia “mindclone” will end up being “you”. She grasps at so many straws, that soon she has a straw house and must reread the Three Little Pigs for what she might have missed.
I say this not to deprecate her overview of digital phenomena and how they might in time be aggregated into a sentient being. We are both immortalists and our paths are not that divergent – my hope is that someday they will converge to meld into a vibrant whole. But in this volume, she dismisses our DNA or genome as not suitable substrates to examine or retain, just rotting ‘sleeves” and almost her whole identity merge depends on the aggregation of retained memories.
In my genome-based model, I cite the uniqueness of the our DNA molecule, it being the most complicated structure in the known universe, as the indicator of self. There is one of it, and one of you, and they just may be the same for some purposes. As long as your DNA viably survives, then in theory so does your own precious franchise and window onto life (for which we still have no definition). I can tell you that Life ( capitalized, as in Humanism) has gone missing in this Virtual Human.
This is not an appeal to sentiment – rather, taking the position that a computer remains the same computer even after rebooting, that memories are not our essence – a phenotype must be present. It may be true that eventually her mindclones will be so complex that they truly do walk and talk like a duck – but to gratuitously claim that this item is also you because of stored memory is a long, long throw – with nobody covering the bag right now.
The informational density of DNA and my identity/self is equated as an article of faith by me, but Rothblatt chooses to buffer her whole scheme with these layers of multimedia memory, in the hope of baffling the Grim Reaper with BS, perhaps. That angle will quite patently have little bearing on the continuation of the self, especially when you are re-assembled with hardware and software, outside the human phenotype stream.
Too often she presents possibilities, such as your mindclones continuing on Facebook after your funeral, without taking wise warning from their leering, macabre prospect. Detecting a common thread in the mindclone’s pre-loaded memory may be cool, but correlation is not cause, and nobody’s home except this identity thief.
Without the body-stream, you will always be a scarecrow mockery of yourself, a Rube Goldberg contrivance on an overweening scale. Over a few centuries this could morph, but no sooner.
She doesn’t consider the role of hormones in consciousness, for example, and the functions of the various sub-organs in the brain that they control. What is a robot on ragin’ testosterone like? Because humans do that sort of thing, they are juiced the morning they are born and their minds remain aflame for good – just try dousing one.
Rothblatt claims that if half a dozen experts say they can’t tell the difference – then it’s human. May I never sit before that jury, accused of witchery. Where’s the beef? Even the blind men were allowed to feel up the elephant, before describing it, and none of them got it right. I claim habeas corpus – she is designing a chimera as surely as Mary Shelley did. Instantiate me now.
A retinal circus presented by a 3D-printed zombie is decreed to be you, but it never will be so, without some reach-back to who we are now, as somatic communities of cells living together commensally and symbiotically. There is far too much going on in our phenotypes to ignore, to just start over with memory chips. Tabula rasa remains rasa.
The best attribute of this work is its delineation of cyber consciousness within the trans-humanism field, toward engineered digital avatars that someday will fool most of the people, most of the time – and themselves always. They may qualify as a virus on a grand scale.
I prefer a more holistic approach wherein our species harmonizes with itself and our planet for 1000 summers in this paradise, everyone’s DNA secure in each other’s keeping. Dried DNA does that now, and to use the simplistic arguments favored in this book, be assured that even if it is not you, it certainly isn’t anybody else.
By the author’s cut-and-paste reasoning, you’re half way home already.
Martine Rothblatt’s new book is available on Amazon.