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Recycling the human race

However humans may have evolved, at the moment we can all agree we are running around as bodies made of flesh and blood. We hurt. We bleed. We experience a whole range of emotions. And then we die. But what if we didn’t? What if instead we could become a digital version of ourselves?

Whilst this sounds like an adventure into The Matrix, it might be surprising to know that there are actually people who believe this can be done. There are also people actively working towards accomplishing it. A movement known as ‘Transhumanism’, for one, believes that humans can be digitised, as in they could be completely uploaded to a computer, mind and all. If that appears to be a stunningly far-fetched idea, then you would be right. It is. But only in the sense that nobody has yet accomplished it, and still, there are those who think it’s possible.

Are humans sentient?

Do you think humans have a soul? If you do, you may subscribe to the idea that consciousness is a separate entity from the body, and you may think it’s pretty unlikely that you can upload your brain to a computer. People who subscribe to this belief may also argue that since consciousness is an intangible, virtual thing in itself, it may not be possible to capture and put into bits and bytes. Makes sense.

On the other side of the fence are neurosurgeons and other more physically-oriented, sciency-people who believe there is no human ‘soul’ and the physical brain contains everything: experience, memory, the lot. So on this team you can see how copying the brain or digitising it would allow the entire individual to be uploaded into the digital realm. If the individual is simply matter brought to life, then computers can bring matter to life… perhaps. There is some interesting rationale in this school of thought, and I am sure as many people subscribe to this theory as to the other.

Slice me up and digitise me

There is, however, a catch if you are on Team Body, and that is the proposed method of getting the brain into digital form. The method suggested is quite simple in concept: the brain is frozen just after death or just before and thinly sliced into thousands of wafer-thin segments. These slices are then scanned and digitised and reassembled as digital neurocircuits. Having done all of that and knitted it all together with computer code, hey presto! There you are once again alive as your digital self – a real-life version of the movie Tron.

The issue for some people revolves around dying and then having your brain destroyed in order to be brought back to life as a virtual being. Who is going to be the first person to try, and risk ending up being actually dead in the process? It is also contingent on having an actual brain slicing machine that exists and is able to scan the slices. Many designs have been done for these but none that have actually been made or even tested.

The method suggested is quite simple in concept: the brain is frozen just after death or just before and thinly sliced into thousands of wafer-thin segments. These slices are then scanned and digitised and reassembled as digital neurocircuits.

There are naturally plans to test the slicing method on something like a mouse’s brain somewhere in the future, but as one might imagine, a mouse is far removed from a human being. Even if that was successful, the transition of equipment into something that can cope with a human brain is somewhat exponential. However, that being said, many believe that this ‘experiment’ and even its ultimate success lies only 15 to 20 years away. Perhaps at that time another method of uploading will come to light. But if slicing it were to be proven possible, then instead of preparing for death, we could choose our digital future and become a virtual persona who lives forever, or at least as long as the hardware that you are inside continues to function and be switched on.

Virtual heaven or hell?

And there is always a snag or at least a set of logistical problems posed by the accomplishment of any such endeavour. On the plus side, we could have eternal life, endless possibilities of being anything we want, assuming any form we want, pursuing any future we want forever more. Lifetime after digital lifetime of simulated heaven. But, as a digital entity, how would your whole idea of identity change? That’s an issue to keep the theorists going for years. You could literally be anything: any ethnicity, gender, height - whatever. And you could change from one day to the next. You could have a virtual house, car, job or jobs. The Sims would have nothing on this virtual haven; it wouldn’t even begin to compare.

You would also become completely reliant on hardware for life, as well as the software and the people who program it. The computer power needed would be vast and it would need to be maintained. We all know how computer software gets bugs. Well, this time they might be real, big giant enormous virtual bugs, roaming around your computer haven. Imagine having the entire human race contained in a digital realm and then all somebody has to do is hit the delete button. Now there’s a thought.

Criminals and questions

Of course, I am playing devil’s advocate here, because what could possibly go wrong? Well, probably just about everything. Systems of checks and balances are required but of potentially a higher order than we already have. A virtual justice system would play by a whole new set of rules. How do you deal with crimes such as virtual murder? Like if someone hacks the system and deletes your code. How about hacking your digital entity and changing something in your memory, or personality? A virtual police force would probably be working overtime along with a virtual justice system. What would be the penalty? Isolation for so many decades in a digital cell? Deletion?

Or how would you replace the idea of taste, eating, mundane things like that? Sex? A whole new ballgame for virtual people I suspect. And what would count as infidelity in a virtual existence? Would people even get married, have children? And how?

These and many more questions have no answers, nor will they if and when somebody does finally achieve digital nirvana. Instead, the likelihood is that we will simply car crash into the new existence like everything else the human race has done already. Then after a period of, let us call it ‘adjustment’, when everything that could possibly go wrong has, things will finally settle down. Some people will choose to be virtual and others will insist on remaining physical, and so it will go on. In our unique way, the human race will muddle through. Wisdom usually arrives after all the stupid things we’ve done. Many of us may be long gone before any of this has a chance to become a reality. In the end, time and technology will tell if recycling humanity ever becomes the answer to all our prayers or the beginning of all of our nightmares.

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