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Thursday, March 8, 2018

Transcendence–From Mind Uploading To Virtuality, The Future Is Here

In the recent movie Transcendence, the Johnny Depp character, a computer scientist on the verge of a quantum leap in artificial intelligence, is murdered by an activist group who fears the consequences of his discovery.  The uploading of disembodied minds and and creating a virtual world of unlimited informational access, infinite intelligence and potential power; but with no moral, physical, or ethical constraints represents an existential threat.  There can be no coming back.

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Of course their fears are well founded; and once the scientist’s mind is uploaded and has access to every electronic bit on the Internet, every nuclear code, every electronic grid, satellite, bioengineering lab, clandestine service, and every stock, bond, and commodities market, he begins to use his power.  At first he intends to use it for good, but then becomes more arrogant and willful.  His mind has not lost its human nature – territorial, expansionist, defensive, and self-protective, and self-interested.

He gets destroyed, of course; but no one watching doubts that once this particular genie has been let of out the bottle, he will never be put back.

The movie is interesting because the idea is well within the range of possibility.  Artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and especially the advances in mind-computer interface, all but guarantee the eventual uploading of human minds into the cyberspace.  Eventually the ‘real’ world will be nothing more than a service station – fueling the bodies whose minds have become independent and the power grids that provide energy to the computer banks facilitating the operation of the virtual world.

When mind and machine are eventually linked; and when infinite combinations and permutations of individual fantasy are generated in a virtual cyber-world, few if any will miss ‘reality’.  A virtual world with the warts and blemishes, bulges, grime, and sludge of reality will disappear and all will be Hollywood, Las Vegas, the Chateau de Versailles, and the pristine air of the Himalayas.  All the billions of possible images, sounds, fragrances, and stories of all of history will be available for mining and reconfiguration; and no one will be aware that the world they are experience is virtual.  It will exist in its own space.  The dross and sludge of real life will be left behind, and only a perfectly fashioned will remain.

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A significant discovery was reported in the New York Times (James Gorman, 10/8/15):

Building on years of research, 82 researchers from institutions around the world reported Thursday that they had built a reconstruction of a section of a rat brain in a computer.

The research was partly supported by the Human Brain Project, a more than $1 billion, 10-year European research program. The report comes directly from the Blue Brain Project, which aims to reconstruct the rat brain and eventually the human brain in a computer.

This scientific advance is particularly interesting because it represents a new and extremely promising way to the complete interface between the human brain and the computer.  Previous efforts have focused on deciphering electronic brain waves, thus creating a common language between mind and machine.  Once vocabulary, syntax, and grammar have been mastered and employed, the symbiosis will be complete. Our thoughts will be mediated by the computer thus enabling us to access the billions of bits of electronically-stored information in cyberspace, to manipulate it, and to create our own personal virtual realities.

Who would ever think of exchanging this virtual world for the old, shopworn, hackneyed, and predictable real one?

Which will be the more accurate scenario? An ideal world of limitless possibility, a final freeing of the mind from the limitations of the body, an accession to a universal Platonic ideal? One with no dualism, no guilt, no social constraints; only a world in which individuals are free to follow their instincts, personalities, innate character, and genetic makeup with no limitation? Where every spiritual, physical, and sexual appetite will be satisfied. It will be a final conclusion.  Depending on inclination, one will either be subsumed within or become part of a divine whole, joined with all of humanity, or independent and disconnected?

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Or a frightening dystopia where minds free from physical constraints but ruled even more than ever by human nature become even more destructive and brutal than the mind-body models discarded and left behind? Why wouldn’t human nature become the only propellant of virtual action?  Morality, ethics, compassion, and caring are nothing but social constructs evolved as necessary brakes on human nature.  They are not hardwired.  In a virtual world they will become non-essentials, interesting as fantasy playthings, but no more.  Human savagery will rule, a virtual, terrifying Lord of the Flies.

But can savagery – senseless brutality inflicted on others – even exist in a virtual world without gunpowder or pathogens? Or will it simply take another form – pure intimidation by force of will? There is no reason to believe that human nature, residing in the mind and not the body, will disappear; but perhaps that acquisition, central to human nature, will take a more benign form.  Satisfaction of simple appetites – food, sex, a walk in the woods – may be all that this new disembodied, individualistic, and finally free virtual society will ever need.

Astral projection – the idea that the mind can be freed from the body – is not new; and myths of such spiritual wanderings are common among Amazonian Indians, Inuit, and the cultures of Japan, China, and Ancient Egypt. The Buddha was supposed to have said,

In the same way — with his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, the monk directs and inclines it to creating a mind-made body. From this body he creates another body, endowed with form, made of the mind, complete in all its parts, not inferior in its faculties.

Astral projection is considered achievable by yoga practitioners through self-disciplined practice. In the epic The Mahabharata Drona leaves his physical body to see if his son is alive. In Japanese mythology, an ikiryō is a manifestation of the soul of a living person separately from their body. The yaskomo of the Waiwai Amazon tribe is believed to be able to perform a "soul flight" that can serve several functions such as healing, flying to the sky to consult cosmological beings to get a name for a new-born baby, flying to the cave of peccaries' mountains to ask the father of peccaries for abundance of game or flying deep down in a river to get the help of other beings.

Virtual reality – a computer-mediated freeing of mind from body – is no different; but unlike its mythological counterpart, it will be very real, observable, and common.

Scientists have written of the ‘post-human’ generation – a generation which will be genetically modified and virtual and which will no longer resemble any previous one. The implications of this engineered evolution are profound.  First, we will no longer be retarded in our mental and spiritual evolution by the inefficient use of our brains.  When a mind-computer interface (i.e. once decoded, human brain impulses will be able to be read by the computer and vice-versa) has been completed, the range of our mental capacities, however limited in the past, will be limitless.  Second, genetic modification – selecting only the most desirable DNA combinations and creating new ones – will ensure a human race as distinct and perhaps more remarkable than any other.

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The naysayers are many.  Such alteration of both genetics and the nature of mind-body unity are against God’s law and a perversion of it.

Yet a more esoteric interpretation of being is implicit in both Christianity and Hinduism.   John 1:1 refers to  logos and existence before Creation; and the Vedas refer to oneness and the timelessness of the universe.  It is to this disembodied world of pure soul and energy that human beings have always aspired; and the post-human generation is likely to achieve it.

Transcendence tells the story of one initially well-meaning scientist who is corrupted by absolute power and who then tries to take over the world – a Hollywood dystopian interregnum possible even likely; but the idea of a more common and eventually universal virtual community of ‘uploaded’ minds is far different and will be more progressive and gradual.  Temporary virtuality – episodes of mind-computer interface and exploration of the possibilities of an unlimited, untethered electronic world – will evolve into a more permanent experience; and as more and more people join, the more ‘human’ and familiar it will become.  Of course familiarity can only be a relative term in the post-human generation.

In any case, it is only a matter of time.  As the history of science has shown, once a promising technology is developed and applied, there is no going back.  Human beings will eventually be genetically modified because the demand for more perfect, personally designed babies is already there.  A virtual world disassociated from the ‘real’ one will become reality because the first steps have already been taken, and those who have experienced it know that it is alluring, tempting, and irresistible.

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