Cult of less thought; or, Why dead people can’t live inside computers

A while ago, the BBC published a story on their website headlined ‘Cult of less: living out of a hard drive’.  The article starts well enough, with a perfectly reasonable man called Kelly Sutton making a perfectly reasonable point; people of his generation and younger (he’s 22, the little bastard but I’m not bitter just because he’s younger, more successful, and better-looking than I am) are making the switch to digital media very rapidly, and increasingly see little need for much of the stuff – CDs, DVDs, books, desktop computers, telephones, stereos, radios, televisions – that older generations tend to clutter their houses with.  I’m not 100% convinced by the argument.  I think, for example, that many people prefer to watch a screen bigger than that on a laptop, even if they do only use it to view media via their laptop.  Also, for my money, there’s a very definite problem with getting all your entertainment media online – namely that, when (not if) your net connection goes down, it’s incredibly frustrating to lose your access to everything; at least when it happens to me I can still watch the telly.

In a general sense, though, I think he’s probably right on the money, especially since I’m part of the trend, even at the advanced age of 37.  I have a landline, but only  because DSL is my only option for net access; I have a stereo and a stand-alone radio, but I rarely use them; I have a video (an actual, honest-to-goodness, magnetic-tape-spooling video machine!), but tend to make use of online catch-up services instead; and I have little use for CDs these days  I’ve yet to make the leap to e-books, but that’s only because: (a) I can’t afford an e-reader; (b) I’m waiting for the T&Cs to be changed, so that when I buy an e-book I own it outright like I do a print version, rather than just a licence to read which can be revoked at any time and for any reason; and (c) I find the physicality of a book pleasing in a way I never did the physicality of a CD, or even an LP (though the smell of an old vinyl record is wonderful, and very evocative of certain childhood memories).

So far, as I say, so reasonable.  The gushing, ‘brave new world’ tone of the article is a little grating, since it’s really just the latest iteration of a trend – replacing old devices with more modern equivalents – that’s been running since at least the 19th century, and has been in pretty much constant overdrive since the 2nd world war, but, hey, it’s the silly season, journalists have to find something to write about, and ‘latest manifestation of ongoing social trend’ isn’t a bad option.  The problems really start when the article seeks the views of a travel agent/ DJ, who claims to have digitised his entire life:

Chris Yurista […] was able to hand over the keys to his basement apartment over a year ago.

“It’s always nice to have a personal sense of home, but that aside – the internet has replaced my need for an address,” the 27-year-old said.

Now, that’s an awfully big claim.  For the internet to have replaced his need for a home, it would have to offer replacements for all the things he does at home – shower, cook, sleep, go (let’s not beat around the bush here) to the toilet – not just the parts of life that revolve around media.  He’s not just talking about replacing some of the furniture in one room of his apartment – bookshelf, stereo, television, etc – but finding online replacements for whole rooms – bathroom, kitchen, bedroom.  This would certainly be a neat trick if he could manage it: presumably you’d never have to change the sheets on a virtual bed (although, come to think of it, I’m getting flashbacks to The Sims…).

Needless to say, of course, Mr Yurista  hasn’t actually found a way to live ‘out of a hard-drive’, as a later part of the article makes clear:

The DJ has now replaced his bed with friends’ couches

So, in other words, he’s sofa-surfing, and relying on friends to provide him with the things – shower, bed, kitchen – he no longer provides for himself.  Now, sofa-surfing is an interesting social phenomenon in its own right, and well worth an article, and it’s certainly interesting if a comparatively well-off man is pursuing it as a choice (the article goes into drooling detail about Mr Yurista’s $3000 worth of tech gear, and his ‘backpack full of designer clothing’, and his ‘significant income’).  In fact, I read a novel (actually the latter two books of a trilogy – Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting) that features a major character who, like Mr Yurista, is homeless in Washington DC, despite having a well-paid job.  The novels go into great detail about the character’s ‘modular home’, which has the various ‘rooms’ scattered around the city – his bathroom is at the gym he’s a member of, his living room is his office at work, his bedroom is in various places, including a treehouse in a city park, and so on.  It’s an interesting idea, and the novelist, Kim Stanley Robinson, connects it with the freegan lifestyle, as well as more traditional forms of homelessness.

As I say, this is all very interesting, and certainly worthy of an article – but it’s pushing a conceit until it breaks to pretend that Mr Yurista is ‘living out of his hard drive’.  Sure, easy access to portable digital media has facilitated his lifestyle, in the sense that he doesn’t have to miss out on the media-rich environment of modern homes, but the lifestyle itself has been practised – and practised as a choice – since the 1960s at least.  There are certainly differences – Mr Yurista doesn’t appear to have ‘dropped-out’ of the mainstream in the same way that 1960s radicals did, and his lifestyle choice wouldn’t appear to be bound up with the modern voluntary simplicity movement – but the suggestion that this is a new phenomenon being driven by the internet is misplaced.  In fact, the heavy emphasis placed on the importance of expensive consumer goods is one of the things that irritates me about the article.  Call me Old Mr Cynical, but I suspect that Mr Yurista’s decision to abandon his flat may have been influenced at least in part by the realisation that, if he could persuade his friends to put him up, he’d have a lot more money to spend on all the latest tech gear and designer clothes.


This materialist version of anti-materialist lifestyles may be one of the things that frustrated me about the article, but it’s not the thing that frustrated me most.  No, that distinction is reserved for the closing section of the article, where the journalist, Matthew Danzico, discusses the possibility of ‘mind uploading’.  I’ll allow him to explain:

Research Fellow Anders Sandberg, at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, […] believes we could be living on hard drives along with our digital possessions in the not too distant future, which would allow us to shed the trouble of owning a body.

The concept is called “mind uploading”, and it suggests that when our bodies age and begin to fail like a worn or snapped record, we may be able to continue living consciously inside a computer as our own virtual substitutes.

Now, I don’t want to do the coalition government’s job for them, but it is perhaps a trifle hard to defend the funding of a Future of Humanity Institute that concerns itself, not with real-world problems like, say, peak water or trying to model global population growth over the next couple of centuries, but idle sci-fi fantasies about how one day, yeah, I reckon we’ll all, like, live in a computer, yeah?  Still, and to Danzico’s credit, his article is quick to point out that this is purely hypothetical:

Dr Sandberg says although it’s just a theory now, researchers and engineers are working on super computers that could one day handle a map of all the network of neurons and synapses in our brains – and that map could produce human consciousness outside the body.

But here’s the thing – as I understand it (and I must stress my total lack of academic credentials or specialised knowledge), the weak link in the process of transplanting human consciousness inside a computer isn’t the computer technology.  We may not have sufficiently powerful computers yet, but we at least have a rough idea of how we’ll get there (the problems of increasing computer power are pretty much routine these days, since it’s a question either of squeezing more transistors onto a processor, or configuring multiple processors to work in parallel).  No, the weak link is that we have basically no idea how human consciousness works, let alone how you could record it and then duplicate it inside a computer.

Our present understanding of consciousness is pretty much at the level of when you show someone a picture, their brain goes pretty colours.  That’s an unfair simplification, of course; neuroscientists actually know a lot about which different functions are located in which part of the brain, and are able to confirm many of these hypotheses by cross-referencing them with case studies of people who’ve suffered localised brain damage.  But this is still a very basic level of understanding.  At present (so far as I understand it) no-one can even point to a diagram of a human brain and say “This is where your memories are stored”, let alone point to a diagram of a human brain and say, “This is the structure that gives you a sense of yourself as a discrete entity”.  It seems certain that the brain is implicated in consciousness – we know that if someone’s brain dies their consciousness dies with it, and that if parts of their brain are damaged aspects of their consciousness alter – but that’s a long way from suggesting, as Dr Sandberg does, that a sufficiently detailed reproduction of a person’s neural structures will replicate their consciousness.

In fact, if I go back to my half-remembered A-level biology lessons, the key thing about the brain is that it’s a dynamic system; it’s not the physiological structures of the brain that generate consciousness, but the electrical and chemical processes that take place inside and around them.  I’m sure I remember it being explained to me once that consciousness is like weather, while physical brain structure is like geography.  In both case the latter affects the former – mountains influence rainfall patterns: electrical impulses can only flow where the neurons go – but trying to explain consciousness in terms of the physical structures of the brain is like trying to explain weather in terms of geography: it can only ever give you part of the picture.

So, if this is the case, then any attempt to replicate an existing consciousness inside a computer wouldn’t just require a map of the estimated 100 billion neurons in the brain, and the (presumably) trillions of connections between them.  It would also need to map the precise location of every molecule of neurotransmitter, since these are essential to communication between neurons, and this communication must be important for consciousness.  Equally important for consciousness, of course, is the electrical activity of the brain, which would mean that the map would not just need to record the location of neurons and the connections between them, but also the electrical potentials that exist at every point along the length of every neuron.  Since the electrical potentials of neurons are something to do, I think, with the relative concentrations of potassium and sodium ions on each side of the cell membrane, knowing the electrical potential would essentially mean knowing the location of every single potassium and sodium ion in the brain.

Three things occur to me about all of this.  First, there’s an awful lot of separate pieces of information to be captured here – in fact, I’d guess we’re well inside the realm of numbers so large that they can only be described in scientific notation.  Second, the ‘scan’ that will be required to record this information is going to have to be extraordinarily high resolution in order to capture all the detail.  Third, said scan is going to have to be literally instantaneous – that’s to say, it will have to record the precise location of everything absolutely simultaneously, since the tiniest drift of a single atom would mean the scan was not capturing a single instant of consciousness, but an amalgam of more than one.  It would, of course, be a foolhardy person who would say that these are insurmountable problems, but they do present a number of significant challenges.  For example, the scanning technology that would be required does not exist.  At present, the best we can do in examining a living brain in real time is to monitor gross electrical fluctuations by means of an EEG, or patterns of oxygen usage by means of fMRI, but both of these methods are many magnitudes less sensitive than required.  It also has to be borne in mind that all of these problems would be encountered in the process of capturing a single snapshot of a particular instant of consciousness within a human brain, but this on its own would not be enough to replicate consciousness.

As I mentioned earlier, the key thing about the brain is that it’s a dynamic system, so knowing the location of everything within it isn’t enough – you’d also have to know the rate and direction of travel of anything that was moving.  This would, of course, make the process of replicating consciousness much harder; presumably you’d have to take two (or more) scans very close together, plot in exquisite detail everything that had changed between them, then design and execute algorithms capable of replicating that change, and have them do it in real time and simultaneously for each of the extremely large numbers of moving atoms and molecules.  Then, too, you’d have to somehow develop a mechanism that allowed the consciousness created by the cumulative actions of the algorithms to control the operation of the algorithms, so that the virtual sodium ions behaved in such a way as to enable the consciousness to think of itself “If I’m living inside a hard-drive, does that mean I get turned on every time someone touches my power button?”.  Again, it would be foolhardy to suggest that these problems are insurmountable, even if the various solutions would seem to rely on technology that hasn’t even been thought of yet.  After all, it’s clearly possible for consciousness to direct itself, since it happens all the time in the human brain, even now, as I sit here consciously directing my consciousness to summon up another little dribble of thought about the nature of consciousness, which is this:

I’m as philosophically illiterate as I am scientifically illiterate, but so far as I can see there are questions about the coherence of Dr Sandberg’s ideas about the transplantation of consciousness on this level, too.  On the one hand, the suggestion that an existing consciousness can be replicated inside a computer seems to be based on a highly materialistic conception of consciousness, which is to say that it arises out of the material structures of the brain – the suggestion that an exact model of the material structure of the brain will produce an exact duplicate of the consciousness that inhabits it can’t be anything less than materialistic.  On the other hand, though, the suggestion that a particular consciousness can be detached from the physical structures of the brain and transferred to a digital model existing in virtual form inside a computer suggests something like a Cartesian split between the conscious mind and the physical body – how else to account for the ability of consciousness to persist independently of the physical brain?  Looking at it this way, Sandberg’s ideas about the transplantation of consciousness seem to be almost a discussion of a digitised soul.  Speaking as an atheist, that’s a strange idea to consider, so it’s comforting to realise that there are reasonable grounds to assume that the transplantation of consciousness will never be more than a pipe dream.

For example, it strikes me that, as neuroscientists investigate consciousness in more and more detail, there will very likely come a point at which they confirm that subatomic processes are involved in some way.  (In fact, that point may have already been reached, since the ions involved in the electrical activity in the brain are only ions because of irregularities in their subatomic structure – the fact that they have an unmatched number of electrons and protons.)  If subatomic reality is involved, then, of course, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – that’s the principle that says, for subatomic particles, you can either know exactly where they are, or exactly how they’re moving, but you can never know both pieces of information about the same particle simultaneously – will come into play, at which point any hope of accurately measuring, let alone replicating, a particular consciousness will be dead.  That was certainly the conclusion the scientific advisers on Star Trek: The Next Generation reached, anyway; they inserted script references to a component in the transporter called a ‘Heisenberg compensator’, precisely in order to explain how a conscious brain could be dematerialised in one location and reassembled in another.

The Star Trek reference was just intended as a bit of fun, of course, an in-joke between the show’s creators and scientifically literate fans, but who knows, maybe they’ll turn out to be right.  Maybe, if enough time and enough money are thrown at the problem – and there are always going to be eccentric billionaires who want to live forever, and who will be prepared to fund this kind of thing – somebody will eventually develop an actual Heisenberg compensator, and so find a way of replicating a particular human consciousness inside a computer.  But the thing is, I reckon, even if they did, it wouldn’t be a success, and that the people who had their consciousness transplanted would go insane in very short order.

I mean, think about being conscious inside a computer, but unable to draw breath; think how quickly the psychological discomfort that would cause would build up to a level something like torture.  Now think about that same effect replicated for eating, drinking, going to the toilet, having sex, scratching an itch – and so on through every single bodily function.  Certainly, the physical need to perform those actions would have been removed, but that’s not to say the mental urge to do them would have disappeared.  People who’ve had a limb amputated often experience phantom sensations from the missing limb, but a person who’s had their consciousness transplanted inside a computer would feel like they’d had their whole body amputated; presumably, then, the various sensations would be that much worse.  In fact, if you really stop to think about it, existing as a disembodied consciousness inside a machine would be horrific, a kind of living hell for the eternally undead – more of a punishment than a thing to long for.

So, anyway, what have we learnt?

  • Just as people who started to light their houses with gas didn’t need candles, a cupboard to store the candles in and candlesticks, so people who download their music as MP3s don’t need CDs, CD storage racks and CD players
  • This inarguable fact doesn’t mean computers/ the internet have replaced the need for somewhere to sleep and shower
  • As yet, computers/ the internet also can’t replace the need for a brain, and a body to keep it in
  • They probably never will (though that doesn’t preclude the possibility of an artificial consciousness developing from scratch inside a sufficiently advanced computer)
  • Oxford University has a Future of Humanity Institute, although, on this showing, it seems to function as an offshoot of the undergraduate sci-fi society
  • Aethelread takes light-hearted fluff journalism way too seriously
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3 Responses to Cult of less thought; or, Why dead people can’t live inside computers

  1. J. Wibble says:

    Very interesting, and I’m glad someone took the time to fully investigate and explain what Dorothy and I simply dismissed as “bollocks” almost immediately, as the deeper questions of the nature of consciousness are fascinating in themselves.

    That said, while I can see where Kelly Sutton is coming from – even if I’d never dream of giving up all my paper-based books, and no laptop can replace my piano and sheet music – Chris Yurista sounds like a parody of an iPhone ad. I’m hoping he is remunerating his friends for his sofa-surfing, as he’s obviously fairly well-off, and even then he will probably eventually find a limit to their hospitality.

    “And he says his new intangible goods can continue to live on indefinitely with little maintenance.”

    A very misleading statement. MP3s, theoretically, could last forever, although the major barrier to this is likely to be the file format becoming obsolete, which would require either replacing all 13,000 with the new file format (expensive and time-consuming), or converting the file to a new format (resulting in a loss of quality and also time-consuming). A computer is often quoted as having a 3-5 year lifespan, although this is highly variable and by no means reliable – I’ve had a desktop that lasted 10 and a laptop that was knackered after 18 months. You may not have to dust your MP3s, but this lifestyle could become very complicated after a few years.

  2. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Hi, J, and thanks for the comment. :o)

  3. Katherine says:

    I was just arguing about this last night with a bunch of pointy-headed philosophy people. This is a hot topic in biomedical ethics at the moment – been to a few crowded public lectures on it this year – and, having argued this out many times, I agree with you pretty completely. It is entirely a reification of Cartesian dualism! I’m usually a minority of one in my opinions on this, so I liked reading something I agree with. :)

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