Monday, August 26, 2013

Brain Eating Zombies

I recently read John Scalzi’s Ghost Brigades (2006) and Gene Wolfe’s Home Fires (2010) two works from science fiction wizards that feature a trendy science fiction premise: the uploaded mind. The futurist website “Lifeboat Foundation” explains, “Mind uploading, sometimes referred to as nonbiological intelligence, centers around the controversial proposition that cognitive processing can be implemented on substrates other than our current neurons.” The reward is immortality—as a digitized mind leapfrogs from form to accessorized form through the centuries. The concept traces back, in part, to roboticist Hans Moravec’s Mind Children (1988) and colleague Ray Kurzweil’s books The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990) and The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999). These books predict artificial intelligence far surpassing that of the human mind. The uploaded mind, just one element in the coming revolution, makes human participation possible in what these technologists foresee as a posthuman or at best cyborgian (i.e. “transhuman”) future. 
My Mind Upload - (Before and After). Definite phrenological improvement!

Science fiction provides a stable home for the uploaded mind premise. The concept of an immortalized mind has long been a part of the genre—with brains in boxes or consulting heads in jars popular—as in the Captain Future series of the 1940s and Orson Scott Card’s Wyrms (1987), while Victor Frankenstein and his assistant were plugging in brains and channeling animal magnetism in the early nineteenth century. Our more recent technologists, along with science fiction writers, have added digitization to Mary Shelley’s re-animation scenario.

In Wolfe’s book, the mind scan of a dead woman—the protagonist’s mother-in-law—is downloaded into a live woman’s brain; the protagonist pays for this luxury service to please his fiancée at her homecoming from a deployment fighting aliens in the stars. In Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” trilogy—(the book I read was the second) soldiers are vat-grown and upgraded in various ways to form a deadly special forces shunned by the “realborn” as monstrous. The hero, a vat-grown soldier with the downloaded brain of a rogue scientist, struggles with a massive identity crisis.

Many futurists believe the upload idea will soon escape from science fiction. Participants at the Global Futures 2045 International Congress this summer in New York gleefully discussed the day when silicon encoded mindware will replace the wetware of the central nervous system. Their optimism is based on impressive achievements in artificial intelligence and robotics. Even better, Big Science appears to be accommodating this radical vision. In February 2013, President Obama proposed a new initiative, akin to the cracking of the human genome—to map the entire neural network of an active human brain—that is, construct a “connectome.”

Participants at the Global Futures Congress were also cheered to learn that researchers with the European Human Brain Project had just completed an atlas of a 65-year-old woman’s brain. Dubbed rather prosaically, BigBrain, the atlas offers a three-dimensional neural map fifty times more precise than its predecessors, based on thousands of microscopically thin slices of this woman’s (obviously no longer active) brain. The fine-grain “connectome” that uploaders seek, however, requires immense computing power not yet available.

Most biologists and neuroscientists are not kind to the uploader dream. MIT neurobiologist Sebastian Seung, involved in connectome research, argues that the process of deconstructing the human brain does not automatically guarantee knowledge of how to construct an artificial brain. Other critics note that futurists might not only be confusing the map with the territory, but refusing to accept that aspects of the territory may always remain elusive. Roger Penrose rejected the possibility of machines ever harboring consciousness, simply because there must be some non-computable characteristics of mind that designers cannot encode as algorithms.

True believers know better—and await the Singularity. Relying on Moore’s law of steadily increasing computing power, transhumanists project 2045 as the year when superintelligence emerges from its silicon matrix to transform all of Being. Bloggers describe the Singularity much as fundamentalist Christians might the Rapture, Norse pagans Ragnarok, or Cubs fans the World Series.  The approaching Singularity has its crass side. An internet search on the name Ray Kurzweil leads to an advertisement, “The Singularity is Near, stay healthy the Kurzweil way.” We are then treated to a host of products that Ray Kurweil and physician Terry Grossman assure will keep up in shape for the Singularity.

Fast forward to 2045. You have been staying healthy. You know your vitamins and supplements. The Singularity has arrived. You’re ready for the upload, and a zombie-like machine is prepared to eat your brain. Will you become immortal? That depends. Will the marooned neural pattern feel like a self, and if a self, like “you”?  Will living as information result in a crushing existential crisis? Might thousands of copies of “you” invent infinite futures—each of them clearly no greater in significance than a performance of a flea circus? Or, having finally cheated death, are you feeling healthy enough to conquer a solar system?
   When perplexed about mad science, I turn to science fiction.  Reading the recent books by Wolfe and Scalzi finally clarified for me why the “zombie” idea has been so popular this past decade: artificial intelligence’s leading lights are guiding us directly to zombieland. Victor Frankenstein—who really didn’t pay enough attention to his fiancée—had an agenda. Moravec, Hayworth, and  Kurzweil have their own. Yes, immortality might have its positive side—like living forever—but it is as easy to imagine the many new hells that might ensue. Consider this: you are rude to a technician at the upload company. They inject your mind into a virtual environment with companions that include Dick Clark constantly celebrating the New Year; one former celebrity from Hollywood Squares (Zsa Zsa Gabor?); the reality TV star of the month, and one or two serial killers. Add eternity and no exit. The digital afterlife may not be an “upgrade.”  But what can zombies expect?