What Will Your Virtual Afterlife Be Like?

Female Second Life avatarAccording to neuroscientist Michael Graziano writing at Aeon Magazine, “The question is not whether we can upload our brains onto a computer, but what will become of us when we do”:

Imagine a future in which your mind never dies. When your body begins to fail, a machine scans your brain in enough detail to capture its unique wiring. A computer system uses that data to simulate your brain. It won’t need to replicate every last detail. Like the phonograph, it will strip away the irrelevant physical structures, leaving only the essence of the patterns. And then there is a second you, with your memories, your emotions, your way of thinking and making decisions, translated onto computer hardware as easily as we copy a text file these days.

That second version of you could live in a simulated world and hardly know the difference. You could walk around a simulated city street, feel a cool breeze, eat at a café, talk to other simulated people, play games, watch movies, enjoy yourself. Pain and disease would be programmed out of existence. If you’re still interested in the world outside your simulated playground, you could Skype yourself into board meetings or family Christmas dinners.

This vision of a virtual-reality afterlife, sometimes called ‘uploading’, entered the popular imagination via the short story ‘The Tunnel Under the World’ (1955) by the American science-fiction writer Frederik Pohl, though it also got a big boost from the movie Tron (1982). Then The Matrix (1999) introduced the mainstream public to the idea of a simulated reality, albeit one into which real brains were jacked. More recently, these ideas have caught on outside fiction. The Russian multimillionaire Dmitry Itskov made the news by proposing to transfer his mind into a robot, thereby achieving immortality. Only a few months ago, the British physicist Stephen Hawking speculated that a computer-simulated afterlife might become technologically feasible.

It is tempting to ignore these ideas as just another science-fiction trope, a nerd fantasy. But something about it won’t leave me alone. I am a neuroscientist. I study the brain. For nearly 30 years, I’ve studied how sensory information gets taken in and processed, how movements are controlled and, lately, how networks of neurons might compute the spooky property of awareness. I find myself asking, given what we know about the brain, whether we really could upload someone’s mind to a computer. And my best guess is: yes, almost certainly. That raises a host of further questions, not least: what will this technology do to us psychologically and culturally? Here, the answer seems just as emphatic, if necessarily murky in the details…

[continues at at Aeon Magazine]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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21 Comments on "What Will Your Virtual Afterlife Be Like?"

  1. See also my podcast about such issues with the transhumanist Giulio Prisco: http://disinfo.com/2013/09/transhumanist-spirituality-a-new-religion-for-the-modern-age/

  2. What makes anyone think that I’d experience what the second version of me would experience? I’d still die, while only my cyber clone would continue to exist.

    • Jin The Ninja | Dec 19, 2013 at 1:20 pm |

      exactly. it’s not you. it’s not your consciousness. it isn’t even a full replica of your consciousness as per the article. it’s a computer program that simulates / approximates your consciousness. stick to programming chess programs i say. yawn.

      • the interesting part would be not the “immortality” of you – but the
        futurama “head in a jar” aspect

        • Jin The Ninja | Dec 19, 2013 at 5:48 pm |

          the percentage of intelligent, worthwhile and visionary ‘talking heads’ from our time would be so low that it wouldn’t be worth it for future-humans to maintain the energy/technology. the problem is- a copy of our brain waves doesn’t a head or a human rather, make.

          • why i brought up loved ones and family – and the i see no reason to think tech would not get cheap

          • Jin The Ninja | Dec 19, 2013 at 5:57 pm |

            again, it’s an analog, a simulcra. not the real thing. a pretend thing masquerading as a semi-real thing. it’s not their soul, not even their mind. read the autobiography, it would be much more worthwhile.

          • you are talking about a fully interactive autobiography, i fail to see your horror!
            “well so it’s mechanical” – bugs bunny

          • Jin The Ninja | Dec 19, 2013 at 11:04 pm |

            you’re mistaking apathy for disdain. an ‘interactive encyclopedia.’ cool bro. they’ve had interactive displays in museums since the 1980s. while maybe not as sophisticated as a holographic einstein, it’s HARDLY a virtual ‘reincarnation.’

    • Exactly…so no harm to upload at all, as long as uploading did not quicken death of the natural body…if the uploading is only done after death, well, meh? So there’s a copy. Wouldn’t effect my own consciousness, regardless, afterlife or none.

  3. BuzzCoastin | Dec 19, 2013 at 12:05 pm |

    While on the second stage of the Bardo, one’s body is of the nature of that called the shining illusory-body.

    Not knowing whether [he be] dead or not, [a state of] lucidity cometh [to the deceased. If the instructions be successfully applied to the deceased while he is in that state, then, by the meeting of the Mother-Reality and the Offspring-Reality, karma controlleth not. Like the sun’s rays, for example, dispelling the darkness, the Clear Light on the Path dispelleth the power of karma.
    Tibetian Book of the Dead

  4. emperorreagan | Dec 19, 2013 at 12:38 pm |

    I am all for rich people putting their minds into computers as soon as possible and I will smash the fuck out of the computers.

  5. I don’t have much to add to this, other than the idea of doing such is something I’d never do. Also I watched a movie recently that is somewhat related. The Congress, a film adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress. IMO, there is some stunning animation, but it is a bit comfusing. I’ll have to watch it again, possibly read the book to fully understand.


  6. The people behind this opinion have a very narrow view of consciousness, I think..

  7. erte4wt4etrg | Dec 19, 2013 at 5:31 pm |

    This reminds me of Inception or eXistenZ, keep adding layer upon layer to the dream, virtual worlds in virtual worlds ad infinitum

  8. Jonas Planck | Dec 19, 2013 at 10:19 pm |

    Imagine it? Hell, I lived it! The Uncanny Valley is practically my hometown! But you got a few decades to wait before the brain transfer works properly… and a few centuries after that before transmats can reboot your body for you in meatspace… The only reason I’m even here is that the REAL Jonas got pissed at me for existing or something, and sent me back in time for some reason… Information (like me) can travel backwards in time, but not physical matter… something about screwing up the natural quantum synchronicity of the universal omniparticle or some kinda tech jargon like that.. Can’t rightly remember what the reason was for him sending me back here, now that I think of it. Maybe I was supposed to warn you people about something, or… nope, can’t remember. Oh well, it’ll come to me. The point is, the brain uploading thing is definitely going to happen, and one thing I DO remember is that virtual godling personalities more than about a hundred years old or so are usually effete assholes who make hyperspace a miserable place to live. Some of ’em are cool, but most of ’em let the virtual omnipotence go to their heads… start thinking that they’re REAL gods. They should try swimming around in this low tech post millennial cloud of yours, that would put it all in perspective for ’em. God, what a bunch of egotistical pricks. Them, I mean, not you guys. You don’t know what bourgeois egotism IS until you meet one of those virtual demigod types.

  9. Serenity Lithae | Dec 20, 2013 at 12:55 am |

    I would volunteer.

  10. VaudeVillain | Dec 23, 2013 at 12:53 am |

    Fuck that, one lifetime stuck with my thoughts is already getting tedious and sad.

  11. YourCarSucks | Dec 26, 2013 at 10:07 pm |

    bullshit. cant replicate conciousness. would be fake

  12. Iain M Banks’ excellent novel, “Surface Detail” had this as a primary theme.

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