The Fallacy of Persona Downloads in Science Fiction

transhumanism5For quite some time I’ve been interested in aspects of the various singularity theories that have been floating around for years. These are not to be confused with gravitational or mass singularity (black holes) theories, but those dealing with a “technological singularity” that may (will?) lead to posthuman or transhuman evolution. One of the most famous, well known and referenced articles on the technological singularity was written by Vernor Vinge.  He later incorporated aspects of the theory into his excellent novel A Fire Upon the Deep (which I should Retro Review some day). Without going into too many details the theory postulates that mankind’s technological development is increasing at an increasing rate. In other words…it is accelerating and is approaching an asymptote, also called a “singularity.” The more advanced our civilization and technology become, the higher the level of acceleration.  One of the main drivers of this singularity is computing power and artificial intelligence.  This technological singularity will outpace social change, economic change, and political change.  Indeed, economic and political change progress at a snail’s pace, and one could argue that economic change is a lagging indicator of technological change.  Social change is mired down by thousands of years of religious and political stigma.  And political change is a downright oxymoron, especially in recent decades.  This is the exact reason why you can see citizens in developing countries walking the streets talking on their smartphones, yet thes same countries typically have small, stagnant economies and questionable political leadership.

It is suggested that the culmination of the singularity will result in self aware artificial intelligences that possesses transcendental intelligence with the ability to out process the human mind and solve any problem in the blink of an eye. The ride on the singularity curve, and eventual transcendence, will lead to transhuman evolution (assuming we don’t get Skynet) and a world where mankind will leverage the fruits of the singularity to transcend their pre-singularity brethren and reach a posthuman state.

Technological SingularityWill the technological singularity lead to a utopia or a dystopia? If we could predict that, then we would probably have the capability to predict the details of the singularity…which we can’t.

Suggested advancements as a result of the singularity include super intelligence, man-machine interfacing, cybernetic and genetic manipulation, life extension…and of course persona downloads. The concept of downloading ones mind into a storage device or another body has been around for decades, but the path that would lead humanity to this end was not proposed until the technological singularity theory popped up. As with all speculative science fiction the current theories of the day are all the rage…and the more fantastical the theory, the more popular it is. The singularity is certainly no exception.

In many novels the downloading of a person’s persona and consequent resurrection is commonplace, albeit expensive. Characters only give a fleeting thought when undertaking dangerous, and often life ending, tasks knowing they have a “backup” on the home world or in orbit or back in the old freezerino.  Very few works deal with the ethical and philosophical aspects of persona transfers. The only recent example that seems to have gotten it correct is the television show Battlestar Galactica.  Richard K. Morgan also got it right in his novel Altered Carbon.  He even addresses (albeit thinly) some of the moral questions that arise when “sleeving” a mind in to another’s body, usually that of a convict who has had their mind removed due to crimes committed.  But most writers nonchalantly have their characters make backups, copies, downloads, or save points at the drop of a hat. These backups usually involve downloading the person’s persona, memory, and consciousness into a computer or into some form of storage device.

Here’s the philosophical conundrum: it is not the same person because it is a copy, backup, etc.

As a thought experiment imagine that you reside in a posthuman future and work in an extremely hazardous profession such as the military. Prior to a dangerous deployment or mission you are asked to report to Archival Command. Being the obedient soldier that you are (and potentially being enslaved due to bio-mechanical control in a dystopian future) you report and proceed to have everything that you are downloaded for archive:  memories, intellect, knowledge, dreams…everything. It’s also presumed that your DNA is on record. You are eventually shipped out to some exotic locale and are killed, fighting valiantly for the corrupt and controlling mega-state that shipped you out. No harm, no foul…you have an archived copy of “you,” right? Wrong. Archival Command, wanting to keep their highly trained and valuable soldier, simply clone up another copy of your body and proceed to “reload” your persona. Assuming the process is seamless it IS you from the perspective of an outside observer such as friends and family and the mega-state. It looks like you, talks like you, and possesses your every memory…even down to the small mole on your wife’s shoulder or the time you fell out of a tree and broke your wrist as a child. But it’s not “you”…not from your perspective, the perspective of the original you. That person is forever dead, and your copy lives on never knowing (unless told) what happened to “you” or that he/she is not a wholly original person.


This is how most writers (of books, movies, and television) treat the concept, and it’s incorrect because it introduces many philosophical and moral arguments. For example, using the soldier analogy above, would someone be so eager to engage in dangerous activities knowing that a restored backup held no link to them? That for all intents and purposes once the lights go out on a version of you (original or copy) they are out forever.   Would the average person even be amenable to allowing copies of their original persona to exist knowing it was not them, or that the existence of an archived copy would make them “immortal?” I doubt it. Are “copies” of human intellects…even “human?” If we introduce artificial intelligence into the discussion it becomes even more complex.

The uniqueness of our persona is part of what makes us human. The only conceivable way I can see our unique persona surviving is by continual extraction from wherever it is stored. In other words, if our intellectual essence is downloaded from our body into a machine, it must leave the body behind forever. If it is uploaded from a machine into a body, it must leave the machine forever. Any residual persona is a copy of the original. When the original dies it is gone forever. The original persona cannot live on in a copy of itself, there’s no connection between the two. The original must be preserved and transfered to maintain our humanity, even in a posthuman world.

Even though much of the technological singularity discussion and speculation is carried out in the realm of speculative fiction…it is real movement. There are scientists and institutions dedicated to the study, and perhaps fruition, of this very theory. There are also transhumanist movements out there, that are a precursor to our theorized posthuman destiny…if science and science fiction have their way. Most agree that that if mankind can survive it’s own bigotry, hate and inefficiencies that the singularity will arrive.As previously mentioned I believe Battlestar Galactica (the new version of the show) had it close to being right. When Cylons are about to die, and if a resurrection ship is close enough, their consciousness is downloaded into the ship and then into a new body. Of course this doesn’t address the question of how the copies of humans (who are Cylons) came into existence to begin with, but the entire underlying plot line to the series deals with what it is to be human and what it is to be machine (artificial, copy). There’s an obvious line between the two, but as the show developed that line become more blurred.  If you want to see a terrible interpretation of consciousness backup watch The Sixth Day where characters continually upload archived copies of their personas into clones at will, thinking they live on and somehow gain residual memories of events that happen to them after their minds are archived.

30 years or 300 years?  It’s only a matter of time…if we survive ourselves.

Words © 2013-2020, Neal Ulen. All rights reserved.
Images/videos cited © to their respective owner(s).

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