Ken MacLeod on AI and uploads

From: Damien Broderick (
Date: Thu Apr 01 2004 - 21:56:59 MST

At a conference the other day in Barcelona, Ken said:

Is it possible for human personalities to be recreated in computer systems?
Personally, I doubt it. To create a software model of the brain and its
body and environment is difficult enough even in principle, let alone in
any foreseeable practice. To enable that programme to run, to iterate, to
take even one step, is a difficulty of a far greater order. Perhaps I'm
just being stubborn, but I remain unconvinced that it's possible at all. To
claim that human personalites, with real continuity with those they've been
copied from, can exist in a virtual environment raises philosophical
questions far deeper than most stories on the subject even consider, and
far too deep for me to go into here.

Nevertheless, I think it's worthwhile and legitimate to write science
fiction stories that assume it is possible, as I've done in The Stone Canal
and elsewhere. As the American SF writer Kim Stanley Robinson points out in
this context, science fiction provides us with metaphors for the mundane,
and for the changes in our daily lives. When aviation was changing the
world, science fiction wrote about space travel. When space travel was not
changing the world, and medicine and drugs were, science fiction wrote
about Inner Space. When computers were changing the labour process in
factories and offices, science fiction wrote about cyberspace. Now that
much of our work and leisure and relationships are mediated by computer
networks, and much our lives lived online, science fiction talks about
'uploading' human personalities into virtual reality. It's a metaphor for
what has already happened. In emails and newsgroups, websites and weblogs,
many of us - deliberately or otherwise - project an 'online persona' which
has a far from simple relationship with our actual selves. How many of us
have had the experience of meeting someone we have come to know online and
found them quite surprisingly different from the person we had imagined? As
used to be said back in the early nineties, on the Internet nobody knows
you're a dog.

But it's not simply a question of dissembling, of faking an identity, of
anonymity or pseudonymity. To the extent that it has real effects, on other
people and on the world, your online persona is your real self. You are
responsible for it. There is no evading that. And these effects can be
serious, can be very much 'part of the real world'. We're often reminded of
the dark side of this, in fraud and entrapment and so forth, but we should
also remember the bright side. Think of Salam Pax, the famous 'Baghdad
Blogger'. As a young gay man in Iraq, he was able to use the Internet to
both conceal his personal identity, and to reveal it, to come out before
thousands and thousands of readers - and to affect quite profoundly the way
in which many people saw the war. Here for the first time was somebody
writing, almost intimately, in real time, to people in the attacking
countries as the bombers took off from England and he - and we - could
count the hours until they arrived, and worry when his messages stopped.
Think of how emails and newsgroup messages directly affected how people
outside the United States experienced the September 11 attacks and their
consequences - many them anxiously seeking news of people they had never
met in person, only online, but who were their friends or acquaintances

On the other side of the screen, so to speak, the Internet has changed many
people's very personalities and identities - 'identity' this time meaning
how they see themselves, and what they identify with. Again, we are often
reminded of the dark side - of how people with warped and anti-social
characters, ideas and impulses can find each other. But here, as in the
real world, misanthropy is misguided. As the English historian Henry Thomas
Buckle said, acts of virtue must far outnumber acts of vice, or humanity
would long ago have perished. There are online communities of evil or
disturbed people, for sure. But they are far outnumbered by the online
communities of good people, whose interests are innocent. If you're
innocent and isolated, discovering that you're not alone is an immense
relief and can be the beginning of liberation. Minorities - sexual and
political, religious and anti-religious, intellectual and artistic - can
share their interests and legitimise themselves in their own eyes and those
of the rest of the world. Not all of this is good, but most of it is.

Even the science-fiction idea of electronic immortality for digitized
personalities is a metaphor for real life. We can't be sure, but we may
suspect, that everything sent across the Internet is stored somewhere. Our
newsgroup postings are now permanently archived in public, there to
entertain or embarrass us for the rest of our lives. Perhaps the dark
archives of the security services hold all our private messages, and
represent the only immortality most of us will ever have. Who knows what
intelligences, human or artificial, will in some distant future study these
scraps of our souls as we study cave-paintings and bone-carvings, and
wonder about the strange people who created them, back in the dawn?

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