The Transporter Problem

Posted on 2017 October 1


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There’s no assurance that by copying every last thing in your brain, you’re going to wake up and say, ‘Here I am!’ You wouldn’t wake up inside the computer — you’d just be dead. — Michael Shermer

The Star Trek transporter doesn’t move you around; it kills you and replaces you with a perfect copy. — Quippy

Lately there’s a popular idea going around about how humans might become immortal by copying their conscious selves into computers. Called mind uploading, this idea asserts that we can somehow relocate our awareness from our aging bodies to more permanent digital digs. We might thus live forever — or at least as long as computers and the Internet stay plugged in.

It’s an alluring idea: no more decrepitude, no more illness (unless you count computer viruses). No more having to go potty. And if you’re dying of some dread disease or horrific accident, the doctors would wheel you into surgery, connect your brain to a specialized computer, upload your neural patterns … and you’d find yourself installed inside a machine, with video cams for eyes, mics for ears, robotic actuators to control stuff as needed. Plus full access to the Internet … from inside it.

But there’s a problem with this scenario. Copying your brain onto a silicon wafer would be just that — a copy. In theory, it would start out exactly like you, with all the memories and mental skills and emotional foibles of the original. Everybody would now contact the new “you” inside the machine, and it would seem like you’re still alive, talking to them over a loudspeaker. But that “you” would be a copy. The original you, on the other hand, is still back on the hospital gurney, dying from the wounds or illnesses that brought you there in the first place. Soon you’re gone, and an imposter now dwells inside a computer.

This brings to mind the “Star Trek” transporters, which “convert a person or object into an energy pattern (a process called dematerialization), then ‘beam’ it to a target, where it is reconverted into matter (rematerialization).” Basically, your body is replaced by a beam of energy that contains all the information needed to reconstruct your body at the other end of the trip.

Does the matter in your body somehow get converted directly, mass into energy (per Einstein’s famous equation) … or merely copied onto an energy pattern? If you get converted (and then reconverted back into your old physical self at the other end), then maybe — just maybe — it’s really you, simply changing from matter to energy and back again as you move from one spot to another. But if the transporter makes an energy-beam copy of you, well, that’s tantamount to killing you over here, transferring information about how to rebuild you, and then making a copy of you over there.

As Spock might say: “Illogical.”

In the film “The Prestige”, an ambitious magician hires inventor Nikola Tesla to create a device that makes perfect copies of people; then the magician uses it to “transport” himself from onstage to the back of the auditorium. But the “transported” magician is merely a copy, while the original performer gets killed. The show is a smashing success night after night, but there’s a growing collection of dead performers tucked away in a warehouse. (Offing oneself to become the world’s greatest magician is certainly an extreme approach. But that’s showbiz.)

Thus, transferring ourselves into a different “body” may be doomed to failure. And yet … and yet …

There might be a workaround — at least for the body part most connected to consciousness.

Someone can lose a limb and survive, and replacing the lost arm or leg with a prosthesis doesn’t somehow “replace” the person involved. Might this also be true if part of a brain were similarly replaced?

Many people have suffered the loss of a portion of their brains and continued, somewhat hobbled, to live their lives. Medical science may soon advance to the point where it can replace, say, a section of your left frontal lobe with a small computer processor that mimics the functions of the removed section. The brain would continue to work, except now there’d be a nice new mechanical part integrated into the gray matter that functions better than the old worn-out tissue.

Let’s return to that scenario where you’re the emergency patient. Doctors might replace a small portion of your brain, and then — after it’s clear you’re still conscious (and can answer “How many fingers am I holding up?”), they replace another portion of your brain in the same way, and so on until perhaps all the old organic sections have been upgraded to shiny new mechanical ones.

(And then they replace the rest of your damaged body with robot parts. But that’s another story! We’re focused here on saving your consciousness.)

During the entire process, your mind has remained alive and present and aware while portions of the underlying neurons get supplanted, one small section at a time. You might feel a bit woozy during the procedures, and thoughts and feelings might take time to gel properly. But quickly you’d sense advantages: the new parts would function better — faster and more accurately. Plus they’d last longer and be easier to repair or replace.

Most importantly, the consciousness nurtured by those parts would be you — still alive, still aware — having merely moved, room by room, into a newer and sturdier home. Your mind would be the original one, not a copy.

Or would it?

If not, would such surgeries be equivalent to murder?

Spock, what do you think?