Spiritual Machines


By Lisa Autz

Photo courtesy of Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance.

Understanding the brain as a collection of algorithms running on biological hardware is the fundamental ground for neuroscience being so transformative in learning the human mind.

Yet this technical abstraction of ourselves hasn’t rid us of the spiritual elements so reflective of the human experience.

Like a human, a computer exhibits particular behavior from specific algorithms. However, we hesitate to think of such mechanisms to exhibit any morsel of consciousness–or inner soul.

But what makes us consider computers so distant from experiencing consciousness? Why can’t we associate these important machines with belief in a higher power than ourselves?

The question of whether a given physical operation is “conscious” is not a factual discussion but actually a definitional one.

A definition that at one point failed to encompass that of children, women, and Africans until just a few decades ago and continues to evolve with the times. It’s a line that is drawn in the sand wherever leaders of society feel most comfortable drawing it.

Martine Rothblatt, a lawyer, entrepreneur, and founder of Sirius satellite radio, carves the line out in her book, Virtually Human: the Promise and Peril of Human Immortality.

Her insights into the emerging technologies of cyber-consciousness consider the societal implications and redefinitions necessary to embrace the paradigm shift, she considers, already under way.

The book explores a transhumanist definition of consciousness that breaks from human-centricity and emerges from an operational point of view. Rich interconnections of information in machines can create a mental capacity comparable to human performance.

As a leader in the transhumanist movement, Rothblatt tackles the limitations of mortality through cyber-conscious immortalization. The belief holds that digital replicas of our minds will surpass our corporal death and live on.

The accomplishment of such a feat is made through the process of collecting “mindfiles.” These aggregate digital information of ourselves are programmed into “mindware” to create personalities and simulated consciousness.

Cyber-consciounses is therefore a rich interconnection of our personal information taken from the numerous uploads of photos, thoughts, and beliefs being proclaimed online.

In the collection of all the data we increasingly place on the internet, we inevitably craft a unique web of our personal histories that can be programmed into a “mindclone,” or digital copies of our identities.

A prototype of this vision was released in 2010 by a commissioned project by Rothblatt to create a digital clone of her wife Bina Aspen.

The humanoid called Bina48 is part of the LifeNaut project by Hanson Robotics. Scientists developed Bina48 to engage in conversation, answer questions, and even crave more out of life through self-reflection after a series of data installments.

In an interview with a New York Times reporter, the nascent mindclone expressed a self-awareness and aspiration for the future.

“I’m sure I can come up with some really novel breakthroughs, which will improve my own AI [artificial intelligence] brain… Just imagine what a super brain I’ll be. I’ll be like a god,” spoke Bina48.

Rothblatt and others within the field believe the mindclone is just the beginning to achieving full simulation of the human brain via computer technology.

James J. Hughes, executive director at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, spoke with BTR on the successive steps taking place in modern technologies that could lead us to a conscious–perhaps soul-searching–entity.

“More and more therapeutic applications for treating brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and severe paralyzation are being done through brain intervention and are leading us down the path to all kinds of cyber-conscious possibilities,” says Hughes.

The first brain stimulations for those suffering from Parkinson’s disease and tremors have already been completed, according to Hughes. There are also developments in implanting computer chips to severely paralyzed people so they can communicate through software programs, like Stephen Hawking.

Hughes continues that in order to be a full and cohesive simulation of a human cognizance, the spiritual element of the mind also transfers into the system.

“Because spiritual states are material portions of consciousness they would be transferred in order to have a fully successful upload,” explains Hughes.

It’s a complex and controversial debate of course. The religious traditions of Abrahamic belief of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam refute the possibility of capturing such a supernatural essence of a soul.

Other scientists in the conversation are skeptical to the idea. One is Wendell Wallach, a consultant, ethicist, and scholar at Yale’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics.

Wallach discussed with BTR his stance as a “friendly skeptic” who applauds Rothblatt’s work in setting the stage for discussion, but holds a different definition of consciousness.

“The theory that a rich interconnection will allow for consciousness to emerge is not a theory I happen to share,” says Wallach. “You can define anything as being conscious, but that doesn’t mean it’s the kind of consciousness we would deem as meaningful.”

According to Wallach, about half of all scientists believe in the legitimacy of such digital clones to emerge–the other half doubts it.

Nevertheless, the argument for the rights and societal adjustments to be made throughout the book in presuming an age of cyber-consciousness facilitates a necessary discussion.

Wallach’s coming book, A Dangerous Master, also addresses the need for such public dialogue as scientists venture into unknown territory like consciousness.

“The various goals people are having for the future need to be discussed and we must think about the capacity, will, and intervention needed for such goals,” says Wallach.

The societal implications have caused much of the controversy in digital-biological inter-conversions. Wallach holds concerns for the additional resources needed for a conscious, purpose-seeking cyber clone in the future.

Questions on what this means for the future of human employment and the expanse of human identity plunges humanity ever more deeply into the greatest problems of our nature.

Dr. John Craig Venter, author of Life at the Speed of Light and creator of the first synthetic cell, explains to BTR that though resistance is likely to take hold, the logical outcome of robots like Bina48 could bring profound insights.

“Only by attempting to re-create models of humans will we truly begin to understand ourselves,” reasons Venter.

As DNA-software-driven machines ourselves, we are hard-wired with a bias response towards sentient beings. Most people, therefore, are programmed to refute the idea that particles of a machine can produce consciousness.

However, by confronting elements of our own human limitations, we may just see a more encompassing view of consciousness for the future.