Back-up Your Brain

(This post contains vague spoilers, which should not damage your enjoyment of the stories in question)

Would I restore my mind from back-up?

I’ve been reading Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow’s first novel.  It is a science-fiction thought experiment on what might happen if we all had immortality, and scarcity of resources had been abolished.  Money is redundant, because one can simply utilise public replication machines to generate whatever food or tools you need.  Instead, people earn credibility points (Doctorow calls it ‘Whuffie’) for all the good things that they do – The protagonist, Julius, earns this by maintaining the rides at Disneyland.  Through these tweaks to reality, Doctorow gets to meditate on human purpose and ennui in a time of plenty.

The central, fantastical technology available to the characters, is the ability to upload and back-up to hard-drive your mind and all your memories.  Should some accident or murder befall you (as of course it does to Julius) you can get a-hold of a clone body, and overlay your complete consciousness onto the tabula rasa.  Doctorow has played with this sort of technology before, in the delightful I, Rowboat (yes, a knowing pun on Asimov’s I, Robot) and another story involving an absconded mother (the name of which escapes me just now).  Apparently, such technology a staple of science fiction:  Back-ups and clones are certainly used in the Schwarzenegger movie The 6th Day and I am sure they are found in Philip K. Dick and elsewhere in the canon.

For those who wish to live forever, brain-backups and reboots are exciting idea, but the immortality on offer would be false.  In both The 6th Day and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, its clear that in taking a snap-shot of your brain, you are not preserving your consciousness (or your soul) but simply making a copy of it.  As both Adam Gibson (the Schwarzenegger character) and bad-guy Michael Drucker (Tony Goldwyn) discover in The 6th Day, it is possible to make a clone of yourself before you die!  When your original ‘version’ dies, the fact that there is a replica of you living on somewhere is of no comfort as your own light fades.  When you finally expire, you know your soul cannot fly away and awake in the new clone, because the clone is already wandering around making memories of his own (see also ‘Second Chances’, a Star Trek: TNG episode with two Commander Rikers).

Stepping into the Star Trek transporters or Fly-style teleporter carries the same philosophical risk.  I simply wouldn’t have the guts to step into such a machine – Not because I worry that my psychology or physiology might be altered due to a malfunction, but because even if the thing works perfectly, the guy stepping in is not the guy stepping out.

One of the few places in fiction where the idea that the soul does not persist through back-ups and cloning is in The Prestige.  Its a film I’ve previously slated for seeming to violate the rules of mystery-telling, but on reflection I think it is internally consistent (the opening shot of the film fortells the final revelation).  Both the Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale characters discover, in their own very different ways, that you cannot achieve immortality through the creation of a clone or a twin, regardless of how that might appear to the rest of the world.  In the end, both characters rightly weep at the demise of their clones, but Jackman’s character is the more tortured because he has caused the death of his ‘original’ self, merely by choosing to step into the crackpot machine in the first place.    This is a sadness that seems to be missing from the characters in Cory Doctorow’s stories.

However, realisation that backup-and-restore is not bona fide immortality would not discourage me from plugging in my brain and making a copy.  This is because we naturally value the things we have created, and we want to see them persist.  I would like to pass on bits of my DNA through children and grandchildren.  I would like people to read the thoughts I have written down, even after I become an ex-person.  A human consciousness restored from my uploaded back-up would be indisputably my creation, a more detailed product of my life and times than anything I might write or carve, or anyone I might sire.  Far better that they, in particular, get to witness the heat-death of the universe (Doctorow, with a nod to Douglas Adams) or the “more glorious dawn” of a Galaxy-rise than some other, generic homo sapien.

'The Same River Twice, part V' by ruSSel hiGGs. Creative Commons License.
‘The Same River Twice, part V’ by ruSSel hiGGs. Creative Commons License.

Thoughts on Apollo, part II

A major feature of the analysis of the Apollo missions, is the constant lament that we’ve never gone back to The Moon, or (and this is Buzz Aldrin’s formulation) that we haven’t reached Mars.

However, I wonder if this is fair? If we consider other great exploratory feats, such as Columbus crossing the Atlantic, or Magellan circumnavigating the globe, or Hillary/Tenzing climbing Everest… how long before the extraordinary was repeated? How long before it became commonplace?

Thoughts on Apollo, part I

Its the anniversary if the first moon landing tomorrow. Here’s yrstruly on Twitter:

I really can’t get enough Apollo XI anniversary coverage. An extraordinary boundary in human achievement.

Two minor thoughts on why I find the Apollo missions so fascinating. First, the technology seems so basic by today’s standards. I’ve read widely on the engineering behind the Apollo programme, so I know the machines were cutting edge in the 1960s. But I also know that the speed at which inventions were taken from theory to prototype and then to implementation, was much quicker than comparable projects, such as airliners and military hardware, are developed today. The images of the Apollo space craft modules make me think of the word ‘contraption’.

In addition, they were supported by such meagre computer power. Famously, there is more computer capability in a modern mobile phone than there was on the Apollo missions. Worse, the lunar model computer actually crashed during the descent stages of Apollo XI and Apollo XIV. What a contrast to all the back-ups, fail-safes and diagnostics that go into modern aviation technology.

To go so far in such vehicles was brave to the point of insanity. It is almost as if they went before their time. Most people speak of the Apollo programme as being a feature of the Cold War, part of the Arms Race, quintessentially 1960s. But I see it as being rather incongruous with the earthbound history around it. A tangent to the timeline that no-one was ready for, that no-one can parse. An alien act.

Timeshifted Blogs

The Apollo Plus 40 Twitter Feed reminds me of the Orwell Diaries project.  Each pulls a piece of history forward to the present day, where you can experience it in real-time. (via Kottke).

My inner autistic feels slightly uneasy about the the disparity between dates and day.  For example, The Eagle Lunar Module landed on the moon at just after 8pm EDT, on 20th July 1969, which was a Sunday evening (see Mark’s Livingston’s date-to-day converter).  However, I’ll presumably be reading a tweet announcing “the Eagle has landed” late on the evening of Monday 20th July 2009.  Sunday nights and Monday nights feel very different.

The BBC screened couple of TV programmes a few years ago, Dateline Jerusalem and Bethlehem Year Zero, that operated on a similar timeshift concept for the Easter and Christmas stories.  Not quite real-time, though.  It strikes me as a new way to consume other types of art too:  perhaps reading the entire oeuvre of a given writer by purchasing their books exactly 40, or 50, or a 100 years after the initial publication.  Hansard, the Houses of Parliament archive, would be the perfect resource for an extended “on this day” type feed.

What’s freaky about the Internet, or specifically, the Internet where everyone uses permalinks, is that everything is already pre-archived, ready for this kind of treatment at a moment’s notice.  Many is the time when I have accidentally thought that an archived news story is happening at that moment.  With TV, film and radio, there are certain giveaways like picture and sound quality, colour balance, or even accents and pronounciation, which date the archived item.  In print, the age of the page is easy to discern, by the graphic design style if not by the yellowing of the parchment.  Meanwhile, the division of design and content on the Internet means that old text is constantly inserted into modern designs.

I’m not sure which I like best – going back in time to experience the sights and sounds of a forgotten era; or having the old narratives brought forward into a twenty-first century setting.  There’s room for both, of course, but different approaches conjour different feelings, and teach us different lessons.

To Boldly Twitter…

From Dr McCoy to the Real McCoy.  Another Space Shuttle mission has just launched from Cape Canaveral.  They’re off to the Hubble Telescope.

Atlantis on the pad, ready for STS-125
Atlantis on the pad, ready for STS-125

Two astronauts have the twittering bug.  Mission Specialist Mike Massimino is on Atlantis, while Mark Polansky is the commander of STS-127.   Earlier this year, their colleague Sandra Magnus posted a blog from space.

Thus, right before dawn there is total black and as you look out the window it is as if neither the Earth nor the heavens are there. You just exist, floating in an endless sea of black with one bright light, the sun, illuminating the way. Nothing beyond the light exists. It only lasts a moment, though, as the sun rises higher over the nearing horizon. The Earth starts to pick up some of the rays at last and reappears out of the darkness awash in a faint gray color. Drawing closer you can notice that any high clouds in the atmosphere glow orange or red as they too find the morning sun. It is possible to see the terminator as you cross it. The grey of dawn gives way to the bright blues and whites of day that are so distinctive of our water planet. Looking back in the direction from whence you came, the darkness of night is still noticeable. Only looking forward does the day shine clearly. Soon the night is gone as the Space Station continues on its never-ending trek across the planet. The heavens are now just a dark velvety curtain against the brilliant colors of Earth. No stars are visible. They are there, though, waiting for the night which will come in another 45 minutes or so, to show themselves again.

Lovely.

Anyway, Godspeed Atlantis.

Update

Goddamit! Yet again, I was let down by the online streaming video, crashing as loads of people logged on at the last moment. It happened with STS-116, and it happened with the PopeCam.

On Stars

Via Michelle, I hear that 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy.

This seems a good opportunity to post a link to the Light Cone RSS Feed:

From the moment of my birth, light [that I could have influenced] has been expanding around the Earth and light [which could influence me, from an increasing distance of origin] reaching it — this ever-growing sphere of potential causality is my light cone.

Not quite a Total Perspective Vortex, but still awesome (in the old sense of that word).

Elsewhere, the Boston Globe’s fantastic Big Picture blog recently ran an advent calendar of photos from the Hubble Telescope.

An obscure star designated V838 explodes in 2002
An obscure star designated V838 explodes in 2002

Was it worth it?

ATLAS Hadronic endcap Liquid Argon Calorimeter
ATLAS Hadronic endcap Liquid Argon Calorimeter

The Large Hadron Collider at Cern is being switched on tomorrow. Stephen Hawking says it is safe, and that the machine will not create a black-hole that will suck the entire world in on itself. It is the perfect Douglas Adams scenario. We could all be anihilated by ten past nine tomorrow morning, and no-one will bring the milk in.

Can you imagine just how embarrassing such an event will be for humanity? One moment, we are daring to behold the secrets of the universe, edging closer to the mind of God. The next, we are all squashed, star dust again – only this time, your base materials will be blended with those of your office colleagues and that beige laser printer on the filing cabinet. Perversely, it might actually be the one moment where human beings discover a true understanding of one another. Six billion people united in a single thought: “Whoops.” Perhaps that moment will be worth it.
Continue reading “Was it worth it?”

Against the Windfall Tax

Like Conor at the Liberal Conspiracy, I can’t really get behind this clamour for a windfall tax on oil companies. I would love to have a dig at Big Oil, but something grates.

Its not that I am like Tim Worstall, who has barrels of faith in the market to sort the problem out fairly. Oil extraction and distribution is a sort of cartel, not a free market. In any case, such a market takes time (maybe measured in decades or centuries) to do its ‘thing’, and in the meantime it is probable that excess profits will accumulate while everyone else is suffering from a recession.

No, my problem is that arguing for a windfall tax is surely another way of saying that you want to change the rules retrospectively.

Economists often argue that to change the rules, and to impose a windfall tax, simply breeds uncertainty in the market, and cause the oil companies to under-invest. Its an irritating argument against taxation, because it has an air of a threat about it: “don’t tax us, or we will mess up your economy”. In the case of a windfall tax, which everyone (even the oil companies) assumes will be a very rare occurrence, it is less believable than (say) the case of top-rate tax-payers. So I can see how the campaigners might discount this economic argument.

But leaving aside the economic risks that a windfall tax entails, surely changing the rules is simply wrong wrong wrong, no further discussion required? Imposing some kind of law (in this case, a tax law) retrospectively is the stuff of wild-eyed dictatorships, surely. Windfall taxes are short-cuts. An easy, lazy solution to a complex situation.

Play by the rules… and if you feel you must change the rules, do so only at the start of the game. If we percieve a problem with the way our country operates, its fine to legislate so that it doesn’t happen in the following tax year. Nationalise the oil companies if we must, or tax them at 99%. Whatever. Only this: we must to legislate for the future, not the past.

There’s a familiar saying, which goes something like “you can judge a society by the way it treats its most vulnerable”. Well, an alternative might be that we should judge ourselves by how we treat our most despised. The oil giants are certainly some of the most resented institutions in the country, but to subject them to anything other than the rule-of-law is not, I would suggest, cricket. Compass should leave the oil companies with this year’s profits, and get busy lobbying for a law that would redistribute future profits. That’s the right way a democracy should approach this problem.

Update 3rd September

The only counter argument that has piqued my interest has been that a large portion of the oil companies profits have arisen because of preferences in the system of allocating carbon credits via the European Emmissions Trading Scheme. However, while this is a definite argument for going after excess profits, I’m not sure it justifies doing so retrospectively, as a windfall tax would.

Embryo Research Bill II

My second point about the Embryo Research Bill controversy is one of irritation.  The issue of whether Gordon Brown should have allowed Labour MPs a free vote was portrayed in the media as a battle between the Prime Minister and the dark forces of Catholicism.  Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor vocally insisted on a whip-less vote.

In the binary world of most political reporting, the result of this was that taking moral issue with he Embryo Research Bill was seen as the preserve of Catholicism. However, it is perfectly possible for atheists to have moral objections to the Bill too. The idea that morality can only derive from revealed religion is a great meme that needs to be challenged. The idea that atheism and secularism can be equated with the cold, amoral march of science is equally bad, but its a connection that Cardinals and Popes keep making. They should be challenged on this point.

Embryo Research Bill

At last Gordon Brown has found his way out of the ridiculous political cul-de-sac he had wandered into with regard to this embryo legislation.  A few thoughts on the ethics and politics of the issue.

First, I think we can all agree that the debate has been clouded by hyperbole and hysteria.  The legislation as it stands does not give scientists license to create their own little Island of Dr Moreau.  As I understand it, human genetic material is not being spliced with other species to create Greek-style chimeras.  Instead, it is proposed that human DNA will be inserted into animal cells, which are free of that animal’s genetic material.

I think it is important to make the distinction between two scientific-moral considerations here. The first concerns the identity of a set of genes: whether it is morally permissible for scientists to alter that gene, and whether its identity changes when they do. The second consideration is how the gene (regardless of whether scientists have altered its sequence or not) is allowed to develop, and for how long.

A cell is made up of many things.  In addition to DNA genes there are mitochondira and other structures which allow the cell to produce energy and function properly.  But we know that it is in the DNA that the potential for life is stored.  Genes are the instructions for life, while other matter inside the cells are tools for releasing that potential.  It is only in the DNA that identity rests, and that identity will remain regardless of where it is placed. So it seems to me that the current ethical controversy falls into the second category described above.

I think the animal cell is a sort of ‘surrogate’ that bears a similar relationship to the duplicating genes as a surrogate mother would to a baby that she carries.  Although a surrogate mother is essential for the development of the foetus into a baby, the instructions by which the baby grows are supplied from elsewhere.  The genetic link between the biological mother, father and child remains unchanged.  Likewise with this proposed microbiological technique:  The genetic link remains secure. Scientists are not ‘playing God’ by altering genetic material. Like surrogacy, all we are doing is allowing existing genetic material to grow in a new environment. If it can lead to medical breakthroughs in cancer treatment or Altzheimers, then it should be allowed.

Of course, “it’s just a surrogate” has moral limits too.  My stomach would turn at the thought of allowing such cells to develop into a foetus or a child, just as it would if someone were able to grow a human baby inside a non-human surrogate (say, an organgutang or a Huxley-esque vat of goo). Future ethicists may not be so squeamish.