What happens when we figure out the whole of the human brain?
The same words, day after day, kept staring at me on my empty Google doc. I wanted to write a short story about the consequences of the unavoidable technological progress, but I needed a fresh and novel perspective. Something more original than yet another dystopian sci-fi flick, something more developed than “you’ll upload your brain to the cloud”… Surprisingly enough, grasping intuition about the future of a world changing so fast that it may become mind-boggingly different was no small feat.
How does one even start to comprehend a world where you can make a copy of your brain? You wouldn’t have to die, you could have replicas of yourself… Backups in case of trouble… Or even just in case you’re unsure about a decision, just try it and see how things go! And then come back to the last stable version if needed… When you’re fully digitalized, you get all the benefits of data, you get version control…
What does it even feel like, when your brain is on git? When you’re not the only “you” anymore? How does time feel when you can rollback any change, or resurrect a copy of your past self and interact with it?
I thought about these questions a lot, but the answer was probably so alien to us than mere reflection wouldn’t yield much. I was intrigued by this paradigm shift we may well be on the verge of, and I would quite often bring it up in conversations, but few were the ones who understood much less cared about it. So every time I met someone whom I could enthusiastically speculate about the future with, it felt a bit special to me.
None were quite so special as my encounter with Robin, though. As it always would, it started with a few conversational cues at a party. Remarks here and there that hinted him as interesting. I then got the chance to dig a little deeper, as we got some quiet talking time around a glass of champagne.
He expanded on his vision for a future where emulated humans would drive the economy. He made a lot of good points on that nebulous topic. His knowledge of social sciences and politics allowed him to extrapolate quite clearly the consequences of brain simulations. He was especially focused on this idea of copies, and how short-lived replicas would probably become the most efficient way to solve most problems.
“ You’d simply wager that the task is worth the effort, he explained to me. And then we’d make a short-lived replica of yourself to do this task and then expire. The task would get done, and you’d continue to exist. No hard feeling for anyone. Unless the copying mechanism had to be destructive, that is…”
“ That seems cruel to the copy, I objected. Having to die in this planned way…”
“ Is it, though? You would continue to exist… This one instance would die out of course, but how is it different from what you’re already living? As Hume puts it, you die and get reborn every instant… Don’t you die out every night before sleep? What about the person in your dreams, who you are every night, living their life, and doomed to fall every time into oblivion… Aren’t they a short-lived replica of you, living in a weird simulated environment? It’s not any worse than a dream, you know…”
“ If you put it that way….”
“ You better get used to it. That’s most probably where we’re headed, in fact… ”
He paused for a second, pondering something I could not fathom. Maybe he was in an exceptionally good mood, or maybe our discussions had convinced him that I was trustworthy. He leaned towards me and continued in a whisper:
“ In fact, the technology is not very far out. I’ve been studying this field and writing about it for a while, and I… let’s just say I have contacts who trusted me with a very cool piece of technology…”
“ Which does what?” I asked doubtfully.
“ Care to guess?” He answer playfully, fondling something in his pocket.
I was sceptic enough not to jump to any conclusion, but he had given me enough reasons to take him seriously. Faced with my silence, he went on:
“ I just happen to have something that can produce a short lived replica of yourself. It’s rudimentary. It’s a prototype, of course. The copy won’t be as sophisticated as you are, won’t live for more than a few hours… But it’s a wonderful proof of concept. Do you want to try it out? ”
I was doubtful, to say the least. I had never accepted any suspicious offer at a party. But he wasn’t a nobody, his reputation preceded him, and even though this seemed really shady, the pace at which technology had progressed these last few years did not rule it out as absurd. This man had roamed many of the top level laboratories around the globe, so maybe, just maybe, there was something real there. I’d have hated to miss a chance to be a pioneer.
“ Sure, I answered after a while, i’ll give it a shot.”
Out of nowhere came a syringe, and…
I woke up painfully, my head pounding with a throbbing pain. I had been sleeping on my friend’s sofa, after the party.
I remembered some of it. Confused noises, the drinking, the music… A lot of drinking. Vague memories of talking to my friends, meeting some new people. An interesting encounter with someone I just met… And then nothing. I might as well have slept and dreamt through the whole thing…
Staggering around, I started a quest for fresh water. As I entered the kitchen, I was greeted by a voice that seemed vaguely familiar, but that I could not identify clearly:
“ Hello, he told me. How are you feeling? How was the experience?”
“ What are you talking about?” I managed to babble painfully.
“ What you did at the party, yesterday. Wasn’t it crazy?”
I dug into my memories, but I couldn’t make out anything worth mentioning.
“ I have no idea what you’re talking about…”
“ Exactly.” he answered with a sly smile.
“ What the fuck, man!” I interjected as a warm feeling made its way slowly up my left arm.
“ You didn’t think this would be done without intervention on your body, did you?”
There was a little time during which I focused on the unbearable tingling in my spinal cord and my neck.
“ What is that?”
“ A nanobot serum, it’s doing a full scan of your brain so that we can restore it. ”
“ Sounds like a lot of bullshit to me… ”
The odd feeling was dying out.
“ Think whatever you want, it’s done now. ”
“ The scan is over? ”
“ Yes, and the saved state will be restored in a few hours. You’re now officially a short lived replica. ”
“ But I’m just me, I don’t feel any different… ”
“ You’re smart enough to know that all copies think that when they first become aware…”
“ This is dumb. You did nothing but inject me with some shady crap. I should probably go the hospital…”
“ Relax, it’s finished now. And you’re feeling fine, aren’t you? ”
“ What was that?”
“ I just told you!”
It was clear that trying to get detailed answers was going to be pointless. But this was a man of quite a reputation, and there were a lot of people around us. Whatever shitty drug he gave me could not have been too bad. Since I wasn’t feeling any pain, I decided to encourage the conversation, in hope to get a bit more information out of him about what was roaming through my body. I took a sip of liquor and continued:
“ So you made a copy of me? ”
“ Well from his point of view, you’re the copy.”
“ But I have the original body! ”
“ Do you? How could you tell we’re not having this conversation in a virtual server? I bet you can barely tell if you’re dreaming or not… ”
The alcohol was starting to get to my head. Or was it his weird stuff?
“ So you’re saying… that I’m a… What was that word? Short lived replica? ”
“ Exactly. You’re still you, but your life branched out into two. For the other you, this conversation will never have happened. He’ll just blissfully go on with his life, with no awareness of what happened tonight. He’ll have no recollection of your cruel fate… ”
“ And me? ”
“ Well, you’re gonna die tonight. That’s what short lived means. This version of you will fall into nothingness before dawn.”
His words were ridiculous and absurd. But somehow his ominous tone and the seriousness of his face sent a shiver down my spine. Maybe some part of me did actually buy into all of this.
“ Don’t sweat it, he said with a comforting hand on my shoulder. It’s not too bad. It’s not like you’re really dying, since you’re still living somewhere else. You’ll just… switch off, I guess, for lack of a better word. The age of emulation is coming, death as you know it is about to disappear. The very definition of existence is going to change like never before. ”
He marked a little pause before continuing:
” Under these conditions, there’s only one thing to do!”
“ What is that? ”
He looked at me with a malicious smile, and answered while pouring me another glass:
“ Party like it’s your last night on Earth.”