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Cybernetic Immortality

The successes of science make it possible for us to raise the banner of cybernetic immortality. The idea is that the human being is, in the last analysis, a certain form of organization of matter. This is a very sophisticated organization, which includes a high multilevel hierarchy of control. What we call our soul, or our consciousness, is associated with the highest level of this control hierarchy. This organization can survive a partial --- perhaps, even a complete --- change of the material from which it is built.

Most of the knowledge acquired by an individual still disappears at biological death. Only a tiny part of that knowledge is stored outside the brain or transmitted to other individuals. It is a shame to die before realizing one hundredth of what you have conceived and being unable to pass on your experience and intuition. It is a shame to forget things even though we know how to store huge amount of information in computers and access them in split seconds. Further evolution would be much more efficient if all knowledge acquired through experience could be maintained, in order to make place only for more adequate knowledge. This requires an effective immortality of the cognitive systems defining individual and collective minds: what would survive is not the material substrate (body or brain), but its cybernetic organization.

One way to reach this ideal has been called "uploading": the transfer of our mental organization to a very sophisticated computer system. Research in artificial intelligence, neural networks, machine learning and data mining is slowly uncovering techniques for making computers work in a more "brain-like" fashion, capable to learn billions of associated concepts without relying on the rigid logical structures used by older computer systems. See for example our research on learning, brain-like webs. If these techniques become more sophisticated, we might imagine computer systems which interact so intimately with a human use that they would "get to know" that user so well that they it could anticipate every reaction or desire. Since user and computer system would continuously work together, they would in a sense "merge": it would become meaningless to separate the one from the other. If at a certain stage the biological individual of this symbiotic couple would die, the computational part might carry on as if nothing had happened. The individual's mind could then be said to have survived in the non-organic part of the system.

Through such techniques, the form or organization with which we identify our "I" could be maintained infinitely, and, which is important, evolve, become even more sophisticated, and explore new, yet unthought of, possibilities. Even if the decay of biological bodies is inevitable, we can study ways of information exchange between bodies and brains which will preserve the essence of self-consciousness, our personal histories, our creative abilities, and, at the same time, make us part of a larger unity embracing, possibly, all of the humanity: the social superorganism. We call this form of immortality cybernetic, because cybernetics is a generic name for the study of control, communication, and organization. It subsumes biological immortality.

At present our ideas about cybernetic immortality are still abstract and vague. This is inevitable; long range notions and goals may be only abstract. But this does not mean that they are not relevant to our present concerns and problems. The concept of cybernetic immortality can give shape to the supreme goals and values we espouse, even though present-day people can think realistically only in terms of creative immortality (although -- who knows?). The problem of ultimate values is the central problem of our present society. What should we live for after our basic needs are so easily satisfied by the modern production system? What should we see as Good and what as Evil? Where are the ultimate criteria for judging social organization? Historically, great civilizations are inseparable from great religions which gave answers to these questions. The decline of traditional religions appealing to metaphysical immortality threatens to degrade modern society. Cybernetic immortality can take the place of metaphysical immortality to provide the ultimate goals and values for the emerging global civilization.

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Copyright© 1997 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

C. Joslyn, V. Turchin, F. Heylighen,

Mar 20, 1997 (modified)
Aug 1993 (created)


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