Hans Moravec on “transmigration” (AKA mind uploading AKA brain emulation)

I’ve found that Hans Moravec is a name that comes up a lot in discussions of transhumanism and futurism more generally. For example, he seems to be the source of the idea (used by Ray Kurzweil and many others) that Moore’s law can be extended back before the invention of the integrated circuit.

Moravec also comes up in discussions of mind uploading or brain emulation. So when my copy of Moravec’s book Mind Children arrived from Amazon, one of the first things I did was go to the index to try to find where Moravec talked about that. I was somewhat surprised by what I found. Moravec calls it “transmigration,” a term I’m used to hearing in religious contexts to talk about reincarnation. And Moravec imagines things happening to uploaded minds far more fantastic than even what I’m used to hearing from Robin Hanson. For example:

I have already mentioned the possibility of making copies of oneself, with each copy undergoing its own adventures. It should be possible to merge memories from disparate copies into a single one. To avoid confusion, memories of events would indicate in which body they happened, just as our memories today often have a context that establishes a time and place for the remembered event. Merging should be possible not only between two versions of the same individual but also between different persons. Selective mergings, involving some of another person’s memories and not others, would be a superior form of communication, in which recollections, skills attitudes, and personalities can be rapidly and effectively shared. Your new body will be able to carry more memories than your original biological one, but the accelerated information explosion will ensure the impossibility of lugging around all of civilization’s knowledge. You will have to pick and choose what your mind contains at any one time. There will often be knowledge and skills available from others superior to your own, and the incentive to substitute those talents for yours will be overwhelming. In the long run you will remember mostly other people’s experiences, while memories you originated will be incorporated into other minds. Concepts of life, death, and identity will lose their present meaning as your mental fragments and those of others are combined, shuffled, and recombined into temporary associations, sometimes large, sometimes small, sometimes long isolated and highly individual, at other times ephemeral, mere ripples on the rapids of civilization’s torrent of knowledge. There are foretastes of this kind of fluidity around us. Culturally, individual humans acquire new skills and attitudes from others throughout life. Genetically, in sexual populations each individual organism is a temporary bundling of genes that are combined and recombined in different arrangements every generation.

In spite of everything I’ve previously written about uploading, here you should count me skeptical. If uploading can be made to work at all, copying minds and moving them to faster hardware is not really a stretch, because the ability to do that is already implicit in the idea of software minds. It’s much less clear how merging memories would work.

Perhaps Moravec is assuming human memories are stored in some user-friendly way in our brains, but evolution tends to produce kludges that aren’t remotely user friendly. Even though in a sense there may be no reason to absolutely rule it out, it would likely take so much work even after uploading is achieved that it seems hardly worth speculating about.


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