A Case Study in Personal Identity: Altered Carbon

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Altered Carbon is a 2003 science fiction novel written by Richard K. Morgan, which has recently been made into a gritty, futuristic, and definitely R-18 TV series. The central plot device revolves around pieces of technology called ‘cortical stacks’. They are small, palm-sized devices that are implanted at the top of the spinal column and function as digital receptacles for the human consciousness. When you die, as long as your ‘stack’ isn’t damaged, you can be brought back to life by having your consciousness downloaded from your cortical stack into the cortical stack of another body (called a ‘sleeve’), which can be either a real human body or a synthetic, grown one. This transferral process is called ‘needlecasting’ and usually involves deleting the consciousness in the first stack before making the transfer. In this way, the super-rich (called ‘meths’, a reference to the long-lived Methuselah of Biblical fame) have allegedly achieved immortality. In this article, I want to investigate this assumption by asking, are you the same person after needlecasting as you were before?

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Psychedelics – The Self and the Real

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This article is about Sam Harris’ 127th Waking Up podcast in which he talks with Michael Pollan about his latest book, How to Change Your Mind, a New York Times bestseller that investigates the revolution now taking place regarding psychedelic drugs. On the podcast, Harris and Pollan discuss the psychological benefits of psychedelic drug use for those suffering from conditions like depression, addiction, etc., and the general benefits of its use for otherwise healthy people.

Note: I haven’t read the book, so my comments are restricted to what is discussed on the podcast. I also won’t be discussing potential societal/health problems regarding making psychedelics legally available to the public.


The Claims

Claim 1: The main benefit Pollan and Harris focused on regarding the use of psychedelics among otherwise healthy people was their ability to distance one from the (illusory) self. Pollan talks about the drugs dissolving his sense of self, which was freeing in the sense that it gave him an alternative “way to be”, another way to react to what happens in his life. He realised he doesn’t have to listen to his ego all the time. Of course, being an experience, it fades with time and, as he recounts, shortly afterwards, his ego was back in full force. Nevertheless, the alleged benefit was that it had given him a glimpse of another way to live, a way that can be developed more robustly through meditation.

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Reality Checking AI (5/5) – Safety and Digital Gods


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The central issue underlying all this talk of the potential dangers of artificial intelligence is safety. We don’t want to ‘accidentally’ create something that will have disastrous consequences; consequences which could perhaps have been foreseen and avoided had we been a little more conscientious.

This is one issue about which I largely agree with the prophets of the singularity. No one can know for certain that the possibility of creating an artificial intelligence that will make us look as intellectually insignificant as ants look to us, is zero. We might disagree on what that number is, but we should all be able to agree that it is at least above zero and less than one hundred (per cent). Given this, we have an obligation to advance with caution.

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Reality Checking AI (4/5) – The Control Problem and Self-Replication

The Control Problem

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The control problem refers to the difficulties inherent in maintaining control over a super-intelligent AI. The argument is that if we create an artificial super-intelligence and it becomes completely independent, it might enslave, or even destroy, us. Purveyors of AI doomsday scenarios seem to take a perverse delight in imagining how an AI might escape our control and cause havoc.

One obvious scenario is for a computer program to just go completely rogue and turn on us, its intellectually inferior creators. This fear gets its justification from nothing less than human history. What has happened whenever a more advanced race has encountered a less advanced one? Best case scenarios tend to slavery, worst case scenarios look more like genocide.

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Reality Checking AI (3/5) – Consciousness

For the purposes of this article, I will define consciousness as the subjective experience that somehow accompanies human cognition – that sense of self-awareness or the feeling that it is like something to be me.

Is Artificial Consciousness Necessary for AI to Pose a Threat?

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To his credit, Sam Harris, in his podcast discussion with Max Tegmark, acknowledges that consciousness is the only thing that provides meaning in the universe (although he also denies there is such thing as a self and believes we are all fully determined; so square all of those ideas if you can) but is of the opinion that it is irrelevant concerning AI[1] because an artificial super-intelligence can still destroy the human race, even if it completely lacks consciousness; that is, even if it is incapable of subjective experiences. As Tegmark puts it, if you’re being chased by a heat-seeking missile, you aren’t going to care whether it is experiencing anything or not. The end result will be the same either way.

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Reality Checking AI (2/5) – Intelligence

Before I start, I should point out that I am an expert in neither AI nor computer engineering. My thoughts and opinions are based on my limited understanding as a (somewhat) informed layperson.

What is Intelligence?

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Max Tegmark defines intelligence as the ability to accomplish complex goals. Now, this is interesting because on this definition, no computer is intelligent, even AlphaGo Zero. Why? They don’t have any goals and they certainly can’t be said to accomplish anything. Goals and accomplishments are things only conscious agents can have. Although we do sometimes use these terms to refer to non-conscious objects, when we do, we are speaking metaphorically. When I say the tree is growing or my computer is saving a document, I don’t literally mean either of them are actually trying to accomplish a goal. On the contrary, it is the human being who planted the tree or wrote the document who has the goal.

If we strip the conscious agent implications from the words ‘accomplish’ and ‘goal’, we can certainly get to the desired conclusion that computers are intelligent, but in widening the semantic net to let computers slip through, we also unwittingly let a whole host of undesirables through. If computers are intelligent, all life must be intelligent, including plant life. Grass achieves complex goals every time it converts light energy into chemical energy in order to grow. Do you think your lawn is intelligent? But we need not stop at that level of absurdity. Calculators must also be intelligent, so must thermometers, and even eco-systems. Gaia anyone? Ironically, at this stage we are no longer making our computers intelligent; rather, we are making ourselves less intelligent.

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Reality Checking AI (1/5) – Brains and Computers

Before I start, I should point out that I am an expert in neither AI nor computer engineering. My thoughts and opinions are based on my limited understanding as a (somewhat) informed layperson.


The Brain / Computer Analogy

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Is the brain a computer? Well, at a crude level brains can be thought of as information processing systems; that is to say, systems which accept inputs, perform some kind of operation on them, and then produce outputs. Since computers can also be described as information processors; in some sense, the brain is a computer. However, relying too heavily on this analogy conceals at least as much as it reveals, because a brain is simply not like any computer we know of nor is it even like any futuristic variant that anyone has any realistic idea at all about how to build.

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