Martine Rothblatt has an interesting idea. Unfortunately, I don't think her idea is going to work.
In our cybernetic and virtual world of the future, says Rothblatt, genes are not going to matter so much. Instead, we’ll be concerned about ‘bemes' -- a fundamental, transmissible, unit of beingness.
This will give rise to the transbeman person -- a being who claims to have the rights and obligations associated with being human, but is beyond accepted notions of legal personhood. Examples would include a computer claiming to be conscious; a person successfully reanimated from cryonic stasis; or the downloading of a ‘cyberconsciousness’ into a highly engineered ‘bionano’ body.
Rothblatt, an eccentric billionaire lawyer, author, and entrepreneur, made the case for "Cybernetic Biostasis" during TransVision 2007 and argued that bemes will eventually become the currency of the future – the stuff that will help prospective persons restore their memories and sense of identity. She believes that people should create digital ‘mindfiles’ that chronicle their lives; eventually, after death, persons could be revived by means of ‘mindware’ transfer when the requisite technology is powerful enough (namely the advent of artificial intelligence).
According to Rothblatt, bemes can be virtually anything that could later be used to restore a person’s history, identity and tendencies. Bemetic mindfiles could be comprised of old photos, blogs, transcripts, diaries, and so on; these artifacts could later be used to restore and re-define a person’s personality (including mannerisms, feelings, beliefs, attitudes and values). Most importantly, these files could restore a person's memory.
To this end, Rothblatt has created the websites Cyberev.org (short for ybernetic beingness revival) and Lifenaut.com. People are encouraged to use the sites to start chronicling their lives.
During her TV07 presentation Rothblatt admitted that piecing together odds and sods of data would not create a perfect copy of a person’s consciousness. She contended that most people only remember fragments of their past anyway. To Rothblatt, it’s the preservation of the person’s "essence" that’s important.
Memories are a strange thing
I find Rothblatt’s mindfile concept quite intriguing, but ultimately unsatisfactory. I’m not convinced that a person’s identity and sense of ongoing self can be re-instantiated in this way. At best we might get a twisted copy of ourselves with a haphazard sense of someone else’s past.
Memories are a tricky thing; they don’t exist in a vacuum. First, we have memories because we, as conscious observers, experience the events in real time. Based on the strength and uniqueness of the event our brain parses the experience and temporarily stores it into short term memory. From there it solidifies into our long-term memory where we build an association with the event. This association allows us to recall the event at will. We are able to access the memory because we a) experienced the event first hand, and we b) created a personal linkage to that event (what could also be referred to as a personal narrative).
In other words, you have to know that you have the memory in order to access it.
Sometimes we forget that we have a memory of an event only to be reminded that it still exists in the brain just waiting to be accessed. I love it when that happens. My first few thoughts are usually, “Why did I forget about that? Why did I not think about that for so long?” For what ever reason the association or linkage to that piece of data was lost. The memory was still there embedded in the mind, but it was simply not accessed enough causing it to lie dormant.
As for Rothblatt’s concept, just because a mind is infused with memories doesn’t mean that all the associations will be there. The memories would likely be construed as a random mess of images, words and events. It would be unlikely that the person would be able to make any sense of it at all and frame a personal narrative around it.
Consciousness, identity, and an ongoing sense of self
Far too many people at the WTA’s TransVision conference batted around the word “consciousness” with complete disregard for definitions and a concrete understanding of what it truly is. Consciousness all too often gets conflated with other aspects of the mind, including memory and other cognitive tasks that comprise the mechanistic or computational aspects of the brain.
Consciousness is not something you can piece together and instantiate with cultural artifacts. Nor can a continuity of consciousness be restored in this manner. That’s still a question that perplexes even the best philosophers and neuroscientists.
Here’s a thought experiment: let’s suppose that you traded memories with your best friend – nothing else, just the memories. You’ve still got your body and all the grey matter in your brain that rightfully belongs to you, except your memories. Does this mean that you and your friend have traded consciousnesses? Does it mean that you’ve uploaded yourself into your friend's brain and vice-versa?
The answer is no to both questions! You would still be you in the sense that you’re still observing reality, but you’d be convinced that you are now your friend. A sense of identity (sense being the key word -- a kind of illusion) may have been transferred, but not the conscious lens that each of us has with which we observe and experience the world.
No link to cryonic reanimation
Later, when Alcor’s Tanya Jones was answering questions after her cryonics presentation, a member of the audience asked her if Alcor would consider using the mindfile concept to help in the process of reanimating frozen patients.
Jones answered very clearly: no.
Elaborating, she said that Alcor has considered using mindfiles to help newly revived persons re-connect with their past life. In this sense, the mindfiles would be a glorified shoebox filled with an individual's personal effects.
This makes sense. Assuming that a person’s brain was properly preserved they should have no trouble accessing their memories. If all goes well the person should feel like they had a long and hard nap. A very, very hard nap. Their memories, along with the all important personal narrative, associations and ongoing identity, should be readily accessible.
The mindfile as restorative medicine
Rothblatt’s mindfile concept may have limitations in regards to uploading or restoring a consciousness, but it is far from useless. The short-term potential as a means for restorative medicine is certainly a possibility.
Alzheimer’s patients may have their memories re-invigorated and stimulated in the manner that Rothblatt describes. They could also be used to improve the human capacity for memory, which can be extraordinarily weak.
Looking ahead, there's also the possibility that mindfiles could be used as a supplement to naturally stored memories. They could be uploaded into the mind and used in tandem with other recollections to add width and breadth to memory much like photographs or home videos do today.
So, you may wish to visit Dr. Rothblatt's website after all. Start working on that mindfile!