I’m not convinced that digital immortality will ever be possible, at least not in the sense that people are hoping.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no trouble imagining that we might someday develop computers, software, and AI that are complex enough to flawlessly mimic and even replicate consciousness. But replication isn’t the same as transference.

When I think of this issue, I always go back to the Star Trek transporter problem. When Captain Kirk is beamed off the bridge of the Enterprise, his atoms are dematerialized, stored as an energy pattern, and then reconfigured on a planet below — is he really just being transported, or is he being annihilated on a molecular level each time, while a flawless clone with all of his memories comes out the other end?

What about that episode where there was a transporter malfunction and an evil Kirk twin popped out?

Star Trek comes up with a lot of different explanations for why it really is transportation, and not just cloning, but it all amounts to hand-waving plot magic. We have to accept them as canon within the context of the show, but they mean bupkis when we’re talking about a real hypothetical transporter device.

What this all boils down to is the question, what makes you, you?

Suppose that we can create a perfect clone of yourself, with all your thoughts and memories. Is that you? Some people would say yes, but I have a hard time agreeing with them.

Suppose the scientist who cloned you pulls out a gun and shoots you in the head. Are you any less dead, just because your clone is still alive? I don’t think so.

But suppose the scientist doesn’t shoot you. Instead, you’re both permitted to leave and go about your lives. As soon as the clone walks out the room, your paths diverge. He or she begins to have different life experiences.

You get married and have kids. Your clone remains single, and takes a job working on the moon. After ten years have gone by, you and your clone are very different people.

As for uploading your consciousness digitally, the same principles would apply.

Could we someday have the power to replicate your consciousness? To create a digital clone of you, with all your thoughts and desires and memories stored on the internet with only a digital avatar as a body? Perhaps.

But replication isn’t transference.

If you upload my consciousness, and my physical body is still alive, and I can interact with myself — that’s just replication. That’s not me, that’s just a digital clone. That’s not digital immortality — because when my physical body dies, I die with it, and the clone living on doesn’t mean that I’m living on.

The only way I can envision transference being a real possibility is if we manage to get the clone — whether digital or otherwise — fully developed, but it remains in a non-functioning state, and cannot be activated until your “life force” or soul or whatever you want to call it, is somehow transferred over.

That sounds like transference. But it also doesn’t sound very scientific. Which makes me think it’s probably never going to be possible.


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