Who can say by what exceedingly fine action of fine matter it is that a thought is produced in what we call the mind? And yet that thought when produced, as I now produce the thought I am writing, is capable of becoming immortal, and is the only production of man that has that capacity.
These words, written by Thomas Paine over two hundred years ago, were certainly not the first to express this idea. However, they serve to remind us this idea matured in the Age of Reason (not coincidentally the title Paine chose for his book). From this distance, we can look backward and see, with a little effort, how the idea has grown since.
With far less effort, we can look forward a short distance and see the next inevitable developments. We see now that Paine's book, like all books, was part of the information explosion. From our vantage point, books are only one part of a universe still expanding from the Big Bang when communication collided with computation. Now, books move into the future, securely ensconced in entropic-resistant ones and zeroes, no longer subject to the vagaries of moveable type.
Moreover, the prescient Paine suggested this, too:
If the thought has the capacity of being immortal, why not that which thinks the thought? Not necessarily the thinker, but why not that which he or she thinks with—the mind? Yet the earliest impulses towards immortality were more concerned with body than mind. This was in large part because most people already believed in the immortality of that which inhabited the body. Except they didn't call it mind, they called it the soul.
So they sought, and still seek, physical immortality. From the gruesome extremes of Cryogenics to the entertaining adventures of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, people keep putting their money where their dreams lie. Until recently, they had no options (other than authoring immortal words like Paine's) for finding this dream of immortality.
Now they do. Is it likely that so strong an impulse will not seek to employ this parallel implementation, this digital form of immortality? I think not. Not when they see it happening all around them. Not when they learn its affordability. And most importantly, not when the many who can afford it make it a commercial reality.
I first saw the inevitability of this potential at the 2000 Conference on Consciousness. I saw the convergence inherent in research coming from two directions. One was Artificial Intelligence, the other advances in understanding consciousness. I also saw a third component, the missing piece of the puzzle connecting the practical efforts of AI with the theories of consciousness. I saw the meme.
I say I saw the meme, but it wasn't my first exposure. It wasn't even my first contact with Susan Blackmore's theories in The Meme Machine (read earlier that year). But there at the conference I saw the meme in the larger context of the panoply of efforts to understand consciousness, of this extensive research into knowing our selves. What I saw was the inevitable. The implications of Blackmore's title are inescapable. If humans are meme machines, then why can't a meme machine literally be a machine?
In support, I offer another four-letter M word: Muse.
From The Muse in the Machine by David Gelernter (his italics).
The pivotal question is: Are we more interested in using the digital implementation of memes to create artificial consciousness or in preserving the consciousness of our selves?
I would suggest that the scientific curiosity towards the artificial is far outweighed by the far broader unscientific drive towards immortality—in any form. If you doubt this, follow the money. From the inevitability of the commercial possibilities to the unbounded expenditures of the very wealthy to the requests for funding from the private and public coffers, the irresistible push to extend our selves will overwhelm intellectual curiosity for the artificial.
And one more thing. While this leap into the future may be the result of science, technology wears the seven-league boots. Digital Immortality may be a major step up for the Digital Age, but all the so-called Ages since the Middle (even Paine's Age of Reason) are merely stages of the Age of Technology. As the world grows more and more dependent upon technology, most anything that is possible for technology has proven irresistible. If it can be done—and we are most certainly on the threshold of Digital Immortality—it will be done.
Blackmore, Susan. The Meme Machine, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Gelernter, David. The Muse in the Machine, The Free Press, 1994.
Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason, Gramercy Books, 1993 (1796).
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