Computers, Information Technology, the Internet, Ethics, Society and Human Values

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College,  CUNY

Chapter 13 Artificial Intelligence and Being Human


A Ray of Consciousness


Shannon Kincaid


"Are you ready, Ray?" 

Ray was not ready.  Modern medicine has done a fine job of ushering him through almost every disease known to man, but at 262 years of age, he had finally reached the limits of medical technology.  He needed his joints replaced, again – all of them.  His ocular and aural implants were all but obsolete, and he dreaded yet another full-skin transplant.   

"I guess so," Ray said. 

The consciousness transplant tech glared at him. "Look, you've got be sure about this.  This is a big deal.  This experiment could pave the way for human immortality, so you have to have the right sort of attitude.  Remember, there's a waiting list for this." 

Ray sighed.  He had contemplated killing himself after the second skeletal transplant.  But these days, suicide was such a pain in the ass.  His dad had tried to blow his brains out with a shotgun, but they brought him back, albeit with a mind like a puppy.  He had friends who had better luck; jumping off of cruise ships with barbells tied around their necks, but even then, the undersea probes would drag some of them back to the surface for "rejuvenation" so they could creak around on their bionic feet in the malls and casinos.  As the rejuvenative technology got better and better, even the self-immolation option stopped working, as did the "high-dive" off of the mile-high skyscrapers that had come to dominate the landscape.  Who would believe that they could suck a shattered person up with a wet-vac and turn them back into robotic puppies wandering around and buying stuff?   

The dynamite helmet was really popular for a while, but those are hard to get nowadays.  Every once in a while someone would just die, but those cases were increasingly rare.  And most of those cases were people around Ray's age.  When his dad died, it was like watching a beloved pet pass away.  When the mind is gone, isn't the person gone?  But Ray's mind was still going strong, and he hated the thought of putting his kids through the anguish of a real-time goodbye.

 "Yes," Ray said. "I'm ready." 

Somehow, he had been moved to the top of the list in the Consciousness Transplant Program.  He assumed it was because his body was in such crappy shape but that his mind was still reasonably sharp.  But no one at CTP said a word, including his daughter who worked there.   

The pre-transplant regimen didn't hurt.  Actually, it was kind of fun.  He looked like an idiot walking around for months wearing what looked like one of those old football helmets, and the training sessions involved hours of questions about his past and his preferences and his emotions.  It was nice to drag up old memories for the cognitive technician who pretended to be interested in his boring stories about Y2K and the Yankees.

Yet it was unsettling when the cog-tech showed him where his consciousness was going to be transferred – it looked like one of those ancient USB drives.  "Don't worry old man, this baby holds more computing power than the entire world did back in 2075."   

"God," Ray thought to himself.  "This guy can't be more than a hundred years old.  I wonder if he could even comprehend a floppy disk or a CD?" 

 "I've seen them in the virtual museum of ancient technology," he replied.

"Geez," Ray thought. 

"Geez, indeed," the cog tech said. 

The original attempts at consciousness transfer were quite successful, but they were "one-shot."  It was a direct transfer of individual consciousness into a storage/processing unit, and most people were thrilled with the results.  Make the transfer, install the s/p unit, and suddenly robots really seemed to "be" people.  And not just people, but ACTUAL people complete with memories and loved ones and likes and dislikes that, according to the people that knew them, were exactly like the person they remembered.  They would tell all of the old stories, reflect on shared experiences, and even demonstrate an awareness of how they were relating to the world.  Their friends and families loved it. 

But, as usual, a group of philosophers had ruined everything.  Around the year 2000, when consciousness transfer was all but inconceivable, a philosopher named John Searle came up with what he called the problem of the Chinese Room.  The problem is this – suppose a group of people who speak nothing but Mandarin take to asking questions of an unseen oracle who sits in a locked room.  They slip a written question into a slot in the door, and a while later, they receive a written answer.   

The people love it, and they want to see this mysterious oracle for themselves, so they break down the door.  Inside the room, they find a surly American teenager and a big book.  The crowd starts screaming at him. 

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," says the teenager.  "I have no clue what you are saying.  I do not speak Mandarin.  All I do is look at the incoming squiggles, find them in the book, and then write down the squiggles the book tells me to…"

This was the problem of simply transferring consciousness.  How could we KNOW that what we were experiencing was the actual consciousness of the subject, or just a process that mimicked consciousness?  Was it really grandpa, or just a surly teenager acting like grandpa? 

The cog-techs at CTP decided that the only way to resolve this problem was to do more than just transfer individual consciousness from one platform to another.  They had to replicate it, and then verify the replication with the original.  In other words, they needed to copy Ray's mind, and then have Ray verify the copy.

Cog-techs around the world weighed in on the problem of verification.  But in the end, they settled on the most basic of solutions – the password.  First, remove Ray from all connection with CTP.  Second, encrypt any password thoughts so that they could only be decoded by Ray himself.  Finally, after the consciousness copy was complete, allow Ray, and only Ray, to determine whether or not the copy of his mind could prove his identity using the password. 

Ray found himself and his creaking body in a lead lined room looking at an instruction book.  First, he was supposed to think of a secure password – at least 7 characters, at least one capital letter, one number, and one punctuation mark.  It can't be the name of a pet, a person you know, a birthday, etc.  And you MUST be able to remember it.

Coming up with passwords is one of the most tedious aspects of modern life, and it took Ray more than an hour. 

When the cog-techs unlocked the door, he walked down a hallway and gave birth to Ray-Ray.

The copying process was interesting.  Ray guessed it was kind of like dying – the old stories of "your life flashing before your eyes" seemed to make a lot of sense.  But he didn't die.

The cog-techs removed the football helmet, and then left Ray alone with a hologram of himself.  There was a tray of sandwiches. 

Ray-Ray's first words were, "Hey.  I'm Ray-Ray.  Are you hungry?" 

Ray couldn't help but think of cheesy beer commercials.  "You can call me Ray, you can call me Jay, you can call me Ray-Jay, you can call me Ray-Ray…" 

"I could use a beer," Ray said. 

Ray-Ray burst into holographic laughter.  "Good times," he said.  "I remember how my drunken soccer coach in middle school used to do that line." 

Ray paused.  "Don't you mean OUR drunken soccer coach?"  He reached for a sandwich. 

"Uck,"  Ray-Ray said.  "Roasted vegetable?"   

Ray smiled.  "Just testing…" 

The conversation flowed.  Ray felt better than he had since most of his friends and family had either died, killed themselves, or turned into puppies.  Finally, someone to talk to.  Someone who actually understood who he was.  Someone who was "him."  It was love at first sight…   

But as his friendship with his hologram blossomed over the coming weeks, Ray's fourth mechanical heart started to give out, and the cog techs warned that replacing his skin, joints, and heart would most certainly compromise his cognitive capabilities.  Puppy time.  But Ray-Ray didn't seem to hurt like he did.  Ray-Ray sympathized with his pain, but didn't really seem to understand it.  Was Ray-Ray the oracle in the Chinese Room, or was he really Ray? 

 "Are you me?" he asked Ray-Ray. 

  "Are YOU me?" said Ray-Ray. 

"I don't even know if I'm me, anymore," said Ray.  "All I know is that I'm afraid of dying, but that after 262 years of medical intervention, there is only so much more the med-techs can do.  I don't want to be a puppy, but I don't want to kill myself either." 

The cog-techs had been pressing for the password test.  They wanted to see if Ray's mind had truly been replicated.  But Ray and Ray-Ray came up with a different plan.    

"What we need," said Ray, "is a third consciousness.  Ray-ray-ray, if you will.  I know the password, and I assume you do to.  But the real trick seems to be in creating something that fuses our consciousnesses."

"What do you mean?" asked Ray-Ray.  "You don't think I'm you?" 

"It's not that.  It's just that you seem like a copy of me, but I don't feel myself `in` you.  And while a copy of me would certainly be fun and comforting to the people around me after I'm gone, I'm just not sure you would get the same fun and comfort from them that I would." 

Ray-Ray's hologram blinked (on and off, not eyes).  "So, what should we do?" 

The cog techs were getting frustrated.  Ray's health was failing fast, and everyone was worried that he would "lose it" before the cog tran (cognitive transfer) could be password confirmed.  The cog techs got even more frustrated when Ray and Ray-Ray requested a second cognitive copy, combining both of their consciousnesses into a third consciousness. 

 Back to the lead-lined rooms, and back to the onerous task of coming up with a new password.  Ray was done in thirty minutes, but Ray-Ray took over three hours.  And when they were both wheeled back into the "birthing" room, there sat Ray-ray-ray in all of his holographic glory.    

Ray wasn't quite sure what to do.  The cog techs were pushing for a final password test so they could confirm the cog tran and start the process of shutting down, but both he and Ray-Ray hesitated.  Was Ray-ray-ray really "them?" 

Suddenly, Ray punched himself in the mouth.  Hard.  His artificial lips started bleeding, his artificial teeth fell out, and what he assumed was real blood started to drip onto his hospital gown.  And the pain was definitely real. 

"What the hell are you doing?" asked Ray-Ray, with a confused look on his holographic face. 

Ray-ray-ray screamed in pain. 

Ray looked at Ray-Ray. "Your turn."  

Ray-Ray, still looking confused but most definitely not in pain, punched himself in the mouth.  There was holographic blood, and a lot of moaning, and an obvious amount of discomfort.

But Ray didn't feel a thing.  Then he looked at Ray-ray-ray.  His mouth wasn't bleeding, but he seemed to be hurting.  Bad. 

"What the fuck?" asked Ray-ray-ray.         

"This isn't working," said Ray.  He had hoped that they would all feel what he was feeling, that he would feel what they were feeling, but he didn't.  THEY didn't. 

At that point, the cog techs rushed in.  "What the fuck?"  There was a lot of blood in the room, holographic, artificial, real, whatever.  "We are shutting this down, now." 

The three Ray's of consciousness looked at each other.  They nodded, and in unison said, "N-o-t-a-p-u-p-p-y-8."  Ray sighed.  Ray-ray looked scared.  Ray-ray-ray smiled.  The cog techs smiled.

"Ready, Ray?" the cog tech asked.   

"Sure, whatever…" 

Ray's death was relatively uneventful.  He had asked that his family not be present, and the cog techs agreed.  If his loved ones didn't see his "death," they might be more willing to accept the transfer.  And it was crazy easy.  Someone pressed a button somewhere, and Ray's heart just stopped.  Someone else pressed a button to over-ride the back-up brain oxygenation unit, and Ray died just like every person in the world has ever died – lack of oxygen to the brain.  A death-rattle.  "He's gone…" 

But Ray had insisted that Ray-ray and Ray-ray-ray be up and running at his "exit," and this created a lot of conflict among the cog techs.  Half of the team thought it a bad idea ("Watching yourself die?"), while the other half savored the chance to watch someone watching themself die.  With approval from the CTP administration (including Ray's daughter), the "watch yourself die" team won out. 

"He's gone…" 

Ray-ray went nuts.  "How can I ever know that I am him?  That he is me?  That he WAS me?"  His hologram flickered. 

"You knew the password," said the cog techs. 

"Fuck the password."  Ray-ray's hologram paced anxiously around the room.  "Fuck you," he said to the cog techs.  "This is bullshit." 

Ray-ray pulled out a holographic gun, and shot himself in his holographic head.  There was holographic blood and brains everywhere… 

"Wow," Ray-ray-ray said, blinking...  "Where did he get the gun?" 

A couple of weeks later, the cog tech team was directing the initial family interview with Ray-ray-ray's closest relatives.  But Ray-ray-ray ("you can call me Ray, you can call me Ray-jay") wasn't doing so well.  When prompted by his daughter, the hologram of her dad seemed to remember her seventh birthday party.  This made her smile.  She asked how he was doing.  

The hologram sighed.  "I just don't feel like myself anymore.  But, to be honest, a game of fetch sounds like fun.  Would you rub my tummy?" 

Ray's daughter shook her head.   

"Shut it down…"                 



Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution.                @copyright 2006 Philip A. Pecorino                       

Last updated 8-2006                                                              Return to Table of Contents