Impersonal History

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, December 17, 2006

Back when I was a kid, the future was so much simpler, because we knew we were going to be space travelers. We'd live on orbiting space stations, rocket around the galaxy, but remain essentially the same people we'd always been, only with better ray-guns and, of course, snazzier wardrobes featuring silvery jumpsuits. Occasionally we'd be forced, like Capt. James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, to have coital relations with lascivious alien princesses. It was a future we could believe in.

But now I'm looking at the 50th anniversary issue of New Scientist, which is full of big thinkers making predictions about the next 50 years. They don't talk much about space. Their future is more radical and, literally, mind-blowing: What we call the mind will be just another thing to manipulate. Your grandchildren and great-grandchildren won't be part of a clique at school; they'll be tapped into the "hive-mind" of the entire planet. They'll have Wikipedia brains. They'll be immortal, able to regenerate organs and limbs. At some point, "whole-body replacement will be routine," one professor predicts. Unstated is whether ordering up a new body will be like getting a beverage at Starbucks -- "I'd like a venti no-foam skim Scarlett Johansson with Naomi Watts on top."

And maybe we'll be little people with watermelon-size heads. Sydney Brenner, a Nobel laureate in medicine, writes of the possibility that humans will evolve into "small people with bodies sufficient to support the required amount of brain power." Of course, tiny people with huge heads have already appeared on our planet. They're called movie stars.

There are many predictions involving artificial intelligence. A common assumption is that the brain is essentially an elaborate machine, every process of which could be mimicked in a computer. There's a highly disturbing corollary: In theory, we can't tell whether our thoughts are coming from a meat-brain or from a computer program designed to think that it's a meat-brain.

Advancing this argument enthusiastically is Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, who argues that we are almost certainly -- right now -- living in a computer simulation. It's like being trapped in someone's computer game, only we don't realize it. Bostrom is extrapolating from the rate of advancement in computer processing power. He thinks that eventually some civilization will be able to create totally realistic "ancestor simulations," in which the simulated characters are conscious and experience the simulation as though it were real. For example, these characters might think they're living in the 21st century, but only because the computer geeks of the 9,937th century have designed it that way.

Bostrom then carries his argument to what he thinks is the logical conclusion, which is that eventually there will be so much computing power that the ancestor simulations will greatly outnumber the real (meat-based) civilizations. And thus, Bostrom writes, "You would have to assume that you are probably one of these simulated minds rather than one of the ones that are not simulated."

Are you following all this? Don't feel bad if you aren't -- it's possible that, in the simulation, you're programmed to remain befuddled.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Loftus, a University of California at Irvine professor and memory expert, warns that in the future we'll have mastered the art of implanting false memories. She writes that this technology could be abused by police, lawyers or advertisers. This is all distressingly close to the plot of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie "Total Recall." Indeed, when you combine the Loftus scenario with the Bostrom scenario, you realize that the entire world as we perceive it might be a false memory, and that it might not even be your own false memory. In fact, it could be Arnold's. We might all be minor, utterly trivial characters in Arnold's false memory of being governor of California.

All I know is, if life is a dream, I hope it's mine. I don't want life to be, for example, Dick Cheney's dream, or Osama bin Laden's dream, or bin Laden's hairstylist's dream, or my cat Phoebe's dream.

Even in the real world, we are not the authors of our lives. We all arrived in the middle of an ongoing narrative, a program encoded by our families, our ancestors, the founders of our civilization. We do our best to play a role, follow a script and stay in character.

So is everything an illusion? I dunno. My head hurts at this point. All I know is that the world sure looks and feels like the real thing. I'll believe it's fake when it fails to boot one morning.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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