If you want to find out if a digital nematode is alive, try asking it.

Fancy living in a computer? Contributors to the OpenWorm project aim to make life inside a computer a (virtual) reality. In recent years, various brain projects have focused funding on moonshot science initiatives to map, model and ultimately understand the human brain: the computer that helps humans to cognito that they sum. These are similar in feel to the human genome project of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Despite the inherent contradictions of the oft-trotted trope that the human brain is the “most complex thing in the universe,” it is indeed quite a complicated machine, decidedly more complex than the human genome. Understanding how it works will take more than mapping every connection, which is akin to knowing every node in a circuit but having no idea what each component is. A multivalent approach at the levels of cells, circuits, connections, and mind offers the most complete picture. OpenWorm coordinator Stephen Larson et al. aim to start by understanding something a little bit simpler: the determinate 304 neuron brain and accompanying body of Caenorhabditis elegans, a soil-dwelling nematode worm that has served as a workhorse in biology for decades.

Genome, Brain

The connectome, a neural wiring diagram of the worm’s brain, has been mapped. The simulation of the worm at the cellular level is an ongoing open-source software program. The first human genome was sequenced only 3 years after the first C. elegans genome, a similar pace for full biological simulation in silico would mean that digital humans, or a reasonable facsimile, are possible within our lifetimes. At the point when these simulations of people are able to fool observers will these entities be alive and conscious? Have rights? Pay taxes? If a digital person claims the validity of their own consciousness should we take their word for it, or determine some metric for ascertaining the consciousness of a simulated person based on our own inspection? For answers to questions of existence and sapience we can turn to our own experience (believing as we do that we are conscious entities), and the venerable history of the questions as discussed in science fiction.

Conversation with the chatbot (a conversational precursor to intelligent software)CleverBot from 2014 December 24.

In the so-called golden age of science fiction characters tended to be smart, talented, and capable. Aside from an unnerving lack of faults and weakness, overall the protagonists were fundamentally human. The main difference between the audience and the actors in these stories was access to better technology. But it may be that this vision of a human future is comically (tragically?) myopic. Even our biology has been changing more quickly as civilisation and technologies develop. If we add a rate of technological advance that challenges the best-educated humans to keep pace, a speed-up of the rate of change in average meteorological variables, and human-driven selective pressure, the next century should be interesting to say the least. When those unobtainyl transferase pills for longevity finally kick in, generational turnover can no longer be counted on to ease adaptation to a step-change in civilisation.

Greg Egan (who may or may not be a computer program) has been writing about software-based people for over two decades. When the mind of a human is not limited to run on a single instance of its native hardware, new concepts such as “local death” and traveling by transmission emerge intrinsically. Most of the characters in novels from writers such as Egan waste little time questioning whether they will still exist if they have to resort to a backup copy of themselves. As in flesh-and-blood humans, persistence of memory plays a key role in the sense of self, but is not nearly so limited. If a software person splits themselves to pursue two avenues of interest, they may combine their experiences upon their reunion, rejoining as a single instance with a transiently bifurcated path. If the two instances of a single person disagree as to their sameness, they may decide to go on as two different people. These simulated people would be unlikely to care (beyond their inevitable battle for civil rights) whether you consider them to be alive and sapient or not, any more so than the reader is likely to disbelieve their own sapience.

Many of the thought experiments associated with software-based person-hood are prompted by a human perception of dubiousness in duplicity: two instances of a person existing at the same time, but not sharing a single experience, don’t feel like the same person. Perhaps as the OpenWorm project develops we can watch carefully for signs of animosity and existential crises among a population of digital C. elegans twinned from the same starting material. We (or our impostorous digital doppelgängers, depending on your perspective) may find out for ourselves what this feels like sooner than we think.

2014-12-29 – Leading comic edited for improved comedic effect


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