First, two things: this post appeared on my Patreon page on the 21st, and if you’re counting words the-hyphenated-ones-count-as-one. You’ll have to decide if you think I cheated or not. I say not. If you’d like to comment, I’ll politely discuss it with you. 🙂
Now, about the story:
“Uploading,” the idea of rendering the human mind faithfully into a computer “brain” in order to cheat death and transfer one’s consciousness into an undying android body, has been a thing in science fiction for quite a while now. It also has various analogues, by the way, in fantasy: the lich, the golem, the vampire, ghouls and zombies, and so forth.
Fantasy and science fiction have a lot in common, but that’s a post for another day — though perhaps it’s a bit obvious to spend too much time on. Those genres are commonly lumped together in advertisement, bookstores, and conventions because many people understand the basic commonality.
Back to the Upload. It is often the immortality of science fiction, become even more common than the prolonging of biological lifespan a la Larry Niven’s “Boosterspice” or Frank Herbert’s “Melange,” or any number of other examples. Biological life may be stubborn and persistent, but in comparison to a machine the human body is more fragile and harder to repair. There may be exceptions to the case (an electronic brain meeting with a Carrington Event, for example), but that is our general perception.
The Upload is usually a positive in science fiction. The mind is preserved, the Reaper is cheated, and even if the Uploaded Being bittersweetly remembers the foibles of biological life, the centuries of life and experience gained outweigh the negatives.
Of course, just as we say a dark cloud often has a silver lining, Cloud Nine may carry within it a negative.
We rarely think of Uploading early in life. While civilizations purely of artificial intelligences are sometimes imagined, I can’t recall seeing a science fictional vision of a society that uploads while young as a matter of course. We imagine futures in which a person lives a long biological life, and then, when the body begins to fail from sheer age or obstructed arteries or cancer or so forth, transfers to the hale mechanical shell much like a phoenix, leaving the wrinkled ash behind.
Now imagine a person who has arranged to upload at age seventy-five. There are many reasons to have such an arrangement. Should a capitalism substantially like our present arrangements persist, a whole life might be needed to save the money to make a down payment on a durable mechanical body and computer brain (that is, if you’re not among the subsistence classes, as I have been all my life. I don’t have a dime to put toward my potential upload — unless y’all suddenly buy scads of books HINT HINT HINT AIEEEE I DON’T WANNA DIE). A person might want to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh for as long as possible, too. Or a contractual arrangement might keep a person flesh until an agreed-upon age.
But a decade before the arranged upload, Alzheimers disease strikes. The arrangement is kept, but is there much of the mind to transfer? Do the losses of memory transfer, is what is lost still lost? Maybe. Probably, I’d guess. I mean, when a biological brain is giving a 404 to its sentient inhabitant, could transferring to hardware do anything other than faithfully record all those 404s? And if a seventy-four year old Alzheimers patient is a hazard to have running about unsupervised, and they certainly can be a danger to themselves or even others, a strong android body would even more certainly be.
Many other things could happen. A destructive stroke, a brain injury, a descent into murderous or otherwise dangerous criminality, the onset of severe mental illness, a corruption of data during transfer, a flaw of construction in the new computer brain or in its basic operating system. A virus designed to corrupt Uploads.
And then what do you do? If you know that the mind you’re uploading will be dangerous in its new body, or if you discover it is dangerous after the fact, the laws of the future still might compel the upload to be done or the uploaded being to be preserved.
If you can’t legally wipe the mind clean and pronounce the being dead and gone, the only viable option would seem to be to disable the body. Turn the body off, or even remove the brain and put it on the shelf, free to run its program but unable to interact with the world, perhaps even blind and deaf and unfeeling.
What would it be like, to be an uploaded consciousness locked in a silent, still body or a disembodied brain, warped by disease or illness or injury or mischief?
Would it be hell?
It might be hell, or nightmare, or centuries of the paralyzed moment when the consciousness is suspended between the terror of nightmare and waking, when the mind knows that the nightmare is not real but has not yet been able to open its human eyes and escape. It might even be centuries of hoping that the future will find a cure, without even the blessing of unconsciousness enjoyed by the disembodied heads of the cryonics movement.
As attractive as the idea of immortality as an Upload might be, like all great changes, the risks are awfully frightening and likely to be all too real to at least an unlucky few.