Just a week ago we celebrated Martin Luther King Day and considered the fight of African-Americans for equality. Earlier in our history, woman went through a similar struggle.
Not too long from now it might be robotic entities fighting for equality – at least according to Hugo and Nebula Award-winning s.f. novelist Robert J. Sawyer. What makes Sawyer’s argument more cogent than most is that the artificial men and women whose lives he follows in his excellent 2005 novel Mindscan have very human minds. Three decades from now, he hypothesizes, the elderly or those with incurable diseases will be able to have their brains scanned and imbedded in humanoid robotic bodies.
It’s a blueprint for immortality – if you accept these new synthetic carriers of copied consciousness as full-fledged humans.
I caught up on my Sawyer-reading because my “Create the Next Star Trek Series” Writers Workshop, most recently held at Starbase Indy, indirectly dealt with this very topic. If Star Trek’s Transporter Room tech involved scanning and reconstituting a human – body, mind and presumably soul – why not, I suggested, simply beam these data packets across the universe (oops, there I go again)?
While that was a throwaway line designed to egg on the budding writers before me, Sawyer, a self-proclaimed research junkie, had spent months interviewing many of the leading minds on consciousness. His conclusion, eloquently laid out via Mindscan’s courtroom drama, is that “we’re not done with this journey as to expanding the definition of who is fighting for the rights to personhood.”
I.e., yeah, robots are people too, as long as they carry a perfect copy of a bona fide human mind.
“My intellectual position is that your consciousness is discrete from your body,” Sawyer told me a few days ago. I’m not sure I agree; this vessel we call a body constantly sends feedback to our brains which in turn shapes our behavior. Some might consider that formative to the workings of our mind. For example, many scientists now believe that the digestive tract is the locus of a “second brain” – something we intuitively accept, as our use of the term “gut” (She did a quick gut-check; he saw one thing but his gut told him otherwise.) exemplifies. Isn’t our gut, used in this sense, part of our consciousness?
But the discussion raises a different issue for writers: aren’t any predictions for the future based on current technology like robotics or data storage doomed to be incorrect simply because we don’t know what new inventions are in store?
Sawyer believes that today’s technology will likely spawn unimaginable sociological trends.
“A hundred years after the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur couldn’t have possibly predicted frequent flier lounges and carbon offsets and the universal disdain for airplane meals,” he told me. So he sticks to the near future – Mindscan being one of the rare exceptions for peering into a 30-years-hence crystal ball.
My prediction: I’m going to read Sawyer’s Wake, Watch and Wonder trilogy before I am much farther into my own future.