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Who Am I? What Am I?

Ray Kurzweil

Why are you you?

The implied question in the acronym YRUU (Young Religious Unitarian Universalists), an organization I was active in when I was growing up in the early 1960s (it was then called LRY, Liberal Religious Youth)

What you are looking for is who is looking.

Saint Francis of Assisi

I’m not aware of too many things I know what I know if you know what I mean. Philosophy is the talk on a cereal box. Religion is the smile on a dog … Philosophy is a walk on the slippery rocks. Religion is a light in the fog … What I am is what I am. Are you what you are or what?

Edie Brickell, “What I Am”

Freedom of will is the ability to do gladly that which I must do.

Carl Jung

Original publication details: “Who Am I? What Am I?,” Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Viking, 2005, pp. 382–7. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

Science Fiction and Philosophy: From Time Travel to Superintelligence, Second Edition. Edited by Susan Schneider. © 2016 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2016 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

100 Ray Kurzweil

The chance of the quantum theoretician is not the ethical freedom of the Augustinian.

Norbert Wiener

I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country! But in all probability, we live in a century too little advanced, and too near the infancy of science, to see such an art brought in our time to its perfection.

Benjamin Franklin, 1773

We talked earlier about the potential to upload the patterns of an individual mind – knowledge, skills, personality, memories – to another substrate. Although the new entity would act just like me, the question remains: is it really me? Some of the scenarios for radical life extension involve reengineering and rebuilding the systems and subsystems that our bodies and brains comprise. In taking part in this reconstruction, do I lose my self along the way? Again,

this issue will transform itself from a centuries‐old philosophical dialogue to


pressing practical matter in the next several decades. So who am I? Since I am constantly changing, am I just a pattern? What


someone copies that pattern? Am I the original and/or the copy? Perhaps


am this stuff here – that is, the both ordered and chaotic collection of

molecules that make up my body and brain. But there’s a problem with this position. The specific set of particles that my body and brain comprise are in fact completely different from the atoms and molecules that I comprised only a short while ago. We know that most of our cells are turned over in a matter of weeks, and even our neurons, which persist as distinct cells for a relatively long time, nonetheless change all of their constituent molecules within a month. The half‐life of a microtubule (a protein filament that provides the structure of a neuron) is about ten min- utes. The actin filaments in dendrites are replaced about every forty seconds. The proteins that power the synapses are replaced about every hour. NMDA receptors in synapses stick around for a relatively long five days. So I am a completely different set of stuff than I was a month ago, and all that persists is the pattern of organization of that stuff. The pattern changes also, but slowly and in a continuum. I am rather like the pattern that water makes in a stream as it rushes past the rocks in its path. The actual molecules of water change every millisecond, but the pattern persists for hours or even years. Perhaps, therefore, we should say I am a pattern of matter and energy that persists over time. But there is a problem with this definition, as well, since we will ultimately be able to upload this pattern to replicate my body and

Who Am I? What Am I?


brain to a sufficiently high degree of accuracy that the copy is indistinguish- able from the original. (That is, the copy could pass a “Ray Kurzweil” Turing test.) The copy, therefore, will share my pattern. One might counter that we may not get every detail correct, but as time goes on our attempts to create a neural and body replica will increase in resolution and accuracy at the same exponential pace that governs all information‐based technologies. We will ultimately be able to capture and re‐create my pattern of salient neural and physical details to any desired degree of accuracy. Although the copy shares my pattern, it would be hard to say that the copy is me because I would – or could – still be here. You could even scan and copy me while I was sleeping. If you come to me in the morning and say, “Good news, Ray, we’ve successfully reinstantiated you into a more durable substrate, so we won’t be needing your old body and brain anymore,” I may beg to differ. If you do the thought experiment, it’s clear that the copy may look and act just like me, but it’s nonetheless not me. I may not even know that he was created. Although he would have all my memories and recall having been me, from the point in time of his creation Ray 2 would have his own unique experiences, and his reality would begin to diverge from mine. This is a real issue with regard to cryonics (the process of preserving by freezing a person who has just died, with a view toward “reanimating” him later when the technology exists to reverse the damage from the early stages of the dying process, the cryonic‐preservation process, and the disease or condition that killed him in the first place). Assuming a “preserved” person is ultimately reanimated, many of the proposed methods imply that the reanimated person will essentially be “rebuilt” with new materials and even entirely new neuromorphically equivalent systems. The reanimated person will, therefore, effectively be “Ray 2” (that is, someone else). Now let’s pursue this train of thought a bit further, and you will see where the dilemma arises. If we copy me and then destroy the original, that’s the end of me, because as we concluded above the copy is not me. Since the copy will do a convincing job of impersonating me, no one may know the differ- ence, but it’s nonetheless the end of me. Consider replacing a tiny portion of my brain with its neuromorphic equivalent. Okay, I’m still here: the operation was successful (incidentally, nanobots will eventually do this without surgery). We know people like this already, such as those with cochlear implants, implants for Parkinson’s disease, and others. Now replace another portion of my brain: okay, I’m still here … and again… . At the end of the process, I’m still myself. There never was an “old Ray” and a “new Ray.” I’m the same as I was before. No one ever missed me, including me.

102 Ray Kurzweil

The gradual replacement of Ray results in Ray, so consciousness and identity appear to have been preserved. However, in the case of gradual replacement there is no simultaneous old me and new me. At the end of the process you have the equivalent of the new me (that is, Ray 2) and no old me (Ray 1). So gradual replacement also means the end of me. We might therefore wonder: at what point did my body and brain become someone else? On yet another hand (we’re running out of philosophical hands here), as I pointed out at the beginning of this question, I am in fact being continually replaced as part of a normal biological process. (And, by the way, that process is not particularly gradual but rather rapid.) As we concluded, all that persists is my spatial and temporal pattern of matter and energy. But the thought experiment above shows that gradual replacement means the end of me even if my pattern is preserved. So am I constantly being replaced by someone else who just seems a lot like the me of a few

moments earlier? So, again, who am I? It’s the ultimate ontological question, and we often refer to it as the issue of consciousness. I have consciously (pun intended) phrased the issue entirely in the first person because that is its nature. It is not a third‐person question. So my question is not “who are you?” although you may wish to ask this question yourself. When people speak of consciousness they often slip into considerations of behavioral and neurological correlates of consciousness (for example, whether or not an entity can be self‐reflective). But these are third‐person (objective) issues and do not represent what David Chalmers calls the “hard question” of consciousness: how can matter (the brain) lead to something as apparently immaterial as consciousness? The question of whether or not an entity is conscious is apparent only to itself. The difference between neurological correlates of consciousness (such as intelligent behavior) and the ontological reality of consciousness is the difference between objective and subjective reality. That’s why we can’t pro- pose an objective consciousness detector without philosophical assumptions built into it.

I do believe that we humans will come to accept that nonbiological

entities are conscious, because ultimately the nonbiological entities will have all the subtle cues that humans currently possess and that we associate

with emotional and other subjective experiences. Still, while we will be able to verify the subtle cues, we will have no direct access to the implied consciousness.

I will acknowledge that many of you do seem conscious to me, but I

should not be too quick to accept this impression. Perhaps I am really living in a simulation, and you are all part of it.

Who Am I? What Am I?


Or, perhaps it’s only my memories of you that exist, and these actual experiences never took place. Or maybe I am only now experiencing the sensation of recalling apparent memories, but neither the experience nor the memories really exist. Well, you see the problem. Despite these dilemmas my personal philosophy remains based on patternism – I am principally a pattern that persists in time. I am an evolving pattern, and I can influence the course of the evolution of my pattern. Knowledge is a pattern, as distinguished from mere information, and losing knowledge is a profound loss. Thus, losing a person is the ultimate loss.