In science fiction and in the Kurzweilesque future reality, the concept of a digital soul is abstract and difficult to grasp. Yet, we have experienced an evolution in this area in the last half decade or so. I speak of the simple matter of IT backups and how it changes our thinking about IT. Very likely that same change of thinking will happen about what it means to be human as well.
At some recent point in time, each computer that we possessed was a separate entity. Yes, every computer was designed with input and output methods, in the form of (portable) storage devices, keyboards and mice, printers, and other forms of output. This evolved to the rudimentary beginnings of the Internet and has exploded in the last 15 years. As network speeds became faster, so came the introduction of ‘the backup,’ in the form of external storage, either in the home or off-site.
Right now, computers are backed up in a multitude of ways. We have offsite options, in the form of Dropbox, iCloud, Google Drive, Backblaze, and countless more. We have home-based options, in the form of software that will sync/backup your data to external harddrives. Not to be ignored, we have software that operates in the cloud, from note-taking to video-recording, to managing your customer, financial, and other company data.
What is one practical consequence of this? Every time your computer gets stolen, breaks, or is replaced, for every fire and flood, a simple restoration procedure from backup to a new computer will restore your digital life to its original, useful state. In essence, the hardware has become immaterial.
So what is the value of a human life? At this time, it is priceless because each and every one of us is ‘unique.’ We have data within us and, let’s not forget, physical features that are impossible to replicate and replace. We, you and I, are not backed up into some form of external storage. I am the only copy as are you, you, and you too.
Right now it seems unimaginable that Raymond Kurzweil or others will succeed to upload our human essence into a digital storage device 1. It seems equally difficult to grasp as to why they would want to do this, as if the very act would remove what it means to be human. That part is true. If being human means being unique, then having a backup is decidedly not human.
But there is incredible value in transcending humanity in that way. Wars and other disasters are killing people every day. People that we will never see again. Some are saying that our planet is being destroyed either by natural or industrial forces, or rather a combination of both. Without action, our only exit is to leave Earth and relocate somewhere else in space. Yet, that brings the cost of transportation with it, mostly expressed in time (another precious human commodity) and the resource cost of transporting many, let alone one.
What about more controversial values? What is the value of someone that is imprisoned for life, yet (supposedly) reforming himself? What is the value of the many unemployed, a trend that only seems to be improving for the wealthier part of this world? What is the value of a parent outliving a child or a person wanting to extend their life beyond human terms? The controversiality is that this value can also be expressed in cost to society.
If we do succeed in transcending towards a transportability of our digital souls, then we will also lose something else. We will lose our bodies and what they mean to both us and the people around us. At best summarised by staring into your beloveds’ eyes, also called the windows to our souls, which would then disappear with the passing of a human. Yes, we are making strides in replicating objects on a three-dimensional scale, but it is hard to believe that this replication can reproduce the depth and uniqueness of the eye, the texture, temperature, and hardness/softness of the body, the characteristics and flaws that make us unique in a physical sense.
For everything there is a price, but as I found out many times now with my electric devices, that price is relatively minor compared to having all of your memories restored. A point of discussion I admit, but I’m happy to argue it on this front also: does the value of a digital soul that is eternal outweigh the value of the whole of a living, breathing, physical specimen?