Self-driving cars, 3D printed meat, and drone delivery proliferate in the real-life world of Amazon’s fictional TV series “Upload” (Season 3 episodes out now), but so do Yelp-style sex rating apps, overcrowded public transit systems, and constant dictatorship-type surveillance. Normal life, even with its technological advantages, almost doesn’t seem worth living for the average human being. Enter: Lakeview, a top of the line futuristic digital life extension program promising a blissful eternal afterlife with no more human pain and suffering, for a price: first, you have to die (don’t worry, they provide your own personal murder). Second, you have to have had to be filthy rich in your living life to afford your digital one. In the predominantly atheistic world of “Upload”, if you’re poor, the worst thing that can happen to you is death.
In the case of Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell), a handsome computer software developer, when a self-driving car freakishly malfunctions and he’s injured, his obsessive wealthy girlfriend Ingrid Kannerman (Allegra Edwards) convinces him to kill himself and upload his consciousness to Lakeview to “save his life”. Unfortunately, penniless Nathan, ostensibly becomes Ingrid’s property. Should he break up with her, she could delete his existence with the tap of a button. But that’s not the only dilemma Nathan faces: he’s falling in love with Nora (Andy Allo), his personal digital administrator. The problem is: she’s alive and he’s “alive” minus the body. But the fun and games for Nathan don’t end there. We find out that our “hero” Nathan wasn’t in a car accident at all, he was murdered because he was building a competing digital afterlife software for poor people, threatening the multi-billion dollar industry of computer heavens like Lakeview (remember, poor people never benefit from new technologies). Meanwhile, a group of radicals called “Ludds” are attempting to destroy the technology altogether.
While “Upload” is clever, funny, and charming, it ultimately promotes the idea of a digital afterlife as a human and technological good rather than critiquing the concept. After all, Nathan and the other uploads appear to have full, functional, and surprisingly rich lives despite the fact that their bodies no longer exist; they fall in love, have sex, play golf, go swimming, and even eat bottomless amounts of food. It does seem like heaven, doesn’t it? But, before we dig into the idea of a digital heaven, let’s ask the question: where does this concept even come from?
One of the fundamental obsessions of transhumanists is longevity. Transhumanists see aging and death as mere health problems that can one day be cured. However, despite longevity treatments, Botox, hormones and plastic surgery, we have yet to stop aging or to extend human life indefinitely. As a temporary solution, transhumanists have focused on the creation of technologies to upload human consciousness to digital storage. Already, companies scrape huge amounts of data from us based on our online behavior: each comment we make, each post we like, every voice message we send on social media are building digital copies of us. Chatbots of friends and loved ones can be purchased from companies such as “You, Only Virtual”. Eventually, these companies intend to make digital life a reality, but if you like, companies like Nectome will preserve your brain while you wait (but you have to be euthanized first).
While on the surface, the idea that we could live forever (even if trapped in a computer) might sound tempting, scientists don’t currently have a definition of human consciousness. What is consciousness? What makes us tick? How can you preserve consciousness if you can’t even define or isolate it? Is our consciousness merely a set of likes and dislikes or word usage or the sound of our voice that AI can scrape online, or is it something more profound? For religious people, what scientists refer to as “consciousness” would otherwise be referred to as the human “soul”. While many religious leaders have definitions of the human soul, it has yet to be proven to exist by science, and even if it could be, how would you trap a soul into a computer? Whether you wish to call the human soul a “soul” or “consciousness”, the question remains: how can you preserve what is essentially a concept with no basis in material reality? To promise to upload human consciousness/a soul is therefore a flat-out fallacy.
The reality is that what is being proposed to us by transhumanists is an untimely death (euthanasia) followed by digital clones of us uploaded online to mimic us. Perhaps this digital clone might fool friends and family into believing we continue to exist, but the reality is that they’ll be interacting with an AI model of our online interactions.
And for those believers in the omnipotent powers of technology, those who might say: “Don’t worry, one day science will solve this problem of what human consciousness is”, I would say that I simply don’t believe it’s possible. Even if we could use inventions like Neuralink to map the human brain, there are those of us who believe that consciousness goes beyond the brain: consciousness inhabits every cell of our bodies, what we might call: the soul. And, for religious people, the soul is not subject to the whims of human manipulation or technological conceits, but to the higher power that created it in the first place.
Regardless of whether you’re an atheist or believer in a higher power, we must treat any and all claims by transhumanists with skepticism. Not only should we question the efficacy of their promised technologies, but the morality of their intent as well. What does it mean to live forever? What are the consequences of even pursuing such an aim? What medical harms could result? What societal harms could result?
A particularly sad moment in “Upload” is when Nora tries to prevent poor people from uploading into a non-existent version of digital heaven (basically a scam), and a woman with a baby waiting in line to upload argues that she’d rather have her baby die now with a chance at a digital life than have no opportunity to live forever at all. Can you imagine this false technology falling into the hands of eugenicists or depopulationists? Imagine a world in which the poor and undesirables of society are convinced to euthanize themselves to live in a digital world that doesn’t even exist. It’s a chilling thought indeed.
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