In a few decades time it will be possible to scan a living brain at the resolution of individual neurons: cell bodies, dendrites and axons. The next step will be to ‘parse’ such a ‘bitmap’ into a computerized functional model of your brain – your virtual – which will allow a copy of yourself to live an identical life in virtual reality. Early steps in this future R&D program were explored in Greg Egan’s novel ‘Zendegi’, reviewed here at sciencefiction.com.
The ability to copy your own self into virtuality will bring many advantages: immortality, for example, will be there for the taking. Travel, even interstellar travel, will simply be a matter of transmitting your brain state – sending bits rather than atoms. Assuming we can build an android type of synthetic body, your virtual could even be re-implanted into the real, for example at a remote destination.
Yet every technological advance has its dark side. Here are three case studies from the criminal files of the future.
Case 1: The Self-Erasing Murderer
In life, Albert Fish was one of the most vile murderers and pedophiles of all time. After his brain was scanned and uploaded into virtuality he orchestrated a series of chilling assassinations against all those who had ever been involved in convicting him.
Once he had finished gloating over his own success, he accessed a freeware brain-editor and pasted a copy of a Buddhist monk’s volition module over his own sociopathy. The present Albert Fish is pleased with himself, could not hurt a fly, and no case against him would stand in court.
Case 2: The Bed-Sit Torturer
Mike Calculus, also known as ‘TaucherBoy’, was by no means a top-grade hacker. He spent his miserable life lying around in his bedsit downloading virtuals from the net, usually a comely young actress. Once he had the starlet’s brain-model hooked into his VR emulator he would … well, let’s not go there. Amazing what crackers will brag about to their friends.
The only interesting thing about Calculus was that he was caught and put away. Who knows how many sad, disturbed people like him are mistreating virtuals even as you read this?
Case 3: The Memory Blackmailers
Melanie Chiu-Li was a promising young lawyer and activist, making her name fighting the murky underworld of organized crime in Japan. Then the Yakuza managed to get a copy of her virtual, which they mined for her earliest memories.
It turned out that she had once had a liaison, as a young girl, with a Korean drug smuggler and in a moment of weakness had ‘done a job’ for him. The Yakuza made Melanie an offer she couldn’t refuse and the heat was off: problem sorted.
As these examples show, the moment you permit your brain to be scanned you’ve lost control. Your computer-virtual is exactly identical to corporeal-you, except that it can be copied without limit and can be hacked by anyone who can get access.
The nearest analogue to this situation today is your money. It’s also stored electronically and can be moved around the network. We trust institutions, banks and credit card companies, to keep our digital cash safe, but we know that it doesn’t always happen.
My smartphone has high-grade data-encryption, a remote location-finder, and a self-erase function in case it gets stolen. I think I would like my virtual to have something similar please.
Something very, very tamper-proof!
Further Reading: Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels (Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, Woken Furies) are built around the widespread use of digitally-stored personalities, known as ‘digital human freight’ (DHF).