The Thirteenth Floor: Technological Promise - On-Demand Mind Uploading
Debuting the same year as the Matrix, this gem of a VR film was sadly overshadowed by the blockbuster. Yet, it has an equally if not slightly more poignant VR concept.
Released in 1999, during the end of the dot com boom, it is surprisingly science-based in concept in more than a few areas. It will also make you question ?reality? as a concept, as the complex plot slowly unfolds.
The film opens on the frantic scribbling of elderly computer systems developer Hannon Fuller. He has discovered something of profound importance which he must get to his colleague Douglas Hall as soon as possible. But, there is a problem, he knows he is being hunted. There is evil on his trail. Completing his letter to Hall, Fuller leaves it with a barkeep of a small pub, and heads out into the night air.
This article attempts to delve into greater depth on one of the more fascinating and likely to happen aspects of that film - the ability to upload your mind into a virtual environment indefinitely.
Fuller was the lead researcher and CEO of a small IT firm. He had two employees, the senior of which is Hall. They were just months from going public with their product: a complex, powerful, full sensory VR system, first of its kind in the world.
To demonstrate the power of the system, the staff created a VR version of Los Angeles, set in 1937. They used brainscans of people from their world to help populate it, choosing the denizens of their city, also L.A. These brainscans are necessary as, crucially to the core concept of the film, each person in the outside world, requires a ?host body? in the virtual, which has identical neuron structure in its virtual brain. This provides a framework for the user?s mind to latch onto.
In effect, the user?s mind is uploaded into the virtual mind?s framework, whilst the AI agent?s own mind is downloaded into the user?s body, to basically keep the human?s autonomous functions running. To accomplish this safely, the VR interface is essentially a drawer, with scanners running overhead, constantly looping. This sealed environment allows the ability to keep the body unconscious during interface, so the AI cannot consciously control it.
Due to the completeness of the AI in behaving like a person, and the way their brain structure is matched to the human user?s, ut is very, very possible that it could be the AI waking up in the user?s body should anything go wrong. In fact, this happens twice in the film itself.
The neuron structure of physical and virtual brains being symmetrical, has another benefit other than transferring consciousness freely between the two: The AIs have lives; their minds are sufficiently complex enough that they go about day to day business. They live their lives inside the simulation, earning money, falling in love, marriages, divorces, full family life ? except of course, uncontrolled procreation. Their lives are their own to experience. For example when Hall enters, he finds his virtual alter ego is a lowly bank clerk, with limited resources.
The clerk, being essentially in Hall?s body throughout, remembers nothing of his actions until Hall returns to the outside world ? done by a timer set in the outside world, rather than any conscious action on his part.
This adds to the feasibility of the concept. If your mind is entirelywithin a virtual construct, interacting with it via full sensory immersion, then there likely is no way to exit it from within. Instead, external means from the outside world are required to begin the mind download process, and switch the minds back to their respective places.
The concept of having the AI live full and productive lives whilst the players are not there, is the dream of every current persistent world. Instead of staged events, you emerge in the middle of a real, living, breathing, dynamic world with tens of thousands of lives within it. Just happens to be a VR based real world. As soon as it can be done, it will be done, that much is beyond doubt.
It does not, however, come without risks. One is, that if each personality in the VR is attuned to one and only one individual, then if that personality dies whilst the user is not online, the user will be able to log in to that particular simulation again.
Slightly more worrying, if the personality is hit by a virtual truck whilst the user is inhabiting it, does the user die when the personality?s matrix is damaged? The film shows this happening, and it is chillingly feasible that this would occur. Perhaps it would be better to separate the ?consciousness? from the body after death, to preserve it, and allow the user to exit the system safely.
A third, more insidious problem that the film also tries to deal with, is whilst we comment out the personalities and their ?consciousness?, ?free will?, ?life?, aspects, if they are such complete simulations and there is the ability to transfer them from an electronic substrate to an electrochemical, are they not themselves living, free willed individuals with consciousness? A murky philosophical, moral, and legal issue begins to rear its head. Even if they never leave the VR, are they not people?
One fundamental question that has not been answered throughout all this, is how the minds actually transfer. Well, there are two thoughts to this.
The first, and admittedly the preferred method is far more complex: Actually switching consciousness from the physical brain to the virtual and back again. This would involve changing most of the electrical patterns of the two brains to mimic one another, then allowing data to flow both ways between them, on two isolated circuits as the ?self?, or ?spirit? is coaxed to migrate acrtoss from one to the other. How this would be done, or if it is even possible, we do not yet have any idea.
The second method, and the more likely, is less palatable. In this scenario, the minds are never switched. Instead, the physical brain?s electrical pattern is captured, as is the one on the virtual brain. They are then swapped, overriding the patterns on each other. No mind transfer has taken place, just a switching of identities. The physical brain believes it now has the mind of the AI, and the virtual brain believes it now has the mind of the user, but in fact neither do. However, because the two brains are structurally identical, to each it is exactly as if such had occurred.
At the end of the experience, the process is reversed, and the new memories of behaviour in the virtual are carried across for the user. The AI gains nothing, as they were unconscious the whole time.
The user never actually experienced the VR, but instead they have the memory of interacting within it.
Whilst this may sound all hyper-futuristic mumbo-jumbo, it is becoming closer to reality every few months. In 2007, a supercomputer was able to simulate one half of an entire mouse brain, neuron for neuron, perfectly, then ?run? it as a working brain ? for ten seconds. By the end of 2008, it is expected the same team will have the capacity for a whole mouse brain, on the same system, just with newer hardware, and better algoritms ? several of which have been created in the intervening months.
Whilst a mouse brain is long way from a single human?s, let alone a city filled with them, even just five years ago, you would have been laughed at for even insinuating we would ever be able to model even half a mouse brain neurone for neurone.
IBM?s Blue Brain Project has been going a couple of years now. It ultimately attempts to completely model a human brain, and whilst it is also far from its intended goal, it has modelled an entire, functioning neural cluster perfectly, thus far. It will take maybe a decade to achieve its full goal, but when it does, the situations discussed above, no-longer sound hyper-futuristic, and could do with being dwelt on, now.