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Of Teletransporters and Xerox Copiers

I’ve been reading Susan Blackmore’s book, Consciousness: an introduction, and have come across a thought experiment that I’ve actually given quite a bit of thought on my own when contemplating consciousness transfer into computer hardware as a form of immortality by transcending biology. The experiment, first proposed by Derek Parfit, is used to determine how you view consciousness, from either an ego centered view or a view that the illusion of an ego is the emergent property or bundle of sensory inputs and qualia.

The experiment goes something like this. Imagine that you need to get across town and a crazy physicist tells you that he can transport you there instantaneously using his tech-tacular teletransportation device. How it works is that it scans every molecule in your body and sends that data to another terminal on the other side of town which recreates your body exactly the way you are. The catch is, in order to do this the scan also destroys your existing cells. Would you do it? An exact replica of you would step out on the other side exactly as you are right now. All your memories, thoughts, hopes, dreams, and bodily odors would be reproduced down to the quantum position of every proton of nitrogen in the urea of your moderately full bladder. If you wouldn’t because you feel that the replica that stepped out of the machine on the other side of town wouldn’t actually be the you contemplating this decision, that you would, in effect die and merely be a copy on the other side, then you are an ego theorist in terms of how your consciousness operates. If you don’t think there would be any difference as long as you came out exactly the same on the other side, that your consciousness would continue due to the emerging states of thought, sensory input and feeling, then you are supposedly  a “bundle theorist”.

Based on this thought experiment, I fall on the side of ego theorist, and to explain why that is, I’ll need to tweak the experiment a bit to illustrate a point. What if, rather than trying to get across town, you are merely a volunteer to test a new piece of technology, and, rather than having one terminal across town, the other terminal is merely across the room. The crazy physicist explains that the teletransporter works in exactly the same way as before, and you decide to step inside the machine. The physicist throws the switch with a maniacal chortle and there is a lot of whirring, buzzing and zapping as your body is scanned. The physicist turns off the machine and claps his hands in glee as you step out of the receiving end of the machine, the teletransportation has worked! Only something went wrong. You also step out of the transmitting terminal. Your molecules weren’t destroyed. Rather than a teletransporter, the crazy physicist inadvertently created a Xerox copier. So, which one is you? Both Yous remember your fifth birthday party, your first bicycle, your first kiss, and even walking into the transmitting terminal along with the tickle of being scanned. Both are still digesting the chicken salad sandwich you ate for lunch, and both kinda have to pee after the two glasses of peach-mango flavored green tea you had along with it. But both are obviously not currently experiencing the same stream of consciousness. The you that came out of the receiving terminal remembers walking into the machine and being scanned just as the you that came out of the transmitting terminal. Each you maintains that a consistent stream of consciousness has taken place. Each you knows that they are the real you. To the physicist, who thinks this is the coolest thing since split atoms, each of you is you, but the you that came out of the receiver was created only a minute ago. However, to him, the new you is the same as the old you because you each act in the same way, have the same voice, the same eyes and the same smells. You each answer to your name, speak at the same time, and give each other the same angry but bewildered looks. To each You however, the other you looks like another person outside of yourself that looks just like you. The other you is not the “I” that is viewing the other you. To each You, the “me” had been copied, but the “I” cannot possibly be the same.

This scenario puts my brain in the blender trying to imagine two streams of “I” that are “me” but not in the same subjective space of awareness. It is the same principle scenario as the original teletransporter thought experiment presented by Parfit, but in this case the original survives. If the original were to suddenly die, perhaps from a large Acme labeled safe that falls from the sky, then the scenario remains just as before but the time of that destruction has changed. The replica that steps out from the other end is still a fabrication, but rather than stopping one brain and creating another exactly like it, both brains remain active so the stream of consciousness of each is different, even if by a measure of distance rather than content. If we stick with the destruction of the original as initially proposed, then we still have the death of one entity, and the birth of another. Objectively, in the first scenario, the same person walks in and walks out, but if we change that one variable, and the person who steps in survives, then objectively, we have two people in front of us rather than one. And common sense dictates that we then have two streams of consciousness, although altering slightly now due to difference perspectives.

This scenario reminds me of Tom Riker from Star Trek: The Next Generation (SE06:EP24 – “Second Chances”). Tom Riker began as Lt. William Thomas Riker, but was trapped on a planet when he failed to be transported to his ship due to a crazy energetic interference the likes of which only convenient fantasy storytelling can conceive. What Tom Riker didn’t know, was that he was actually transported off the planet, or at least a copy of him was. The other William T. Riker escaped and spent the next 8 years none the wiser and eventually became Commander William Thomas Riker who returns to the planet and transports down only to find the Lt. William T. Riker that nobody knew was missing. Each was the same Riker when the accident happened, but over the course of 8 years, each had different experiences that altered their identities though each thought they were the same “I” that started out. In the end, Lt. William Riker decided to go by his middle name, Thomas, or Tom, showing the differences that the two perspectives wrought on a single identity. In this scenario, was Tom Riker the original, since he was going into the transmitter, and William Riker the copy? If the matter-energy transporter in Star Trek operates in the same way as Parfit’s teletransporter experiment, which I assume it does because that’s where Parfit got the idea, then every Riker that has ever stepped out of a transporter is a copy of the original. (Now, before we get pedantic on Trekkie technology where the energy from the matter is actually transmitted in a beam and then reconstituted, let it be known that I fully I understand this having read every page of the Official Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual, but the scenario still stands, since you aren’t doing much thinking while your brain is a bunch of floating magical energy. This is make-believe after all, and the transporter is a convenient plot device using unrealistic technology that is little more than the technological version of Harry Potter disapparating out of danger.)

A similar device was used by Hugh Jackman in The Prestige, and was invented by the mysterious Nikola Tesla. Throughout the movie we are led to believe that Jackman is teleported to safety using high voltage bolts of electricity only to discover, in the end, that Jackman’s character is actually copied, and he has to kill the original to pull off his trick. He is consoled in the beginning of the movie by Michael Caine, after a love interest dies from drowning, that drowning was a peaceful way to die. At the end, Caine admits that he had lied, and that he had, in fact, been informed that drowning was a miserable affair. We then see a giant warehouse full of water tanks, each with a dead copy of Hugh Jackman from every show he performed using Tesla’s teleportation device, that was actually a copy machine. Jackman reacts with anguish over this, and in his character’s mind we can imagine his thoughts. How many times had the “I” in his head drowned like this. He knew now that, the next time he performed his act, that he would go into the tank and die a miserable death. Regardless of the fact that an exact copy of him emerges unscathed, he would experience that death. If, in our teletransporation scenario, the destruction of our molecules would cause immense pain and anguish to our original selves, or we would be killed in some other way that actually leaves a body behind, how does that change how we think about the experiment? The end result is the same, we open our eyes on the other end, but we also die at the starting point.

I don’t necessarily think this is a flaw in the initial teletransporter thought experiment, but rather in the way some might be thinking of it. Because pain has been eliminated from the cessation of the original entity, and we don’t actually call it death, we tend to skip over the fact that there is an original and a copy. Two physically identical people, but not literally the same matter. To an outside observer, both are the same, and to the replica, nothing seems out of place, their stream of consciousness does not seem perturbed since they remember everything from their past in the same way, but the original entity stops thinking at some point. We can’t get around that fact by simply getting rid of the original. But by turning the device into a copier by removing the element of destroying the original matter, we can see how there are actually two streams of consciousness, whether that is an illusion or not.

This is why I don’t view the idea of uploading the contents of brain and the consciousness of mind to an artificial stratum as a promising enterprise. Granted, everything about “me” would survive, but would “I” witness the new consciousness, or would “I” simply experience my own death? Every thought I put into that concept returns the fact that the “I” currently thinking about this would go dark, and I wouldn’t “wake up” inside a new body, though an “I” exactly like me would, and that may be good enough for my friends and family who only know me objectively, and the “I” that awakens, wouldn’t know that there had been a change. Now, by that logic, several mes could also be created in parallel, each as an “I” that thinks he is “me”. It’s an interesting thought, though it rattles the brain to consider that “I” in duplicate would be the same thing just, perhaps, from a different perspective. However, to me, this would feel like someone else was going to a party in my place, while I was left behind to wash the laundry, or to die, as the case seems to be.

So, would I enter Parfit’s teletransporter? Emphatically, AW HELL NO! I admit that this is mostly the fear of my “I” going dark and subjectively dying, and it’s probably illusory thinking and highly irrational, but it scares the bejeezus out of me to think about it as if my life was hitting a wall with a splat as another me pops out the other end. Part of me views that other me as if a stranger or alien double, or even a zombie as another thought experiment would put it, were taking care of my family. I know that it would actually be me and would complete my life exactly as I would, and would be another stream of my “I” that thinks it started the same journey rather than being built from the ground up by a machine, but the idea is still disconcerting. For all I know this could happen every time I go to sleep. I could be sitting here writing this as a different stream of “I” than the “I” that closed his eyes and went to sleep last night. Would this happen if I went into a coma, or blacked out, or drowned, only to recover? I want to say that, while there is activity in the brain, that this stream is continuous, but I just don’t know. And maybe that’s the point of the experiment.


  • Reply Wolf Scott |

    I love this. My current wip is roughly based on a this whole mental experiment. I’m with you, I’m not going in to the teletransporter either!

    • Reply Justin |

      Thanks! This is the thought experiment that always disturbs me the most. I’m interested to see what you come up with from a fictional point of view.

So, what do you think ?