Mindclones: Futurist Predicts We'll Have Sentient Digital Copies of Our Minds Within Twenty Years
Would an exact copy of a mind, but in digital format, have the same rights as a human being? Futurist, CEO, lawyer, human rights activist, and medical ethicist Martine Rothblatt Ph.D., MBA, J.D. poses this question, and others related to her concept of "mindclones," in her new book Virtually Human: The Promise - and the Peril - of Digital Immortality.
A "mindclone" is a fully sentient artificial intelligence that is modeled after a real-life human. It would have all the same thought processes, feelings, personality traits, all the mental hallmarks of a human being, without actually being human. Rothblatt's book focuses more on the ethical and sociocultural implications of the rise of mindclones, and mostly takes for granted that it will happen in the near future. Through an analysis of the current state of technology, from everyday usage to government-sanctioned projects to create cyberconsciousness, she comes to the conclusion that conscious mindclones will come into existence within the next two decades. According to the official synopsis for the book, "If you're active on Twitter or Facebook, share photos through Instagram, or blogging regularly, you're already on your way to creating a Mindfile-a digital database of your thoughts, memories, feelings, and opinions that is essentially a back-up copy of your mind."
Rothblatt describes her projected future as follows: "Mindware, which is a personality operating-system type of software, creates a program that (a) thinks and feels the way a human mind does, and (b) sets its thinking and feeling parameters (like sliders in editing software) to match those discernible from a mindfile. When mindware processes a mindfile the output is a mindclone of the person who created that mindfile. The mindclone will be self-aware that it is a software analog of a biological person's mind, based upon that person's digital footprints and sociocultural contextual information available to the mindware." Rothblatt envisions a future in which the interaction between different types on information in the mindware behaves like the neurons in the brain.
Philosopher René Descartes famously said, "I think, therefore I am." Rothblatt proposes the same logic: that this "mindclone" would think and be just as self-aware as a human being. It would not be "flesh-human," as she calls it, but it would achieve equal philosophical personhood.
"If you have a copy of your own mind, with your own feelings and thoughts, it's going to very quickly begin to want the same sorts of rights and privileges that you have," said Rothblatt. She is of the opinion that affording artificial intelligence basic rights is not strange or dystopian, but completely necessary from an ethical and sociopolitical standpoint. "I don't want to repeat 400 years of African-American history and thousands of years of oppressed female history and centuries of oppressed gay and lesbian history. I'm hoping this book can make an on-ramp for cyber-conscious people that gets them to human rights right away."
Rothblatt wrote her book partially as a response to what she perceives as undue polarization in the discussion of artificial intelligence, ranging from optimistic ideas of transhumanism to the thousands of dystopian narratives floating around sci-fi and philosophy: "I think that right now, this whole genre has suffered from extremism on two ends. You have the kind of Pollyanna-ish mentality typified in most of the blogosphere and some of the books on transhumanism. And then on the other extreme, you have the dystopia of Hollywood-Transcendence, Terminator. I've tried to provide a more balanced, middle-ground version of the topic."
Rothblatt, whom feminist website Jezebel called "maybe the most fascinating woman on the planet," is currently the highest-paid female executive in the United States. She was born a biological male named Martin Rothblatt, and made her transition in 1994. She has been married to her partner, Bina, for 33 years, and led her company in creating a robot version of her wife called BINA48 (Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture). The robot is known as "the world's most sentient robot" and "the first cybernetic companion," and has been interviewed by the New York Times, GQ, and The Colbert Report. She has moving facial features, eyes that can "see," ears that can "hear," and a digital brain that allows her to carry on conversations. Most eerily, she has her own memories, including a detailed saga of her brother's personality changes after returning from the Vietnam War. The Times's Amy Harmon stated that interviewing BINA48 was "not that different from interviewing certain flesh and blood subjects."