Identity as a Digital Being: Who even are we?

Identity as a Digital Being: Who even are we?

Traditional interpretations of identity

Traditionally, Identity has been almost entirely about who a person is and what groups they fall into. For all of human history we have defined people as things like ‘Jew’, ‘male’, ‘black’, ‘straight’, ‘liberal’, ‘nerd’ and so on, treating these groups as a collective based on their group traits. This phenomenon is easily explained with tribal mentalities and is the result of survival pressure on our evolutionary ancestors.

More recently, we have started to try to move away from tribalism and have witnessed people of many backgrounds integrate into society, especially in urban areas. The idea of the individual is becoming more prevalent in most areas, with the best example being part of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘Dream’ speech: “…where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the┬ácontent of their┬ácharacter”. This fundamental component of the Liberalism movement highlights a key part of identity: a person’s sense of individual self.

Perhaps the most understood part of identity, the way we think of ourselves almost defines what we do and how we act. One person may view themselves as a freedom fighter, whilst another may view themselves as simply a cog in the system. However, only we can know who we really are, what we like to listen to, what we like to eat, what we want to achieve and so on in all the detail and complexity that comes with a person. Of course, social media sites will try to figure us out, usually with a high degree of accuracy and success, but there are always things about us, mundane or secretive, that only we would know. This idea is actually a fundamental reason for the perception of free will, but what is for certain is that we all feel that there is no one like us, but us.

Editing identity

For most of history, these definitions and beliefs about identity have been largely accepted and accurate, however, these ideas have been limited within every person’s biological form and mortal existence, something which need not be the case.

Departing from Biology

The first major step away from traditional identity is the ability to completely depart from biology. This would be done by uploading your brain and living in an artificial body (or in the cloud as a fully virtual form). For the most surface-level analysis, this obviously removes the identity layer that is our human bodies. Things like freckles, birth-marks, hair colour, eyes and more would be lost without comprehensive pre-upload 3D scans, and voice would be impossible to perfectly mimic, though neural network AI could help in a major way, provided there was a lot of clear audio data. At his point, largely, a digital being would still be identifiable as distinctly one individual and regarded as the same person, at least from a practical perspective.

Copied Consciousness

Where the idea of digitally transferred identity changes is when you create backups and copies of a person’s uploaded brain. Aside from the huge potential for disaster and consequent need for preemptive regulation, creating multiple copies of a person creates a huge crisis of identity. Let’s take two active copies as the simplest example. On the one hand, both copies would believe they are the same person, and technically they are from a single common cognition, but there’s a high chance that they would view the other copy as something else or ‘not the real me’. For identity, this dilemma means that the internal sense of the individual is not inherently linked to a person’s cognitive ancestry. What does come into account is the differences that two copies would experience, which would have a profound effect on one’s identity. From this we can reasonably suggest that identity is constantly changing and not inherently tied to a person’s birth or life history. This raises another question: would deleting the second copy be murder? We have addressed this question in another post, ‘Murder and Copied Consciousness’ so check it out there.

Customisation, customisation and more customisation

Customisation is another area with huge potential to disrupt identity. Not only is there physical customisation, but here can also be software customisation and virtual customisation. This can take the shape of an avatar in a game, a new body or an internal platform of software. When identity was first thought about, nobody could have imagined that someone could simply download skills Matrix-style. With instant access to skills or knowledge, anyone can be a historian, mathematician, footballer, dancer and so on. Theoretically, you could do all of this by having a software layer of supplementary AI that could do all the heavy lifting. At which point, do you identify yourself as the whole system or do you identify as the system when you switch off all the software?

Beyond simply having software, you don’t even need to stick to humanoid shape at all. Theoretically, if you have AI-assisted mobility, you could take any form, so long as it provided for the few hardware components you really needed. At that point, those who identified as furries, could do so, and those who identified as the internet’s famous Apache Helicopter, could also become an Apache Helicopter. At this point, what is left of the human identity. Race, size, age and now even species will become irrelevant in someone’s identity. To be even more clear, any physical identity would be temporary at best, suggesting that if identity is about physical expression, identity is subject to change as much as popular fashion.

Configurable brains and AI hybridisation

Simply put, configurable brains are brains that have had a number of regions, such as the region for intelligence or the region for memory creation, replaced either with the same region from another human brain (Human Hybrid Brains, HHBs), an average of that regions from multiple sources (Averaged Hybrid Brains, AHBs) or from an AI construction of that region. In the case of the first two, with each replacement you arguably become less like the original upload, your human brain, and more of a mix of different people. Let’s say you now have half of your brain replaced with regions from other people. Are you still you? What if it’s 60%? What if that 60% was all from the same person? Are you them now?

This issue becomes increasingly more problematic when you consider AI. If that 60% was artificially generated by a computer, you arguable become less human and more AI. These Artificial Intelligence Hybrid Brains (AIHBs) are neither classifiable as human nor as pure machine. What we are left with is the analogy of Theseus’ Ship. The question is at what point does the digital being cease to be the same person as the one who uploaded their brain. With the traditional beliefs about identity, there is no good answer. What needs to be put in place is a new understanding of identity that does not rely upon labels such as an ID or name.

Is there a better way to think about identity?

Perhaps out of legal necessity or perhaps out of some deep realisation, I feel that identity should not be attached to someone’s person, but instead to the version of cognition they occupy. For most cases, this does happen to be their single person, but as we have seen with copied consciousness and configurable brains, the label of a person is actually limited. A better way, from my perspective, is to view identity as a property of any consciousness. This does indeed mean that identity is not some exclusive human thing, but instead could be a phenomenon that general AI may come to experience. As our cognition changes, so too should our sense of identity.

More generally, an object can only be what it is at that time. This idea is backed up by the fact that on the nuclear and quantum scales, changes are always occurring that cannot be detected or measured easily, but over time are noticeable and create a very different object. This phenomenon is seen in many things, such as balding, food turning bad, a flower blooming or a disease spreading. Essentially, any attempt to put labels on things is both limiting and somewhat arbitrary. For us, that means that the days where we can define ourselves as individuals are numbered and the sense we have that we know ourselves is about as fickle as the weather.

Have you experienced enough existential crises for one day? Let us know what you thought of this post in the comments below or on social media.

Loui Coleman

Author of Generation Byte

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