Analog, June 2007, Probability Zero: Vectoring

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"Vectoring" by Geoffrey A. Landis                  
The June 2007 issue of Analog carries in its "Probability Zero" column a piece by Geoffrey A. Landis, "Vectoring," which is about the problem of "uploading, copying a human brain onto a computer."  Noting the inherent technical difficulty of recording a human being’s synapse pattern, it offers as an alternative the use of a bacterium to do the job, and in it, the bacteria gets out of control and ends up threatening to rewire the brains of everyone on the planet.

While an interesting premise, as is often the case with the idea-driven short-shorts typically appearing under the Probability Zero heading (so named for tradition’s sake, rather than its dismissal of scientific possibility), its mention of the idea of copying a human brain onto a computer was what really caught my attention, given that I had just published a short story of my own involving that theme ("The Transmigration," now appearing in the June 2007 issue of The Taj Mahal Review).

When I was writing "The Transmigration" I was more interested in the implications for human beings of that technology being suddenly made available to everyone, rather than in the science underlying that technology.  However, by that point I had long been acquainted with the ideas of writers like Ray Kurzweil and J.D. Bernal on the subject, as well as the neglected but crucial Nikolai Fedorov, who was not concerned with putting consciousness in a machine, but deeply concerned with the problem of physically restoring the consciousness of the dead. 

The rationales put forth by these writers are not always convincing.  Kurzweil, in particular, treats the issue as principally a question of the dropping price of computing power and suggests specific dates not too far from now when these possibilities will be realized, which is probably overoptimistic.  Nonetheless, the central issue is not what our technology is capable of at the moment, or what it might be able to do at an arbitrary point in a future about which we can only guess.  Instead it is the nature of consciousness.  If mental and emotional processes can be explained in purely physical, material terms (rather than requiring a mystical, non-rational one), then there is no reason why, in principle, they cannot be fully replicated.  The necessary technology may simply prove to be beyond our reach for a very long time, perhaps indefinitely—but this is very far from being "probability zero."