Re: Heuristics and Identity

Hal Finney (
Tue, 22 Sep 1998 09:04:47 -0700

Doug Bailey, <>, writes:
> For example, I've uploaded my mind into some artificial substrate. I'm
> browsing the heuristic libraries looking for the latest heuristic sets
> developed by the top Weak SIs. I copy my mind (along with my heuristic
> modules) into some form of temporary backup space (just in case something
> goes wrong). I instruct some third party agent to delete my existing
> heuristics and upload the new Weak SI heuristics into my mind. (I suppose I
> could conduct a simulation of how my mind would function with the new
> heuristics first but this might create a problem since such a simulation -
> if completely accurate - would technically be a new intelligent entity.)

An idea similar to this is explored in Greg Egan's novel, Diaspora. The main characters are uploads, and they are able to alter their minds at will. One technique they use is to adopt an "outlook", a specific kind of alteration which changes the relative importance of different aspects of their minds. This is always dangerous for them, because some outlooks are self-reinforcing, and it isn't possible to change your mind after you adopt one. However the characters share similar mental structures and it is possible to simulate the effects of a given outlook at a crude level in order to identify most dangers.

> What is the impact of the new heuristics on my mind? Of course, it will
> greatly change my "identity trajectories" from the time I upload the new
> heuristics going forward. But will I still be me? Is the method with which I
> filter data inextricably linked to my identity. Identity might be some
> combination of the information (experiences, knowledge, etc.) stored in my
> mind and the interpretations derived from that information by my cognitive
> filters. If this is the case, then changing my cognitive filters might be a
> traumatic and identity-altering experience.

This issue is a constant struggle for the characters in Egan's novel. What constitutes identity? How much can you change and still be yourself? Hermann was an early uploader. Thousands of years later, he has re-written himself so many times that he thinks of himself as his own great-great-grandson. Death, Egan suggests, is not so bad if it happens gradually. Many of the characters take a rather cavalier attitude towards destroying copies and suicide, perhaps because they have been forced to adopt flexible attitude towards identity preservation.

Orlando was uploaded relatively recently. He didn't believe in uploading but was forced into it by an emergency, and his goal is to someday return to material existence. For him, retaining his sense of identity is very important, yet he is forced by circumstances to adopt ever more alien changes to his mind, and eventually many of his copies commit suicide.

This novel offers many challenging perspectives for those interested in these kinds of questions. It is recently out in paperback, I think.