University Of Washington Bothell Disembodied Minds Essay

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This term, we have been exploring the concept of mind uploading: the idea that someday we will be able to transfer the information in our brains (our thoughts, memories, experiences, skill sets) into an external device, essentially creating a digital “copy” of ourselves.  We have considered the potential ethical and existential questions that such a technological innovation would raise, paying particular attention to the rights and responsibilities we might associate with a disembodied mind.

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This is complex topic, with many unknowns.  For example, there is significant debate about whether copying one’s brain is the same as copying one’s consciousness (in other words, whether your uploaded mind would still be “you”).  How you answer this question of consciousness dramatically changes the way you might imagine the disembodied mind’s rights and responsibilities.  If you think of the disembodied mind as unconscious computer code, for instance, you might afford it different rights than if you saw it as a conscious entity. 

Most neuroscientists working on this issue today believe that the uploaded mind would be conscious (they think that your uploaded mind would still be you).   So, for the purposes of this assignment, I would like you to adopt this position–imagine that when you copy a person’s mind, you are also copying their consciousness.  In other words, I would like you to imagine that the Disembodied Mind would be just like its human counterpart, but without the body.  It would have the same memories, emotions, personality, desires, fears, etc.  Once created, the Disembodied Mind would continue to learn and grow, developing new memories of its own and having experiences beyond its human counterpart.

To help you envision this, I’d like you to watch a specific section of the video below (from 3:44 – 5:18).  We watched this video in its entirety during the first week of classes. 

Seeker (2018).  “How Close Are We to Downloading a Human Brain?”Links to an external site.

With this framing in mind, I would like you to imagine that you are serving on a Technoethics Commission tasked with providing recommendations about Disembodied rights and responsibilities.   Just as you did in your small group discussions, you will consider the following five key areas and questions.  

1.  Ownership: Who can own the disembodied mind?  Can a human being sell part or all of a disembodied mind?  Why or why not?  Should there be a limit as to how many copies one human being can make of their mind?  If so, what should that limit be and why?  

2.  Information Management:  Once created, can the disembodied mind be deleted?  Why or why not?  Who should be responsible for sustaining and/or managing the disembodied mind’s existence in the long-term (i.e. paying any associated fees that may be associated with its existence and upkeep such as maintaining servers, electrical bills, software updates, etc)?  Does the disembodied mind have the right to exist indefinitely?   Why or why not?  Should there be related social programs for the disembodied community (i.e. forms of care for the disembodied after their human counterpart is no longer living)?  Why or why not?  Should the disembodied mind have a right to privacy?  Why or why not?

3. Labor:  How should we understand the difference between human labor (i.e. labor performed by the human body) and disembodied labor (i.e. labor performed by the digital copy)?  What rights and responsibilities afforded to human beings should also apply to the disembodied (i.e. limited work day, scheduled work breaks, vacation time, family leave, disability, child care, etc)?  Should the disembodied mind be allowed to earn an income independent of its human counterpart?  Why or why not?  

4.  Liability:  If the disembodied mind commits a crime, who should be held responsible?  If a disembodied mind is injured, how should that injury be redressed?   How should such cases be adjudicated?  Should human and disembodied crimes be processed through the same legal system?  Why or why not?

5.  Military Service:  Should the disembodied mind be able to serve in the military and/or be used in military applications?  Why or why not?  If so, should they be afforded the same rights as embodied soldiers?  Why or why not?

While your small group discussion posts represented a more informal engagement with these ideas, in this final assignment, you will need to provide formal recommendations, speaking from the position of the commission.   For full credit, your recommendations must address each of the questions and provide specific justifications for each answer.  So too, your recommendations must be consistent and cohesive across all five key areas.  This will take some thought!  Please make sure that you have read through your recommendations to ensure consistency.  Finally, your recommendations should be supported with sources from case law, government reports, and/or peer reviewed journal articles.

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