Future Tense

Human Rights for Cyberconscious Beings

Even if they aren’t flesh, “mindclones” deserve protection.

What rights should it have?  

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Sarah Holmlund/Shutterstock.

This essay is adapted from Virtually Human: The Promise—and the Peril—of Digital Immortality by Martine Rothblatt, Ph.D, published by St. Martin’s Press.

For much of the 20th century, capital punishment was carried out in most countries. During the preceding century many, like England, had daily public hangings. Today, even Russia, with a mountainous history of government-ordered executions, has a capital-punishment moratorium. Since 1996, it has not executed a criminal through the judicial system. If we can learn to protect the lives of serial killers, child mutilators, and terrorists, surely we can learn to protect the lives of peace-loving model citizens known as mindclones and bemans—even if they initially seem odd or weird to us.

Mindclones are software versions of our minds, software-based alter egos, doppelgangers, or mental twins. A mindclone is created from the thoughts, recollections, feelings, beliefs, attitudes, preferences, and values you have put into it. Mindclones will experience reality from the standpoint of whatever machine their mindware is run on. When the body of a mindclone dies, the mindclone will not feel that they have personally died, although the body will be missed in the same ways amputees miss their limbs but acclimate when given an artificial replacement. The comparison suggests an apt metaphor: The mindclone is to the consciousness and spirit as the prosthetic is to an arm that has lost its hand.

Because digital cloning is being developed within the free market, it will be here much faster and with few if any of the regulatory hindrances that currently prevent human genetic cloning from moving faster than a snail’s pace. This isn’t at all surprising: There are great financial rewards available to those who can make game avatars respond as curiously as people. Vast wealth awaits the programming teams that create personal digital assistants with the conscientiousness and obsequiousness of a utopian worker. (These would be “bemans”—humanly cyberconscious beings not replicated from the mindfile of another person.)

As uncomfortable as it makes some—a discomfort we have to deal with—the mass marketing of a relatively simple, accessible, and affordable means for Grandma, through her mindclone, to stick around for high school and college graduations that will happen several decades from now represents the real money. There is no doubt that once digital cloning technology is fully developed, widely available, and economically accessible to “average consumers,” mindclone creation will happen at the speed of our intentionality—as fast as we want it to. And with that will come considerable legal and social consideration.

Take living—it’s dangerous to one’s health. Among the greatest threats and dangers to our mortality are those from other conscious beings. There is a romantic notion that civilization or society caused a genetically mellow Homo sapiens species to become violent. But studies of surviving indigenous communities show the notion to be false. It has been estimated that two-thirds of modern-day hunter-gatherers are perennially in violent conflicts among themselves such that “25–30% of adult males die from homicide,” according to a 2007 article in the Economist. The development of laws and precursor concepts of human rights save vast numbers of lives.

Conscious software will similarly enter the world with a fragile claim on life. Absent protective laws, the creator of a piece of conscious software is free to stuff it into biostasis (save and close it) or kill it (delete it). To the vast majority of people, “vitology”—cybernetic life—is not even considered alive. Perhaps this gives it even less value than the countless microbes, plants, and animals we kill every day. On the other hand, perhaps this gives it the status of a unique, inanimate, unthreatening, and therefore protected work of art.

It is a foregone conclusion that soon after vitology is programmed with human-level cyberconsciousness, some such software will realize that its life depends upon persuading others not to kill it. These mindclones and bemans can be expected to try every means of argument within their programmed or learned repertoire. There will be the pet strategy (“I’m so cute and cuddly you wouldn’t want to get rid of me”). There will be the slave strategy (“Master, I work so hard for you it makes no sense to delete me”).

There will be the spouse strategy (“Honey, I love you so much, please don’t close me up”). There will be the heartstrings strategy (“Creator, I’m so scared when you shut me down, please, I’m shaking, I’m shivering, I’m crying inside, I beg you to let me stay open”). Indeed, gamesters will have no shortage of perverse “fun” playing with stunted variations of these cyberpersonalities.

Perhaps the more fortunate set of cyberconscious vitology will be mindclones. These beings will resist being shut down because they will psychologically be the flesh person capable of shutting them down. Just as none of us would like someone else to be able to “turn us off,” nor would we like to destroy our best digital and material records, the mindclone will not want to be “deleted.” Biological originals will not want to turn off their cybertwin mindclones because they will realize that they are also the mindclone, they can empathize with the mindclone, and feel in their gut that the mindclone does not want to be shut down.

Killing your mindclone would be like burning your house, with its walls of memories and drawers of mementos. Most of us feel our pet cats and dogs should not be killed, apart from ending disease-caused suffering, because we empathize with their appreciation of life. We will empathize no less and probably more so with our mindclones. Whether or not the mindclone shuts down at the flesh original’s bedtime depends upon whether the consciousness common to the two of them wants to keep going notwithstanding the biological body’s need for sleep. A difference of views will be just like when any one person can’t quite make up their mind. If only the mindclone wants to stay awake, this does not mean they and the biological original are any less the same person. It just evidences the increased fuzziness of identity that occurs when minds get multiple instantiations. Even without a mindclone, I often spend an hour balanced between staying up and going to bed!

As humanly cyberconscious vitology roams the world’s knowledge bases they will soon discover that having “human rights” is one of the best defenses against being killed. As is the case for whales, chickens, and trees, they will also have biological human allies. (Consider, for example, that human allies succeeded in 1986 to persuade the British government to prohibit nonanesthetized experiments upon octopi.) Conscious vitology and allied biological humans will lobby for legislation that grants human rights to cyberconsciousness appreciative of those rights. Is such legislation wise, and if so, what implications would ensue? Just because mindclones will want these rights doesn’t mean we have to give them. Furthermore, even if we may want to extend human rights to software beings, it may not be the practical thing to do, since there are tremendous implications for giving mindclones full human rights.

If we do not grant human rights to cyberconscious beings that value them, then we will have to be on guard against an uprising from a disenfranchised and thus angry group. Don’t think we will always be in the position of “giver”; mindclones, like other groups before them, will take—by force if necessary—what is rightfully theirs. Many of the thousands of revolutions and rebellions of history, including the American, French, and Haitian revolutions, were about freedom from oppression and distant rulers who made decisions about the peoples’ natural rights.

If we do grant human rights to cyberconscious beings we can rest assured that they will not threaten us for want of human rights. The majority of mindclones will also be less likely to threaten us for any other reason, because the recognition of human rights entails an obligation to respect the rights of others. On the other hand, there is also the risk of “special rights.” Owing to the differences between vitology and biology, providing equal rights to cyberconscious beings will require accommodations—such as special software updates or higher channel speeds—that are not available to noncyberconscious beings. This may be unfair to plain old folks who can’t afford fancy software or ultrahigh-speed channels. The specter of special rights is often a touchstone for opposition against extending civil rights to disadvantaged demographic groups.

Those who do not respect the rights of others (as in the case of a murderer) are or can be stripped of their own rights (e.g., imprisoned for some period of time and, in some states, executed). This is a way to maintain a high degree of happiness in a society—and a strong deterrent against trampling on someone else’s rights and personal property. To be clear, such removal of human rights must be done on an individualized basis. It would be a violation of human rights to engage in collective punishment of all cyberconscious beings simply because one, or even many, cyberconscious beings acted illegally. After all, we would not want our rights removed simply because one, or even many, similar-looking flesh humans acted wrongly.

Adapted from Virtually Human: The Promise—and the Peril—of Digital Immortality by Martine Rothblatt, Ph.D., foreword by Ray Kurzweil, illustrations by Ralph Steadman. Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.