Page last updated at 12:47 GMT, Thursday, 12 February 2009

The Tech Lab: Ian McDonald

Man in front of mirror, Getty
Currently the web reflects a crude representation of ourselves.

Science-fiction writer Ian McDonald reflects on the digital doppelgangers that our growing use of the net is bringing about.

I'm in bits. Pieces of me are all over the place.

My history is on Wikipedia, my photos are on Flickr, my petty rants are on Livejournal, my indiscretions are on Facebook, my globetrotting is stored on half a dozen travel sites, my likes and dislikes profiled and my reading recorded on Amazon.

And I'm a part-time mage in World of Warcraft. Well, I'm not. But it might be fun. More fun than Second Life, where I could be some tedious avatar and hang with boring people.

And I don't actually Facebook or network either because I don't want to get into the whole 21st Century social minefield of who to friend and who not to friend and who to unfriend. But I reckon I'm half-uploaded already.

Brain games

One of the great science-fictional toys in the sand-box is the uploaded personality.

It's the i-version of the 1950s brain-in-a-box; pure intelligence freed from the messy human body.

The idea is that within our lifetimes chip design will reach a stage where we can construct a computer with as much processing power as a human brain. That's somewhere in the region of 100 million MIPs, which are Million computer Instructions Per Second.

Ian McDonald
My geographical location is unimportant: Ian2 is global, spread across thousands of servers.
We might reach machines with that level of complexity in the 2020s. Then we'll be able to record every detail of a human brain, memory for memory, neuron for neuron, like for like and dislike for dislike, every emotion and value and want, onto that computer.

What we'll have is a copy of a personality in a box. It'll be you in every detail that makes the meat-you you. You2. Only it's technically immortal as long as the hardware keeps running and is regularly updated. This sounds great, until you realise that the original you still goes down that dark valley from which there is no return...

Memory man

Come back with me Ancient Greece. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, the epic poems of the siege of Troy after its aftermath, are keystones of Western literature. They were oral history long before Homer; recited - or more likely sung, it was easier to remember the rhythms of song - by rhapsodes who had committed them to memory.

A modern reading of the Iliad takes 14 hours. This was a prodigious feat of memory. The same was true for many great epics: the Finnish Kalevala, the Irish Cuchulain cycle: all recited from memory.

All Homer did was find a way of externalising that memory and making it permanent: he wrote it down.

Much of our subsequent history has hinged around our attempts to offload our memory on to material things. Few of us today have the skill necessary to memorise 24 books of verse, much less the inclination.

Printing liberated writing; photography gave us the ability to materially record a moment in time. Sound recording converted vibrations in the air into first grooves in wax, then patterns of magnetism and now numbers: ones and zeroes.

Cover art from River of Gods, Orion
River of Gods deals with the future of hi-tech in India

Digits are now our tool of choice to offload our memories: words, images, sounds, stored first on our own devices but increasingly online, where they can be accessed from anywhere in the world.

I find that I'm increasingly carrying around just a memory dongle: not a laptop, not some widgety iPhone thing, just the memory. Computers are ubiquitous and easy, memory is what's important. My next stage is to store it purely online.

I can load photographs, blog entries, make comments, assume avatars from anywhere in the world. My geographical location is unimportant: Ian2 is global, spread across thousands of servers.

Long before computers reach the same processing power as humans, there will be an uploaded me out there in cyberspace. There already is. It's cartoony and unsophisticated yet, but it's achieving a life of its own. It speaks and is listened to.

There's been much to-do recently over targeted adware on social networking sites and the big ISPs. Phorm is the preferred black hat: it analyses your net data to better target advertising at you. Netizens instinctively bristle at this, but another way to think of it is the first stumbling speech of your You2.

Phorm and similar adwares are asking You2: "What would you like?" Your You2 is telling them. RSS feeds, Google alerts are all part of the initial, halting dialogue carried out independently of you by your You2.

Our You2s will ever more closely resemble us, and become more and more intelligent as they make linkages between the information we placed there. They'll take decisions without our interference -and they'll increasingly talk to each other. It's no coincidence that the net is shaped like a society.

Perhaps there will never be a single moment when computers become aware. Maybe it will be a slow waking and making sense of that blur of information, like a baby makes sense of the colour patches and patterned sounds into objects and words.

Why should artificial intelligences - our You2s - take any less time to grow up than us?

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