Human Consciousness

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Many people would agree that one of the aspects of humanity is human consciousness, or their self-awareness of who they are and what they are doing. For millennia, the level of self-awareness achieved by humans was reserved to humans only. However, today, with the advent of new technologies such as AI, we must call into question the assumptions that we have made concerning what makes us who and what we are. If consciousness is part of what makes us human, then are self-aware AI also human? If this is true then don't they deserve the same rights and privileges that we do? This is a tough question to answer and only grows more complicated with the introduction of more complex technologies. What happens if we implant a human mind, a human consciousness, into a machine or upload it onto the web? Is this person still the same person they were before? Is this person still human? These questions are addressed in many of the class readings we have done over the past semester such The Winter Market, The Secret SharerThe Stone Canal, Flesh Made Word, Neuromancer, and Schismatrix as well as outside media sources like Avatar [1] and [Surrogates][2]. In each of these works human minds are placed inside of machines in one form or another. This article relates to the implications of implanting a human mind into a machine.


Class Readings

The Winter Market

The Winter Market is an example of a human consciousness being uploaded into a machine. Lise, one of the main characters, is an artist that creates dreams for sale in a futuristic society, and she is dying. She makes large amounts of money off of these dreams, and uses the money to pay for her uploading in order to save herself and to continue producing her dreams. The narrator of the story, Lise's editor Casey, spends the entire story wondering if the program that Lise has become is really her, or just a program that thinks it's her. This is expressed when Casey and Reuben exchange the following quote: " 'Rubin, if she calls me, is it her?' He looks at me a long time. 'God only knows....I mean, Casey, the technology is there, so who, man, really who, is to say?' "[3]. The question of is the program that Lise has become really Lise or is it just a program that is self-aware and believes itself to be Lise must be answered so that questions like can this program be used as other computer programs, and what basic human rights does it deserve can be answered.

The Secret Sharer

The the world that Silverberg creates is similar to the world of The Winter Market, but it is more extreme. Bodies in The Secret Sharer are disposable pieces of equipment that can be abandoned at will. "Every world has it stock of bodies awaiting replacement souls. Most were victims of sudden violence... Salvaging and repairing a body is no troublesome matter... and then there are those who vacate their bodies voluntarily... They are the ones who sign up to fill the waiting bodies of far worlds... the least costly way to travel between worlds is to surrender your body and go in matrix form"[4]. Vox, one of the main characters, does just that. She has her mind uploaded into "matrix form" and is placed in storage on a star ship on a voyage to a vacant body. These people in matrix form are clearly still considered human by the society that they live in, and most people would agree that given the information in the story, they are indeed human. However, the three cyborgs that provide the ship with the energy that it needs to run, and also allow the crew to go star-walking, are another matter. Adam remarks about one saying, "Gabriel on my first visit had seemed austere, remote, incomprehensible. He...had lived the equivalent of three human lifetimes as a cyborg aboard starships, and there was not much about him that was human any more"[5].

The Stone Canal

Macleod in The Stone Canal creates a world where human minds can be copied and placed in multiple different bodies or human equivalent machines at once. On New Mars, everyone has a copy of their mind somewhere that can be place in a new body just in case they die. In the extreme case of John Wilde, his mind has been placed in multiple different carriers (machine and biological), all of which can think and act independently of one another. However, the copies of a person that are put into machines are thought of as lesser beings in comparison to those who are put into mostly biological bodies. They can be bought, sold, and owned by other people.

Flesh Made Word

Flesh Made Word engages the topic of consciousness head on. The main character Russ Wescott is researching into death and what happens at the brink of death. Class discussions centered around what his revealations about death were doing to him (that at the very end all that is left is the primal instinct to live), but more importantly on Russ's interactions with the various AIs he keeps on his computer. His first "personality program" is a replication of an acquaintance by the name of Mosby, however this AI is described by Russ as simply a "fancy menu". The two personalities of note are the AIs of his former lover Carol and at the end of the story that of his most recent ex-lover Lynne. Despite Carol's death, Russ keeps the personality program of her in his computer as a reminder and despite saying that all the AIs are were clever simulations created by cross-referencing their databases, he exhibits a strange sort of attachment to it. However in the end the side affects of his research take their toll and Lynne leaves, leaving behind only another personality in his computer. This one, however, causes emotional reactions from Russ, especially when the programmed Lynne begins to cry because of Russ's response to her.

Our discussions posed the questions: Can a human consciousness be created or replicated in an electronic system? Is there some aspect of human consciousness that cannot be replicated in a machine, or are we merely biological "machines"?

Other Media


James Cameron's Avatar gives a different view of possible interactions of human consciousness with machines. In the movie, avatar bodies are controlled by the minds of the humans from whose DNA they are grown. In this way, the human's minds are temporarily absent from their own bodies and are in the bodies of the avatars. When the avatars go to sleep, their drivers' minds are brought back to their human bodies. The avatars, with the human minds inside them, are treated as equals by the other humans in the movie. There is really no distinction between human and avatar, they are viewed as one in the same.

Here is a link to a video of the process of transferring minds from human to avatar bodies.


Surrogates has a situation very similar to that of Avatar. Humans are able to connect to their surrogates by using their mind to control the bodies of the surrogates. The human body of the operator is left behind while the surrogate, driven by the operators mind, goes about the operators normal everyday business. However, everyone in the movie is not in favor of surrogate bodies, and some instead choose to remain in their biological human bodies. Those who choose surrogates call those who forgo surrogates meat-bags (this is used in a way similar to a racial slur), and look down upon them as inferior.

Here is a link to a video of the surrogates that human consciousnesses are placed into.


The idea of putting a human mind or consciousness inside of a machine of some type can have many unforeseen consequences. The fist question that must be answered is whether this uploaded mind is really human, and if so is this the same person now as before their uploading? The truth of the matter is that no one can really say for sure what the answer to these two questions are. In the class readings there have been examples of both of these questions being answered in different ways. The Stone Canal treats minds that are loaded into machines as lesser beings with treating minds that are loaded into bodies as equals. The minds of people in The Secret Sharer are considered human, but are treated as little more than the rest of the cargo on the ship. In The Winter Market no one really knows if the uploaded Lise is really Lise or not, but she is treated like she is still human. These questions however must be answered in order to determine what kind of human and civil rights these uploaded minds deserve. If they are still human, then these minds deserve all of the rights that every other human has. However, if they are not, then can they be used as other programs? This brings into picture the question of if self-aware programs like AI (or uploaded minds) deserve rights as well, but this is a question for another time. Also, in the case of John Wilde in The Stone Canal, if a single mind can be uploaded, can it be copied like other programs and be put in multiple bodies at once? If so then are the individual minds independent of each other, or are they all the same person?

Some have proposed that the only way for an uploaded consciousness to be considered truly human is for the uploading process to take place gradually. If the biological mind operates so closely with a machine extension of itself that the mind can be said to occupy both the biological and machine realms, has the "humanity" been destroyed if the biological brain dies?


The fact that none of these questions can be answered definitively poses some problems, but some assumptions can be made. First of all, assuming that uploaded human minds are in fact still human, then they deserve all of the rights that other humans have. They should be treated as equal to humans who are still inside of their biological bodies. The question of accountability with copied human minds is somewhat tougher. If the multiple copies are independent of each other, and only sharing similar memories, then the answer is simple, they should not be held accountable for the actions of each other. However, if the copies are just small parts of the whole person, then the whole should be help accountable for the actions of each part.

The questions addressed in this page are not relevant in the world we live in today, but in the near future, we may just might have to answer them.

Relation to Cyberpunk

Human Consciousness and the argument over whether or not there is something else besides the physical body are two topics that come up quite frequently in class discussions for Dr. Famiglietti's Spring 2011 class. The Winter Market, Flesh Made Word, Schismatrix... almost everything we have read deals in some way or another with the idea of Human Consciousness, and whether it can be "transferred" into a machine or if there will always be something "special" about the human form.


  1. Wikipedia: Avatar(2009 film). (2010, April), from
  2. Wikipedia: Surrogates(film). (2010, April), from
  3. Gibson, William. (1985). The Winter Market.
  4. Silverberg, Robert. (1993). The Secret Sharer.
  5. Silverberg, Robert. (1993). The Secret Sharer.
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