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Sunday, 24 July 2011

How to program clones

I've been watching Caprica lately, and was interested in the series' theory of replicating the human mind. Clones have been around for a long time in Science Fiction, and in real life since Dolly the sheep was cloned. Two big questions are, first, whether a human clone would be like one of us, or would it be like a dead thing brought to life, and second, whether we could also clone personalities. To me, the questions are related.

The first question has been around a long time, at least since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and countless sci fi works including Philip K Dick's Blade Runner (Do androids dream of electric sheep?), and the ghola clones in Frank Herbert's Dune series. Would clones be more than ciphers, flesh and blood robots? Would they make interesting conversation? Would we allow one the vote?

The second question is more interesting to the human condition, because it relates to the idea of immortality, and its counterpart, fear of death. If we could clone personalities, especially our own personalities, we could effectively achieve immortality, having a back-up clone ready with streamed memories to pick up from wherever our current body left off (I've used this in a couple of my own stories). So, nice idea, but as they say, the difference between theory and practice is that in practice theory doesn't always work (a scifi author would add 'not yet'). So, how would it work? How would you download a personality?

Back to Caprica then. The theory in Caprica is that it is all about memories, that the brain holds only a few Megabytes of memories, and that it is how these data are accessed that really matters. So, if you can store memories, from what the person does in their lives (major and minor events) to what they look at on Facebook and Google, then you can map not only the memories but also the personality.

Nice theory. But what would make such memories come alive?

For me the answer lies in fiction. What is fiction about if not personalities, motivations and conflicts: the heroine wants something, but something else is in her way (a bully; her mother; an alien; her pride). This is the crux of any novel, because our lives are like this, and fiction lets us see how other people solve their particular problems. But a novel which only has external problems or threats (e.g. an alien force invading Earth) is really flat if the heroes don't also have significant 'internal' problems. These can be anything from rivalry to jealousy to lack of self-confidence, it all works out the same - the hero has to overcome some aspect of herself to defeat the enemy.

Ultimately, it's internal conflict which matters. That's when we feel most alive: when the conflict is at its peak, and when it is resolved.

Frank Herbert evidently had the same idea in his original (and brilliant) Dune series, where clones of the dead hero Duncan Idaho were repeatedly fashioned, and placed in a situation that tore at the clone's allegiances; this was the only way to bring the ghola to life and resurrect the 'real' man.

So, sure, you need the memories, the more detailed the better. But memories on their own don't have meaning unless the motivations and conflicts are also known. Caprica is I believe right in one sense - it's how the data are accessed that matters. This can be literal in terms of brain physiology - referring to the sequences in which millions of neurons fire in the brain in response to events, and how this firing pattern is affected by each new event and influenced by previous events. 'Coding' motivations and conflicts would probably be much harder, but if you could, then perhaps you could predict how new events would be perceived, not neutrally as if collecting bits of information like a recorder, but based on prior experience and motives, bending new experiences to fit with existing motives and biases, suppressing or fighting against those which go against the flow. Starts to sound more human.

As a psychologist I'm naturally interested in this area of science fiction, and so as a writer I try to explore it whenever I can. It's a theme in a new story just written called The Sapper, which should get published in the next few months. Here's a hint from the story: if you want a clone to appear human, don't just give it motivations, give it internal conflicts.


Related stories: Galactic Barrier; Looking for Hell - click here
Novel: The Eden Paradox
(coming Xmas 2011: Eden's Trial)

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