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Google - could you live in the cloud?

What are we? More specifically - what are you? What makes you “you”?

Advances in data and technology are helping us create increasingly better virtual representations of ourselves.  From cloning to brain scanning.  However, what defines who we are? Is it the physical atoms in your body? Is it the information in your brain? A continuous story of “self”?  Or something more?

I find this question extremely fascinating. It feels key to understand ourselves and how we interact with the world.

So, when I heard that John Bracaglia, Program Manager at Verily was joining Google's Huddle to talk about exactly this topic, I was extremely excited. 

John described three different philosophical frameworks for understanding the “self”.

Theory 1: The Body Theory

This is the idea that a person consists of the physical atoms and space that we embody, and that there is a very clear boundary between where you end and the world around you begins.

This makes sense, no? If your body stops, then you die. However, the body argument quickly stops being very convincing.

What if you cut off a finger for example? Is that finger still you? How much would you have to amputate before you stop being yourself? If you swap every cell in your body are you still you? In fact, this is exactly what the body does every 10 years.

Theory 2: The Brain Theory 

This brings us to the brain theory. This is the idea that you are defined by your brain and the information it contains? This would seem like an obvious answer. Our personalities and memories define us, right?

However, let’s take a 90-year-old. They are likely to refer to a childhood photo of themselves as the same person. However what similarity would a 90-year-old have with a 9 -year-old? Pretty much none.  So, what is it that makes our self us?

Theory 3: The Continuity Theory 

Finally, we have the continuity theory. This is the idea that the grandad and his childhood self are the same person because they are a continuation of the same theme and narrative.

However, what does this mean for the idea of uploading yourself onto a computer? If it is not a continuation, then is it really you? How meaningful is the act of trying to copy one’s self?

So maybe the question we should be asking about human augmentation are philosophical ones? What is it that we are trying to achieve with them and how meaningful are they? As technology advances more and more, these sort of hypothetical thought experiments will become more and more relevant.

Richard Brooker, Data Scientist, Mindshare UK