In the third part of this blog series, we will finish looking into human consciousness by thinking about what happens to it after death. If you have not seen the episodes, do not worry, spoilers are kept at a minimum! You can read parts 1 and 2 here.
San Junipero is a virtual afterlife into which people can upload their consciousness after they pass away. They can also visit this virtual world before their death through a neural prosthetic device to see if they like it or not. After death, a person’s consciousness is transferred to a chip and placed into a server that simulates this virtual afterlife.
Again, we are dealing with another consciousness issue in this episode. This episode is also related to the idea of mind uploading (or whole brain emulation) that is an interesting topic mostly discussed in transhumanistic circles. There are even non-profit organizations who advocate scientific research in this field (Carboncopies foundation, Human Brain Preservation foundation, etc.).
However, even if we assume that consciousness is not unique to brains and it is possible to recreate consciousness on different artificial substrates, uploading people’s consciousness on servers does not seem to be economically sustainable. Recreating brain functions with current conventional computer architectures (known as Von Neumann architecture and used on our PCs, laptops, and tablets) does not seem to be possible due to huge power consumption of these architectures compared to our brains. Our brain consumes around 20 watts of power and a supercomputer simulating brain functions down to the level of ionic channels would use the entire output power of a nuclear power plant. This is 1 Gigawatt of power for 1 exaflop (A billion billion operations per second) running on the summit, which is the fastest and third most power-efficient supercomputer in the world (Nov. 2018). A futuristic world where people can upload their consciousness into humanoid robots and stay in the real world to work and benefit society seems to be more plausible. You can take a look at the book named The Age of Em which is a non-fictional book investigating the consequences of mind uploading.
Therefore, a new approach that can emulate brain functions with high speed and low power consumption is needed for such a futuristic scenario. Fortunately, scientists are working on a new approach called neuromorphic computing that reduces the power cost of brain-like computation to much more practical values. IBM, Nvidia, HP, Google, and Intel are all working on new types of specialized hardware that perform brain-like computation with low power consumption. Interestingly, cell phone manufacturers started using these types of chips to increase power efficiency of their phones. For example, iPhone X uses a similar chip to perform machine learning/AI computations that are used in some of its apps.
Therefore, the neural prosthetic/consciousness side of this episode seems to be farfetched, but there are emerging chip technologies that could potentially give rise to those brain simulation environments.
Black Mirror has done a great job of showing future possibilities and technological breakthroughs that can happen in a few decades. However, the dark nature of the show will create negative attitudes towards new technologies that can help millions of patients. We mostly focused on episodes that involved consciousness in this post and in the third part of this post, we will have a look at neural prosthetic technologies that were shown in “Men Against Fire,” “Arkangel,” and “Black Museum.”
Edited by Benjamin Greulich and Guillaume J. Dury