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In a world where every human mind has been uploaded, and no organic humans remain, can we still produce offspring?

In a worldbuilding project I'm dabbling with, there are many people uploading their minds to a virtual world. I ran upon a roadblock, though. Could the people in the virtual world, who don't have physical bodies, do something in the virtual world to create real children?

To be clear, I don't mean design an artificial intelligence, as the physical world equivalent would be building a robot child (in my opinion). While some people would be fine building a kid like that, there are many who would prefer the "natural" way. If organic childbirth were not possible, and thus they had no choice, they would need another way. Something they would see as more "natural" than just creating a regular A.I.

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  • $\begingroup$ That's just augmented reality or mixed reality regardless whether the feedback is digital or not. $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Jan 23, 2020 at 4:16
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    $\begingroup$ What is the goal of producing a child? Have a biological baby? Have a "mind baby" in the virtual world? Have a real baby that will eventually join the parents in the virtual world? Have some sort of hybrid (say, a cyborg) that will exist in the real world and in the virtual world at the same time? $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Jan 23, 2020 at 8:44
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    $\begingroup$ Greg Egan did a good job of creating a digital reproductive system in his novel Diaspora. I'd recommend it as a great book in general, but you especially might want to read the first section to get some inspiration. Basically, all human minds are created by a combination of other uploaded minds, and are then developed and matured in a sandbox-style digital environment. $\endgroup$
    – Snowshard
    Jan 23, 2020 at 16:06

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Yes - the Ghostborn

The way you describe them, for your infomorphs you are following the dichotomy of emulated uploaded minds ('Ghosts' - digital equivalent of naturally-evolved neural networks) and true artificial intelligences ('AIs' - programmed intelligent software or artificially designed neural network, with or without some layers of network 'evolution' on top of that, but not made by copying any naturally-evolved ones). That means you have the technology for the former, and you can expand it to emulating more than just adult brains.

It will be more CPU- and memory-intensive, as you will want to emulate the embryo's whole body to account for all the complex procedural influences required for the formation of a brain the 'normal' ways (but in emulation). It also will require sufficient prior research into human development - a lot of it. But given those two parameters, it's not physically impossible to emulate the whole process of growth from a single cell, just very computationally resource-intensive.

I don't recall the concept explored often in fiction, but I have recently found that Greg Egan's Singleton does have it as a major part of the central events, and the concept is also present (but taken for granted, without as much novelty or focus, since the this story is set millennia after the events of Singleton) in his Schild's Ladder.

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Frankly, we (including top neuroscientists) have no clue how conscious works, what it is exactly, where it comes from, and how to make new ones (except the biological way).

Asking if a digital consciousness could have children is therefore impossible to answer (without wild speculation). The only reasonable guess we can make is that a digital consciousness would be able to make copies/clone itself.

Really, it's up to the plot of whatever story you're writing but if you have computers capable of simulating a human consciousness, simulating a sperm and an egg and the subsequent digital-biological child shouldn't be too difficult. Sure, that's a lot of cells and you'd need a virtual environment to "raise" the child in but it would be doable.

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Who maintains the virtual world's infrastructure? They can fertilize embryos.

If every human being is biologically born and then uploaded at birth, someone or something has to service the computers. If that someone or something is human, then there should be a human population capable of producing the offspring that get uploaded. I don't think that's what you're looking for, though.

My understanding is that your world has virtually zero adult humans outside the system. That's a problem, because something still has to keep the computers running.

You may want to build a mini-society composed of robots capable of sustaining the internet. When parts fail, spares will be manufactured and installed by automated drones. When you run out of spare parts, raw materials will be harvested and refined by mining bots. Plus, you will need someone to service the dozens of power plants that keep the system online in the first place.

You can employ some of these robots to conduct in-vitro fertilization. They can fertilize stored eggs with stored sperm, provide sustenance to developing embryos in artificial wombs, and then harvest each consciousness at the right developmental stage. It can be fully automated like the Matrix - except the bodies are composted.

One problem with this solution is that you will eventually run out of eggs and sperm. You may need a factory-sized genetics lab in which DNA is constantly recombined and distributed into lab-grown gamete cells. In this way, parents in the virtual world can have biological children.

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  • $\begingroup$ A very thorough answer! I'm looking at it from multiple points on the timeline at present, including one where there's about 5000 people digital and the rest are still in flesh bodies, and one where the entire population is no longer carbon-based. As in no human beings born biologically, none uploaded at birth, everyone is in the system. We're talking around 2350 CE, so the technology would definitely be advanced enough to tend to itself and keep things running. There are also people in the digital world able to supervise the outside, operate robots, etc. Thank you so much for the answer! $\endgroup$ Jan 23, 2020 at 4:59
  • $\begingroup$ " If organic childbirth were not possible" $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    Jan 23, 2020 at 22:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Thorne The question requires both "real children" and no "organic childbirth". My answer is a way of reconciling these two contradictory statements just like yours. Whereas your answer chose to forgo "real children" to use AI kids, I chose to forgo "not organic" to make technically organic kids that still fit the scenario of "no organic people". While no answer can fix this paradox, they can still fit the author's scenario. $\endgroup$
    – Zxyrra
    Jan 23, 2020 at 23:49
  • $\begingroup$ What is real when everyone is AI anyway? You still end up with an AI mind either way. $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    Jan 24, 2020 at 0:53
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    $\begingroup$ Additionally, I have left the matter of souls undefined. There is little to say on them scientifically, but you are right that the people I'm referring to would have numerous concerns, one of which is "would a child we program into existence have a soul?" $\endgroup$ Jan 24, 2020 at 19:02
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Who says they have to be new? Take a copy of an existing person at random. Strip off the memories, the training, go back to the very core of a person - congratulations on your new child.

In your world, people are digital - we can copy without loss. We don't have an upper population limit.

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Rent-a-Body

If this was my world I would play it like this:

(1) There are temporary bodies you can download yourself into whenever interaction is needed with the outside world. These might be androids, vehicles, spaceships, construction or mining equipment. Whenever something is needed to service the central server, these temporary bodies are used.

(2) There is little incentive to raise a child in a purely digital world. You don't get that same attachment to a newborn baby. You might as well simulate that attachment.

(3) Uploaded people live for thousands of years before they succumb to circuit decay, or voluntarily end their own lives. So there is little need to create new people.

(4) If you upload a baby's mind it never properly develops. Or rather it adapts super well and evolves to to "the next paradigm" of human development. This is looked down upon by the current less evolved generation.

So how does childbirth work?

(a) You apply for a childbirth license and register a lease on a bio-android body. Essentially a synthetic skeleton with organs grown in and around it in a vat of chemicals.

(b) You can either select a given genetic code or use the one assigned to you in the central database. Either way you get a sense of attachment to the new child.

(c) Procreate and have a baby.

(c.5) Some people do the procreation artificially, and only wake up the android shortly before or after the child is born.

(d) Raise the child to maturity in the real world.

(e) Upload the young adult into the server.

(e.5) During their upbringing the child can make trips into the central server. This lowers the shock value at age 18 where their biological body is obliterated and they are permanently uploaded. The parents can also switch bodies as appropriate.

Question: How does this change what a "household" is? Of course it removes any need for male-female parenting teams.

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Yes

An uploaded mind is just a program and you can copy programs and make new programs.

A parenting program would take random features from both parents and build a base personality matrix from that. Said parents could then take the new AI and teach it just like a normal child.

Considered everyone is an AI, making a new AI is no difference.

In the Matrix, Sati is a child program of two other programs.

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  • $\begingroup$ So basically, the parents get to retain the notion of randomness, that they don't really have control over how their child turns out. They just combine their features in a hat and the program creates an arbitrary new mind. Am I understanding you correctly? $\endgroup$ Jan 23, 2020 at 1:38
  • $\begingroup$ Basically yes but not only their mind but virtual physical appearance as well. The whole method could be done exactly the same was as actual childbirth in the virtual world. $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    Jan 23, 2020 at 1:43
  • $\begingroup$ If you think about it, do you know if we are living in a simulation or not? If we are in a simulation, it's exactly what we are doing right now. $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    Jan 23, 2020 at 1:44
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    $\begingroup$ Hypothetically, sure. But the people I'm thinking of likely don't feel that way. They see this world as the REAL one, and any computerized world as necessarily fake. Thereby, if they ever consented to be in a computer, or were forced to be in one, they would desire a form of reproduction so close to the original that they could not tell the difference. $\endgroup$ Jan 23, 2020 at 1:48
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    $\begingroup$ It's a question of what it means to be human. Is an uploaded mind still human? If you copy the mind are both still human? If you change it, is it still human? If you merge two minds is the result human? If nobody can tell the difference does it even matter? $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    Jan 23, 2020 at 5:08

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