What do digital immortality, teleportation, the show Doctor Who, and a horror game released in 2015 have in common?

The idea of copied consciousness.
Each of these examples relies on copying the brain in some way, shape, or form.

  • Digital immortality involves copying the brain onto a computer
  • Teleportation involves disassembling it and reassembling it in a new location
  • Doctor Who involves regeneration, which transfers the old mind of a character into a new body
  • The game SOMA features the principle of multiple copies of the same mind existing simultaneously

The inherent problem with these methods can be summarized in one sentence:

"I don't want to go"

When you teleport someone, you're ending one life and creating an exact replica in its place with the same memories. When you immortalize them digitally, the organic copy will expire. In Doctor Who, The Doctor is reluctant to regenerate because the "old him" dies in the process. And finally, SOMA ends in the following way:

The main character uploads their mind onto a satellite with a bunch of other human minds, and launches the satellite into space - the legacy of the human race after the apocalypse destroys the world. However, they open their eyes to find they're still stuck on Earth - a copy is only a copy, they're still on Earth, and they will die an unsatisfactory death.

How can you copy a consciousness, while avoiding the "I wish it were me" problem, and without killing one of the copies?

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    $\begingroup$ The book accelerando by Charless Stross touches this subject on several occasions and in several seperate viewpoints. Very interesting read if you are into this topic $\endgroup$ – gnur Nov 22 '16 at 10:57
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    $\begingroup$ I don't have any elaboration, but if you're willing to do a "magic-y" sort of approach there is always the option of a sort of "spiritual reincarnation". The body is a new body, but the consciousness is the old one. $\endgroup$ – Anoplexian Nov 22 '16 at 15:22
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    $\begingroup$ The plot of the game "The Swapper" adds some interesting twists to this concept and may also be worth investigating. $\endgroup$ – wwarriner Nov 22 '16 at 18:06
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    $\begingroup$ How do we currently solve practically the same problem after every interruption of consciousness, e.g., sleep or anesthesia? $\endgroup$ – user2338816 Nov 23 '16 at 6:15
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    $\begingroup$ @user2338816 Every small change of every sub-atomic particle in the brain alters an existing object slightly, but for the sake of this question, that is not copying. "Copying" involves complete reconstruction with new materials, not adjusting something or watching it age over time. $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Nov 23 '16 at 7:04

18 Answers 18


You use centralized version control

The problem is akin to copying computer programs around - you must dissociate the physical substrate from the program. It is complicated by the fact that the program modifies itself, i.e. consciousness could be thought of as an executable database of some sort. However, we have lots of tools available to deal with this. Version control in software is the process of keeping a repository of a project where multiple programmers (in this case clones, teleported versions, etc) are working on different parts of the code (experience) and integrating their multiple copies into a unified whole.

To do this as a human, we would need to insert the human being's life into the version control as soon as possible - you could even start the life in the version control, then use it to generate a human baby. This is a paradigm shift of sorts in the concept of "consciousness" or "identity" - it being first and foremost a digital phenomenon, thus indestructible (given sufficient computing and backup capability), rather than being primarily a physical phenomenon which is simply "backed up" every once in a while. With this view, the concept of multiple bodies, teleports, etc, are not perturbing or unnatural or distressing - the physical is not the primary seat of the mind, merely a temporary vehicle. Thus destruction of the physical body is not "killing" - the mind cannot be killed as it is a digital phenomenon.

The physical implementation of such a system probably needs some sort of high-concept computing resources along with a permanent and unbreakable link from each body to the computer.

It also presents a unique perspective on "clashing code" - parts of the program where two programmers are working on the same part of the code. For this, our central versioning system would need some sort of "best integration" or "best outcome" metric, along with a facility to store, segregate and present the "other versions" as accessible memories that are kept separate from the "main branch".

Iain M. Banks' "Culture" series has a similar idea where people are backed up to a centralised computer system somewhere, particularly before they go off to do dangerous things. It doesn't quite have the same slant of "digital-first" consciousness, but there are lots of fantastic ideas on implementation. As mentioned by @Molot, the Night's Dawn trilogy also has similar concepts of centralized consciousness, although that goes further to have a centralized mass consciousness with which all minds eventually get integrated.

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    $\begingroup$ If you thought merging on a software project where work tasks are not clearly managed is a nightmare, the merging of multiple clones who made different experiences on similar things will be the horror story of the year. $\endgroup$ – Tom Nov 22 '16 at 10:46
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    $\begingroup$ This is a very interesting setup! I'll use that in one of my stories. That way you are wearing bodies like VR Displays. Fascinating! $\endgroup$ – Angelo Fuchs Nov 22 '16 at 12:45
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    $\begingroup$ Another notable use of the mind-first, body-as-vehicle concept is Altered Carbon and its sequels. $\endgroup$ – anaximander Nov 22 '16 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ Re code clashes... Imagine one copy killed another. How would that be perceived by the repo personality? Or future checkouts? $\endgroup$ – wwarriner Nov 22 '16 at 18:09
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    $\begingroup$ Hm. You know, I don't think I've ever seen this before. Purely digital consciousness, yes - even fork-positive perspectives - but whenever reintegration comes up (Worm, Floating Point), it's treated as "lump together the experiences of all branches in a filesystem that maybe labels them by source" rather than any sort of merge protocol. $\endgroup$ – David Heyman Nov 22 '16 at 21:54

You don't

In the way you describe, any way of making original cease to function is killing it, so you simply can't do. There are few ways to go around it.

  • StarTrek way — because original is disassembled when you're beamed up, and the mass is somehow transported, too, it was left to philosophers to tell if you are still you or just a copy.

  • Safehold way — copy is just a copy and it know it is. But also it knows that after timeout it will be reintegrated into the main personality. Timer is set to a low enough time, and people are conditioned in a way that prevent copies to start to think about themselves as "self". Copy feels as a part of it's source, and if for some reason it starts to develop own ideas and refuses reintegration, time out and it's deleted.

  • Safehold way two —

    Copy that will live totally in VR, indefinitely, but procedure kills patient so it's only allowed on patients that are already dying anyway.

  • Night's Dawn way — Edenist's habitat keep memories of people, and when someone dies, last part of their memories and personality are transferred and activated. Everyone knows it could be done to a living human, too, but no one does it specifically to avoid "I wish it were me" issue. They are very careful about that.

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    $\begingroup$ In general Ian M Banks and Peter F Hamilton have both explored multiple aspects of this question in their works. Richard Morgan too, I'm sure there are others. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Nov 22 '16 at 11:46
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    $\begingroup$ Also Pohl's Gateway novels feature creation of doppelganger copies, and in at least one case, the reluctance of a doppel to be destroyed. IIRC they don't reintegrate as such, just report back. $\endgroup$ – Whelkaholism Nov 22 '16 at 14:19
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    $\begingroup$ The Cultures displacers don't kill the person, they 'displace' them, no copying happens "The volume - and its contents - to be Displaced was encapsulated within a containment field.[7] The field was moved through hyperspace, where it took the form of a singularity." theculture.wikia.com/wiki/Displacer $\endgroup$ – Tom J Nowell Nov 22 '16 at 16:16
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    $\begingroup$ @TomJNowell Yes, it wasn't the displacers I referred to. More the backing up of consciousness (i.e. mortality as a lifestyle choice), the existing in virtual worlds etc. For example one of the books has multiple different versions of someone competing in virtual worlds. I can't think of any cases where he goes into depth of someone duplicating themselves but there are a lot of relevant areas touched upon. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Nov 22 '16 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ Tell that Tom Riker ... $\endgroup$ – PlasmaHH Nov 22 '16 at 20:35

Who can tell?

Once you've made the copy it opens its eyes and truly believes it's the original. Everyone around them believes and accepts them to be the original, how can you say it's a copy and not the original, to all intents and purposes it is.

The end of the story could have been taken from the other point of view, that of the copy, opening its virtual eyes and seeing the wide expanses of space that are now its home.

A copy is not just a copy, it's also the original and it sees its own continuity of existence which includes that trip. The reason you eliminate the original is to make sure there's only one continuous personal timeline, not multiple branching ones who become different people.

Who you are is made up of your memories, your accumulated experiences, the mere physical aspect is replaced every few years in a continuous cycle as cells die and are replaced. You're not physically the same person you were when you were born, all those cells have died and been replaced by new ones, you don't have the continuity problem from that, why should you have the problem when they're all replaced at once?

Consider my grandfather's axe(or Trigger's broom, depending on culture)

This, milord, is my family's axe. We have owned it for almost nine hundred years, see. Of course, sometimes it needed a new blade. And sometimes it has required a new handle, new designs on the metalwork, a little refreshing of the ornamentation . . . but is this not the nine hundred-year-old axe of my family? And because it has changed gently over time, it is still a pretty good axe, y'know. Pretty good. - Pterry, The Fifth Elephant

You're simply doing the same with a body, your body is not you, your personality is you, your body is simply an avatar for the personality. The personality endures but the body can be replaced.

Just don't expect me to use a teleporter any time soon.

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    $\begingroup$ But those parts (neurons) are made of other parts (proteins, electrolytes, other assorted molecules and structures) that are constantly being consumed or broken down and replaced. Who's to say that the neurons are the same neurons? I know, I know, DNA doesn't get consumed. But wait - those parts (DNA) are made of other parts (atoms) that are made of parts (electrons).... I know, I know, nuclei. But elementary particles.... $\endgroup$ – Trevortni Nov 22 '16 at 17:09
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    $\begingroup$ This answer makes me think of Ellen, from El Goonish Shive. Essentially a female clone of Elliot, she was created after a curse that made him female was broken by physically splitting the curse from him. Now I suppose it could be said that she began to exist when he became female - or at the same time he began to exist when he was born, if you want to argue that way - but the cognitive dissonance didn't begin to happen until there were two of them. How did she ultimately resolve the dissonance? With a whole lot of angst. And fan service. $\endgroup$ – Trevortni Nov 22 '16 at 17:20
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    $\begingroup$ Grandfather's axe is much older than your grandfather or his grandfather. It's been handed down all the way from the time of Theseus. He used it to build a ship. $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Nov 23 '16 at 13:37
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    $\begingroup$ @AngeloFuchs That's not really a resolved question. There's plenty of studies that show this view is outdated and wrong, and there's some promise that we could further exploit this to prevent many kinds of brain damage. But in any case, you just shifted the problem lower, as Tervortni mentioned - unless the neuron dies and is consumed (another recycling!), some parts of it will be replaced over time - even in the simplest case, the food it consumes, the heat that's lost... You only see the distinction when you say "this is a unit, undivisible, eternal". The universe doesn't care about those. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Nov 23 '16 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ I've had this broom for 60 years. In all that time, it has only had 5 new heads and 2 new handles. $\endgroup$ – Bill Michell Nov 23 '16 at 17:26

As Separatix alluded to, this is an age old question which has not had an answer which satisfies everyone for thousands of years. You won't solve it in a few minutes.

The name I have most often seen associated with this problem is the Ship of Theseus. It was reported by Plutarch in his writings, before 150AD. Even then, it was already attributed to "Greek legend" suggesting it is far older than that:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

From this, philosophers have drawn up lines with fancy terms such as endurable and perdurable to try to capture this conundrum along side an acceptable solution. For years, they have failed. It got even more difficult when science came along and started suggesting that the human mind could be encoded (which, by the way, is an assumption on your part, so I'd recommend touching on it in the story).

If you do start from the assumption that consciousness can actually be copied, there are still many options. My personal favorite is to suggest that, after the "copying" occurs, it is not so much that you have a copy of yourself as much as it is that your body is now twice as big, and in disjoint places. One of the lessons of the Ship of Theseus is that its very difficult to isolate a definitive self when engaging in such copying. Why not simply declare the "self" to consist of two bodies?

There's some precedence for this. Simple precedence can be found in the reattachment of a finger. We keep the severed finger on ice, but never one is it questioned that "this is the victim's finger." It's part of their "self." So having a body in two parts is not inherently forbidden. There's even really strange verbiages which have to arise when discussing organ transplants such as "he's using my lung."

There's also some really really interesting precedence in the world of conjoined twins. The sense of self associated with conjoined twins has always been complicated. For example, Krista and Tatiana Hogan are a fascinating case of twins conjoined in the brain. Impulses from one brain transmit directly to the other. Because of this, there are times where their behavior is as though they are one individual.

Once you have this two bodied "self," obviously you will need to do something about it because the two bodies are likely to experience sufficiently different lives as to want to call them two "selves." This we also have a model for: divorce. In divorce, one takes a "unified body" and cleaves it in two, along with all of the property that body has attained. This process would have a natural corollary in the consciousness copying process. It even suggests a correct moral viewpoint for the clone killing problem. If the "self" agrees that one half of it should go away, who is to disagree. However, if the "self" is at odds with itself, the situation becomes less clear. Perhaps you have to send them to clone counseling, to come to an understanding of their greater self.

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    $\begingroup$ "You won't solve it in a few minutes." (proceeds to solve it in a few minutes) $\endgroup$ – Michael Nov 22 '16 at 18:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael Good to hear I convinced someone =) This was sort of a sales pitch, so I left out all the drawbacks which leave many dissatisfied with this solution. Some people really disagree with some of the side effects which come from two brains, separated by a distance, being deemed as "one conscious entity." It really buggers some people! $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Nov 22 '16 at 19:17
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    $\begingroup$ You didn't need to convince me, I actually came up with my own solution some time ago, and this answer is closely along the lines of what I came up with. It doesn't go nearly as far, and my answer involves a lot of philosophical deductions on the nature of reality and consciousness that more properly belong in my own writing so I don't want to give too much up. ;-) $\endgroup$ – Michael Nov 22 '16 at 19:22
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    $\begingroup$ The trouble is unless the two selves have a common consciousness or common memories they rapidly start having different experiences and hence becoming different people, and if you maintain a common legal existence then I'm going to resent my other self spending all my money on hard drugs and ptsd treatment. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Nov 23 '16 at 10:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Separatrix Yes, but that's a legal issue. Does your other self have a separate ownership rights, or do they stay combined? In a way, this isn't necessarily different from marriage - some of your property is shared, some is kept apart, and there are legal bindings as to what happens when e.g. one of you is deep in debt. My wife also wouldn't be happy if I started spending all our money on drugs - that doesn't really touch the "consciousness" issue, just the good old "living on the same property" problem. Not that I'm claiming that's a solved issue either - but it's no sci-fi. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Nov 23 '16 at 14:26

Gradually Replacing the Brain

Similar to Werrf's suggestion I'd go the gradual transfer rout, but I don't know what a "transfer of conscious processes" implies and I'm not sure that a "half conscious" brain would work. This is a more “materialist” approach.

Digital immortality: I would suggest gradually disassembling and at the same time reassembling the brain via nanomachines. Imagine a machine first replacing one neuron in your brain with a mechanical equivalent that can send the same impulses (but also has improved functionality). From your perspective there would be no way of telling the difference. It then spreads to the next neurons and so on. Why would this be any different than your brain cells replacing the matter that makes them up through normal metabolism? Do this however fast you feel comfortable with.

Of course the new neurons should have improved functionality, or this would be rather pointless, such as higher durability and, say, the ability to just speed up their functioning if asked to – useful when your robot brain is complete and you want to slow down time relative to your thought processes. Are you concerned that you don't get the full benefit of mechanical existence, because your mechanical neurons are still too similar to their meat versions? Just iterate the process. Or you could just gradually export the functions of individual neurons to be simulated in the cloud. Bam! You are now fully digital and you were conscious through the whole process and there was never a whole "you" that was destroyed.

Teleportation: Now it would seem that this doesn't lend itself to teleportation, but it could work. You'd need instantaneous communication though (i.e. an ansible).

You need a body identical to yours but without a brain and two exactly identical “teleportation rooms”. Your clone body is wired up and receives the exact same impulses that your primary body does and thus acts just as your primary body does (and also it doesn't, you know, die from lack of a brain). Enter the brain disassembling/reassembling nanites: At the same rate that your brain is scanned and disassembled, an identical copy of the individual neurons is assembled in the destination body. Their impulses are sent back to the origin brain and they receive impulses from the origin brain. This is why you need an ansible: Lag would mean death or at least madness and brain damage.

Where are “you” during a given point in the procedure? You don't know. Nor can anyone. To avoid the brains functioning differently the rooms have to be identical. If they aren't, it would get very...trippy, as perceptions intermingle in various stages of cognitive processing. Again: Do this however fast you feel comfortable with.

Pro: There is no "you" that is left behind by your digitization/teleportation. There is no ending of consciousness (probably).

Con: Nanomachines imperceptibly eat your brain and excrete another.


Check out the Old Man's War universe by John Scalzi. It involves, among other things, the transfer of consciousness between bodies.

Without getting too spoileriffic, in this universe consciousness cannot be effectively stored, only transferred. New bodies are carefully prepared, with matching genetics and underlying brain structure, memories, psychology and the like are imprinted onto it, then the consciousness process is transferred from the old body to the new via a bridge. The person being transferred is aware throughout the process; they don't go to sleep in one body and wake up in the other, they feel themselves gradually merging into the new body. After the transfer, the new body is awake and aware, and the old body is alive and undamaged but no longer 'awake'.

This has always struck me as an excellent way to avoid the problem of mind transfer, as well as an excellent definition of what consciousness is - it's not a thing that can be copied, it's a continuous process that can be transferred.

Edited to Add:

Thinking about this question got my writing spirit up; so here's something of how I would see it working.

The new body stared mindlessly ahead. I tried not to meet its eye – seeing myself as a mindless husk was always a disturbing sensation.

“Can you hear me?” the tech asked, pen poised over her clipboard.

“Yes,” I said, shifting my focus to her hip. It was much nicer to look at.

“What colour is a banana?” she asked.

“Yellow.” She nodded, made a note on her clipboard, and turned to the new body.

“Can you hear me?” she said again. The body said nothing. The tech nodded, apparently satisfied, and made another note.

“Are you ready, Mr. Werrf?” she asked, turning back to me. I swallowed hard, and nodded. She gave me a small smile – a moment of human contact before doing something so totally inhuman – then folded a screen down in front of my eyes. “Please recite the numbers you see,” she said crisply, all business. Numbers began to flash on the screen in red; 4, 9, 7, 13. I recited them as they appeared.

My skin began to tingle, as if my entire body had gone to sleep and was waking again to pins and needles. More red numbers appeared on the screen; 8, 12, 5, 6…

It was growing harder to say the numbers. My mouth felt numb, and I grew dizzy, as if I was floating away from my body. My tongue flopped out of control and I bit it; a moment of harsh pain. The numbers blurred in front of me…8 or 3…6 or 5…red or…blue? I blinked.

The pretty technician was still watching me, standing off to one side. Forget the numbers. I focused on her face and her hair, tied up in a neat bun with a few strands running down the back of her neck, and I realized I could see both sides of her at once. My head spun, and I tried to feel nausea at the strange sensation, but there was no body there to rebel against me.

For a long moment I stared at the room from two pairs of eyes; then…I don’t know quite how to describe it. That sensation when you’re pushing and pushing, and suddenly there’s no resistence; suddenly, with an almost tangible slithering pop, the strangeness vanished. Blue numbers flashed on the screen in front of me. 2. 7. 4.

I took a long breath. The pain was gone. The tightness in my chest just wasn’t there any more. I blinked, and realized that my vision was clear. Even the air smelled fresher.

The tech lifted the screen away from me and smiled again. I couldn’t help it. I smiled back.

“Can you hear me?” she asked, her voice light and musical. I nodded.

“Yes,” I said.

Across the room, two more techs recovered the mindlessly staring body that I had occupied for so long. For a moment, I caught my own eye; but it was as lifeless and insensible as the new body had been just a moment before.

  • $\begingroup$ I'll have to take a look at that story, because this is exactly how I imagined it happening. $\endgroup$ – Lepidolite Mica Nov 22 '16 at 18:35
  • $\begingroup$ This is what I thought of as soon as I read the question. $\endgroup$ – amflare Nov 22 '16 at 22:41
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    $\begingroup$ I remember another book (sorry, couldn't find out the title to add it here) where a private corporation which sold immortality, which basically made "mind backups" and a new body was created when the old one died. Actually, they got the support from the religion precisely because it demonstrated the existence of the soul, as creating a new body (memories included) it would simply remain in a coma-like state (until the first one died). $\endgroup$ – Ángel Nov 22 '16 at 23:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Ángel Of course, that would piss off lots of those religions that claim that their religion is "beyond the reach of science", like the "modernised" Abrahamic religions. If you have a proof, how can you talk about faith? There's no faith in believing something because of evidence in everyday plain sight. Of course, individually plenty of people would like it, while plenty of others would hate it. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Nov 23 '16 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Luaan The only evidence would be that the copying-machine is not able to create new people, only new bodies which people can inhabit. God is still in the scope of the faith. $\endgroup$ – Ángel Nov 24 '16 at 1:06

There is no problem with two minds.

If I think about it from a perspective of "me, waking up being in two different bodies", I have a serious identity problem.

But this is the wrong perspective. Let's, for start, assume it's not me being copied, but you. Suddenly I don't have any problem at all anymore, there is just "you A" and "you B". I can talk with both, and everything feels quite normal. No problem at all!

Now, lets assume I am copied while sleeping, not knowing about it. "I, A" and "I, B" wake up in different locations without knowing about the other's existence. Both of me should not have a problem with that, it's just strange that I woke up in a different place than where I went to sleep, but, well, strange things happen. No big deal. I will still know my identity, I will be me, and be sure about it. This is true for "I, A", as well as "I, B", there's no need to distinguish them, everything is perfectly symmetrical.

So, the answer to your question is to not let them know about the copy, or, to at least prepare two distinct life paths without too much interaction. The worst is when they both claim the same life, like being in love with the same woman/man or being the father/mother of the same children. Or, copy them too!

  • $\begingroup$ The question is more than just "I don't wan't to go". Let's say you are on a burning area and your only escape is through a teleporter/conscience-transmitter to go to a safe place. I can assure you that the only thing that matters is that ONLY YOU are conscious in the body at arrival and you won't have remorse. This is the point in the game SOMA : after its "copy" escaped, the character is stranded in a dangerous environment. So OK for cloning, but not for escaping a difficult situation... $\endgroup$ – Goufalite Nov 24 '16 at 8:16

I never got why people found this topic to have any difficulty, I just don't see it.

A person getting teleported from point A to B has all of their molecules scanned, the info stored and disassembled, to reassemble their molecular structure or remake it somewhere else.

Whether or not you make a copy is optional. If you do, you have, for the smallest of instances, two exact copies of one person. A few milliseconds later they already wouldn't be 100% the same anymore due to different environmental cues.

This whole notion of 'dying' when you step inside the teleporter is misleading. You don't 'die'. Dying is a human construct, and even then is poorly understood. Most people think death is instantaneous, or rather happens from one instant of time to the very next. Rather, it's a process that starts the second you are born, and ends quite a bit after you breathe your last breath.

Teleporting isn't dying, you just have your molecules disassembled, effectively disappearing from the universe entirely, or rather, you changed form to whatever code or database or pipeline you were 'stored' in. Once you're reassembled back exactly the way you were before, you're the original you again. Just in a different place. Because all that makes you you, is the exact composition of molecules you had before you stepped inside.

This idea of "I don't want to go" is just nonsensical. You don't die in that sense, and cloning aside, if you stepped into a teleporter, closed your eyes, got teleported, and tried to open your eyes again, you would find yourself on the other end of the teleporter.

In other words, the question of which clone is 'you' is flawed. They both are, exactly. All you would do is make an exact copy of yourself. One is in the place you were when you started making the copy, the other is on the other end of the teleporter/whatever device.

If both these copies started to live their lives, they would find themselves competing for their loved ones, possessions, and everything else they thought was theirs. There is no way to solve this imo but to never make the clone in the first place, only one copy can ever come out of either end of the machine.

P.S. sorry for the messy comment, went back and forth to edit and it just got messed up. I hope my ideas are clear though.

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    $\begingroup$ +1. This is the real answer: "dying" and "self" are not universal, hard, physical concepts, but a human response to the linearity of existence. Break that linearity and we will very quickly learn new patterns of thought that refine them to concepts that fit with the reality. $\endgroup$ – Periata Breatta Nov 23 '16 at 18:24
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    $\begingroup$ "Dying" is not the problem, it's rather "not being saved" and/or leaving your conscious duplicate in a dangerous zone (aging, hazard,...). Take a look at the "Coin toss" in SOMA ( reddit.com/r/soma/comments/3s39hi/… ). Also you are not the "exact composition of molecules" since your body changes all the time. It's like replacing the top of a hammer, then the handle... So conscience is somewere else $\endgroup$ – Goufalite Nov 24 '16 at 8:35

It seems like the transfer of a conscience is where the really problem is, it needs to be perceived by the person experiencing the transfer. Perhaps by triggering an "out-of-body experience" - when your "thinking essence" leaves the body and is able to "see" their body being left behind - we can then just "enter" another body.

(This reminds me of a story in "Red Dwarf: Better Than Life", where a character doesn't know they are in a VR system, but as they age in the VR world they decide to become younger by transferring their essence to a younger and empty clone of themselves. Obviously they are always connected to the VR system, so at some point they perceive themselves without a body)

In a Star Trek transporter perhaps we could leave the body before teleportation then reconnected afterwards.


Obviously, you want the death of the original an integral part of the process without which the creation of the copy is incomplete.

This requires considerable handwaving, but we are in that territory anyway, so for example:

You can copy the body and brain, but the consciousness is a quantum mechanical process (some scientists believe so) and cannot be copied non-destructively. You can transfer it through entanglement or whatever (this is the handwaving part), it doing so disrupts the original, effectively destroying it. You are left with a zombie on the source end.

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    $\begingroup$ Sorry for downvote, but you claim science supports something without any hint of scientific sources. Add lacking references and I'll be happy to turn my downvote into upvote. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Nov 22 '16 at 11:17
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    $\begingroup$ I see that as common knowledge. It even has its own Wikipedia page: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_mind $\endgroup$ – Tom Nov 22 '16 at 11:32
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    $\begingroup$ These are just hypothesis (not one, but many, often contradictory ones!) that was never, as far as I know, scientifically proven. Also, these have their critics, too. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Nov 22 '16 at 11:36
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    $\begingroup$ Which is why I wrote it after "this requires considerable handwaving" and used the cautious "there's some science" and not "that's a scientific fact". We're in worldbuilding here, not in physics, so you could absolutely base your story on one of these ideas to be correct. $\endgroup$ – Tom Nov 22 '16 at 11:40
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    $\begingroup$ This theory of a quantum signature is used to great effect in Mark Kalina's "Hegemony". It very neatly solves almost all of the issues with teleportation or digital consciousness, transferring the quantum signature is what constitutes "you", nothing else can operate at a sentient level (i.e. your old body would just lay comatose). $\endgroup$ – Jason K Nov 22 '16 at 13:32

Imagine a world where it's widely accepted that we live in a multiverse where this sort of 'branching' already happens every moment, in every way possible, exploring the entire span of possible experience. Given this belief, the core philosophical problem goes away, as this is already happening.

Of course, you still have the "wish it were me" problem, as some timelines will inevitably result in horror and suffering. But now it's a psychological problem rather than an existential one, since the feeling of "wish it were me" is just as inevitable in the branching as other outcomes.

In this world, teleportation is just a more 'extreme' branch and for each case left behind, some will regret it and others will not. This then poses the ultimate question: is it fundamentally possible to be content when it is possible to imagine and contrast possible outcomes? Hopefully?


Specifically for the teleportation case you may be able to rely on Quantum Mechanics. Quantum teleportation is the process of transferring the quantum properties of one particle to another, by using a set of entangled particles as well as a classic communications channel. Said quantum properties remain absolutely unknown in the process, so it is nothing like measuring them and then trying to copy then. Exact copying is actually impossible in Quantum Mechanics, it can be called the "no-cloning theorem". QM is weird like that.

[Tom touched on this aspect, but I don't think he explained it too well, so I had to give my go at it too. And nonsensical SE policies prevent me from posting this as a comment to his answer.]

You can probably apply this to mind uploads, if it uses a quantum computer and if you make quantum processes an important part of consciousness.

Personally, I do not believe in this theory, and I'm able to provide some arguments against it, but that is really besides the point. It is really your only way to achieve a no-cloning restriction on consciousness, along with some other benefits like indeterminism (useful as an argument for free will).

  • $\begingroup$ I'd like to add that personally I'd go with the "no problem" approach to copied consciousness, at least as far as nature laws are concerned. Social, moral and ethical concerns are another question entirely, and you can go wild in this regard in your story. It is not completely clear to me if your question was actually about these or not. $\endgroup$ – user29994 Nov 23 '16 at 9:10
  • $\begingroup$ One possible way of resolving the social concerns is this - as soon as you allow some copies to both live on and develop differences between themselves, you essentially have two different persons and it is wrong to kill any of them. But if a copy is still in its "original" state, i.e. it was offline and has not gained new experiences that differentiate it, and if you know for sure at least one other copy from that same "original" state is still alive, then it is completely ok to destroy it. $\endgroup$ – user29994 Nov 23 '16 at 9:21
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    $\begingroup$ Your answer reads even better when I replace each instance of 'Quantum' with 'Mysterious'. $\endgroup$ – kubanczyk Nov 23 '16 at 9:26
  • $\begingroup$ Once the technology of consciousness copying is achieved, it is not unlikely that we'll also develop some much weirder consciousness manipulations - like merging two consciousnesses (especially if they are branches of the same one resulting from copying, but possibly applicable even to distinct ones), deleting, transferring or editing memories and experiences, and all other kinds of crazy things that we are now unable to even imagine, let alone morally classify. $\endgroup$ – user29994 Nov 23 '16 at 9:26
  • $\begingroup$ You can edit your answer with the little "edit"-button at the end of your answer if you wish to change something or add something. Your comments read like they would be good under a little horizontal line at the end of your answer to give more context, especially because they are quite long for comments. Otherwise people might not read them, although they add content to your answer. $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Mar 27 '17 at 10:32

Consciousness-copying technology exists in the space simulation game EVE. The conundrum is solved this way: each player can have multiple bodies (called clones), but only one consciousness. This consciousness can be transferred between clones in one of two ways, depending on the type of clone you are talking about, and the event that transpired. The main difference with EVE is that you only have one active consciousness, though many clones may exist that are basically copies of it. All these other clones are dormant, and you never have more than one active at the same time.

Standard Clone

This type is used as insurance or as a backup in the event of you, the player, being killed in space. When a ship blows up in EVE, the player is still alive inside a mini-ship called a pod. When the pod is blown up, a neurotoxin is injected to instantly kill that particular clone (presumably since it would have died anyway and to spare it from the unpleasantness of a space death). Just before the neurotoxin is administered, the consciousness is transferred, presumably by some kind of space internet transmission system, to the backup medical clone.

Each player only gets one standard clone, and it sits dormant in your home system, never used except in the event of your death. At that time, a new clone is created and installed in place of the old one, which your transferred consciousness takes control of and begins using.

Jump Clone

A jump clone is used for instantaneous teleportation. These can be installed for a fee in any station with a clone vat, and also sit dormant. You can have up to three jump clones.

At the player's disposal is a console where you can jump to any of the jump clones that you currently have installed. This means your consciousness travels across space and ends up in the other jump clone, somewhere else. The previous clone (the one you just left) now goes dormant and you begin controlling the one you jumped into.

This is particularly useful when you have extremely expensive mind implants (which are common in EVE) that you don't want to lose while, say, doing a lot of PvP with an increased risk of getting blown up. So you can have an "empty" vanilla clone installed, jump over to it before doing your PvP, then later, jump back into your enhanced clone to make use of the implants and the benefits they provide, without fear of the implant-boosted clone being destroyed.

There is also a limit on how often you can jump between clones. This limit begins at 24 hours (one jump every 24 hours due to the stress of having your consciousness transferred), but it can be reduced by training a skill related to consciousness synchronization (called Infomorph Synchronization).

Skill Injectors

There are also skill injectors, which is a device that can extract knowledge from one character with the intent of moving it to another character, or even selling it. The injector is created by extracting skills from one character's mind, and the injector can then be used to inject those skills into a different character's mind. In EVE, you can actually make money by extracting already-trained skills, selling them, and then re-training them and doing the whole thing over again.


As of how quantum mechanics teaches, it is impossible to exactly copy an object.

Moreover, as Thomas Breuer has mathematically proven, from a point of view of any observer, a system properly containing him cannot be simulated by any turing machine even in classical mechnics due to inherently unknown initial conditions, and the result is stronger in quantum mechanics.

That said, it is impossible to upload consciousness into a (classical) computer or otherwise copy consciousness.

On the other hand, it is possible in principle to teleport a conscious object via quantum communication link. This may be radio waves or a fiber optics cable.

In this process the original object would disappear and its exact copy would be re-created at the opposite end.

Arguably, it would be exactly the same consciousness, because moving along such channel roughly amounts to quantum tunnelling and all quantum properties (such as subjective decoherence) should remain.

In short: copying consciousness is impossible. Teleporting (via a quantum link) is possible.

  • $\begingroup$ This. This is the right answer. Everyone seems to miss the part where the digitized version must be at least as complex as the original, so you may as well just use the original. I see teleportation as a forward and back conversion process with a transmission in between, not a copy. Whether you then allow FTL communication of the transformed being, what effects the transformed state has on the consciousness, and whether or not there is awareness in the transformed state are up to the storyteller at that point. I can even imagine a story where the subject handles transmission themselves. $\endgroup$ – Mad Physicist Jun 29 '17 at 12:27
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry for the long comment, I originally came to make approximately this answer, so settled for an upvote and a comment. $\endgroup$ – Mad Physicist Jun 29 '17 at 12:28

Bit by bit replacement.

I am working under the presumption that consciousness and who I am have no supernatural component whatsoever, but are an emergent phenomenon of the processing done by my brain. That is my belief; there is no ineffable part to worry about.

Neurons are biological and noisy. They fire spontaneously for no apparent reason; and can fail to fire when they usually would. It is nearly impossible to detect such errors in your own neurons. Usually these errors do not rise to conscious attention; if they do it is the common experience of a mental misfire, like "What is that thing you use, for eggs -- oh a spatula."

If each neuron in my brain were, one by one, replaced with a machine that did exactly what the neuron did, within some tiny margin of error, like 1/1000th of a percent, it would be too small for me to notice. You could replace all of them. The biological me is gone, the digital me has taken over, and neither of them ever experienced either death or birth or any moment in which they were not the one being duplicated.

The consciousness was indeed duplicated; the machined version may be far more maintainable, back-up-able, and have an effectively immortal existence (if destroyed, a backup stored offsite (including in a another star system or galaxy) could be used to restore it).

Depending on how frequently changes to the machine are recorded (I am assuming it can form new connections and learn things), the interruption may be quite minor; kind of like how the impact of a car accident IRL can cause people to lose the contents of their short term memory that contained the time leading up to the accident: They often report not knowing at all what happened to them in the five minutes or so before the accident, the last thing they do remember was routine driving a few miles away from the accident, then waking up in the hospital. IRL that doesn't cause them to question their existence, and neither would being restored from a backup.

As far as teleportation is concerned, the same philosophy could apply; there is one of you, disassembled and reassembled elsewhere. It is just another form of movement, philosophically speaking.


Cellular Regeneration

I don't have the rep to add a comment to Second to Last Unicorn's answer so I'll write my own.

You get bigger muscles by stressing the cells. If you kill them a muscle stem cell takes the place of the dead one. This replacement happens in the brain also. A new neuron must be retrained. What if the new neuron was silicon based?


Let's say you spend some time slowly replacing each neuron with silicon and retraining the new silicon neurons. Most of you memories should remain intact because memories are spread over multiple neurons. You'll need to relive all of your memory's on a regular basis to help the training process. Also your neuron's collective voice will not have stopped during this process.

Now the hard part. How do you teleport? Simply making a copy doesn't solve the original problem even if you are silicon now. You now have to do the neuron replacement process very fast and at a distance. Disconnect a local neuron and replace it with a distant one and train the new neuron. Repeat this until you are in the distant location. Training won't be 100% but you could do a second pass and fix broken memories. I wouldn't want to do this. What happens if the link breaks? I also wouldn't be convinced that compressing the process would be able to really transfer your "soul" completely or as well as if you had time to adjust to the new neurons.



I've been working on a shapeshifting character that is currently very close to being able to do this, using shared consciousness. Every cell in the body is more or less functionally complete, and includes a neuron as well as all the other necessary systems. In order to enable shapeshifting into multiple pieces (such as a flock of birds) without becoming disoriented, communication between neurons is by way of radio waves. Thus, the brain is distributed throughout the body (or bodies), negating the need to kill anyone, and the consciousness can be shifted, splintered, and recombined at will, eliminating the "I wish it were me" problem. Of course, though by radio waves introduces other problems, which I'm still working on.


A Tree Falls in the Forest

I would argue that the context of experience is different for the original and the copy, and so neither can argue any longer that they are "the same." In some sense, this is related to the old conundrum "If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?", which is sensible only when we consider whether a "sound" is the physiological response of a listener to audible disturbances in the air.

"Identity" evolves in the context of our relationships. Each copy is identical only to the point of interacting with their environment. Thus one can only say "I wish it were me" in the same sense that I can say "I wish that I had married Grace Kelly," or oppositely "I wish that I wasn't a citizen of the Trump presidency."


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